'Plastic is political': upcycled art exposes Australia’s fraught relationship with waste

As millions of tonnes of rubbish are shipped offshore, artists across south-east Asia are sending some of it back

Prawiro is one of the last rice farmers in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. And he’s worried about his future. A flotsam of plastic has engulfed the nearby river, making access to clean water near impossible. No water means no rice.

Further north, plastic debris in the Citarum River has wiped out more than 60% of the fish population. Many out-of-work fishers have been forced to take up jobs as “trash pickers”, sorting through millions of tonnes of plastic exported annually to Indonesia from countries including Australia, the US and the UK.

“We are really angry about this situation,” says Eko Nugroho, an Indonesian artist who is in Perth to present his work at Plasticology, the latest exhibition from the artistic production company Form. “There is rubbish from all over the world in Indonesia. It’s far too easy for countries to send it here. We are collecting and burning, collecting and burning, all the time. It’s so shortsighted.”

One of Indonesia’s most acclaimed contemporary artists, Nugroho salvages plastic waste from garbage depots, reimagining it into futuristic, anthropomorphic forms that look alternately extraterrestrial and monstrous.

Future Fungus 1 in front of the mural Now What Else? by Eko Nugroho, at the Goods Shed, 2020.
Future Fungus 1 in front of the mural Now What Else? by Eko Nugroho, at the Goods Shed, 2020. Photograph: Taryn Hays/Form

His works explore the impact of geopolitical crises on Indonesia’s urban poor, including Prawiro, the rice farmer whose sombre gaze has been immortalised into sculpture. Titled Future Fungus I, it depicts a man on the frontline of the plastic crisis, grappling with the concurrent decay of both his livelihood and the natural environment.

Prawiro’s head hangs heavy, burdened with an extravagant bouquet of discarded soap dispensers, yarn spindles and paint buckets, signifying the “throwaway” culture that is at the root of his troubles, despite him playing little part in it.

Like all of Nugroho’s works, the material has been painted and assembled with such precision that it doesn’t look like plastic at all. But he assures me that it is. “Australia sends its plastic waste over to us, now I’m bringing it back,” he jokes, tapping the edge of the artwork lightly with his finger. “Plastic is political in today’s world.”

Eko Nugroho with his mural Now What Else?
Eko Nugroho: ‘There is someone who cares everywhere. There is always a good thing, even in the chaos.’ Photograph: Taryn Hays/Form

But Australia’s record on plastic is hardly anything to joke about. Only 12% of plastic in Australia is actually recycled, with the remainder sent to landfill or shipped overseas.

In 2018 about 4.5m tonnes of waste was sent overseas, mainly to Asian nations including Indonesia, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand. The Australian government last year announced it would phase out this controversial practice from July 2020, though the finer details remain unclear.

This public policy shift presents an opportune moment to engage with our south-east Asian neighbours, says the exhibition’s curator, Sharmila Wood.

“We often don’t see the works of Asian artists in Western Australia, despite our ongoing ties to the region through our geography, through histories of migration, and through trade,” she says.

“The movement of plastic between countries is a trade issue as well, one that requires greater bilateral cooperation across a common concern: the future of our planet and our environment.”

Also exhibiting in Plasticology is the Taiwanese artist Yu Fang Chi. Her installation Remnant features a canopy of undulating plastic bags, which gently sway, shift and transmute, like silver fish swimming in the air.

“I wanted to remind people that we are suffering under a tidal wave of the products of consumerism,” she says. The fabric is sourced from Taiwan’s garment industry, speaking to issues of industrialisation and women’s labour in Kaohsiung, where the artist grew up.

The Puzzle I by Angela Yuen, 2020, bead.
The Puzzle I by Angela Yuen, 2020. Photograph: Taryn Hays/Form

Angela Yuen’s The Puzzle I features a merry-go-round of plastic toys, Lego pieces and hair clips, spinning in dizzying circles, crowned by a miniature diorama of her native Hong Kong.

Yuen sources found materials from decades-old family businesses in Sham Shui Po. Her installations depict the spirit, sweat and hardship of Hong Kong’s manufacturing boom, evoking a nostalgic yearning for the city’s past and a sense of foreboding about what is to come.

“The Puzzle I is a floating city, just like Hong Kong,” she says. “Always floating in the sky between two cultures.”

Watching over the whole scene is Nugroho’s freshly painted mural, stretching across an entire wall of the gallery. Titled Now What Else?, it’s a darkly humoured reflection on consumer morality in a time of ecological crisis.

On one side a line of mindless shoppers clutch their iPhones, queuing up to score whichever product is in favour. On the other a wild garden of Australian and Indonesian flora is growing, embodying the Indonesian philosophy of gotong royong, or mutual cooperation.

“There is someone who cares everywhere,” Nugroho says. “There is always a good thing, even in the chaos. We still have hope.”

Plasticology is showing at the Goods Shed in Claremont, WA, from 12 March to 31 May


Rosamund Brennan

The GuardianTramp

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