The significance of a plastic bag

MICHAELA CRIMMIN: One of this week’s pleasures – pleasure with a big kick in its tail – was opening the October Gallery’s exhibition of work by Chinese artist Huang Xu, entitled Fragments. Big photographic works featuring plastic bags, tattered and torn and beautiful and fragile. For me these are warnings – plastic bags as a collective memento mori and curiously reminiscent of Dutch seventeenth century paintings of flowers. I’ll never look at a plastic bag in quite the same way. I know they were banned many years ago in Rwanda. How shameful is that? A country recently torn apart and they can think about the environment. And we seem to find that so terribly difficult.

The work in this exhibition refers to economic wreckage as well as environmental wreckage – and the two are anyway, as we know, very closely related indeed. Fragments. Wreckage and waste. We are all pretty much convinced that the consumers amongst us, across the world, are culpable of the most remarkable amount of waste.

There’s huge seduction in wealth as most of us know, and there’s also destruction. It seems entirely appropriate that the artist in his work does what other artists have done before – Huang Xu presents to us beauty in entropy. An integral quality of interesting art is its capacity to hold contradictions and paradoxes, and layers of meaning. This work is not didactic, it’s too complicated and delicate for that, but it leaves me pondering big societal issues which are ultimately of choice.

We are at this unpredictable moment in our history – despite ‘civilization’ – with societies themselves fragile and often fragmented. At the RSA this week we profiled a film on Burma, True Stories: Burma VJ, shot by brave citizens during the 1988 and 2007 uprising against a brutal regime – here’s one example among so many. Chuck in climate change, remember the recent cyclone in Burma, and we are at a moment in the huge sphere of time that will literally determine survival, or not, for future generations.

Another current version of environmental, social and economic melt down at its most literal is in Australia with the graphic, heart rending accounts heard and seen on the media this week. The consequent societal revenge-taking – blame – is mostly being directed at arsonists, rather than at the economics of forestry, or at climate change. So much easier to pin down an 18-year-old spotty pyromaniac than try and understand the bigger picture.

The October Gallery, working in partnership with China Art Projects, say on their website that their interest is the trans-cultural avant-garde. That is to say, the work of artists who, whilst working at the forefront of their own respective cultures, assimilate into their work elements from other cultures as well. Huang Xu’s work is a very good example.

And here perhaps it our salvation: we have an opportunity to join together in tackling the dauntingly enormous challenges by first acknowledging, often through images, the ramifications of what we are creating – the significance of a plastic bag whether you are in Rwanda, China or the U.K. may be ridiculously prosaic but it is also a signifier and an everyday prompt to change our damaging way of living.

Illustration: Fragment No. 1 by Huang Xu, 2007 October Gallery

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