Recycling materials such as metal, glass and plastic into artistic creations — while admirable — has, at this stage in the game, been done ad nauseam. Despite creative innovation, once you’ve seen your 328th recycled glass sculpture, an evil voice creeps up inside of you and says, “Nexxxxxt!” As awful as that is to admit, it’s kind of easy to get jaded and even a little bored, which is why so many of us are desperate to gaze at something — anything — that will wake us from the eco-art coma that we’ve fallen victim to. Wildly popular in the DIY craft arena, plastic shopping bags are continually repurposed in imaginative ways such as aprons, dresses, fused totes and raincoats as well as house décor items. In the art world, however, they aren’t nearly as common a medium, although Virginia Fleck’s rainbow-colored starburst mandalas and Josh Blackwell’s intriguingly textural embroidered creations are certainly standouts. Leave it to a New Yorker to turn heads by transforming the humble plastic bag into a brilliant creative resource. Rather than gluing cutesy googly eyes on reclaimed plastic bottles or morphing aluminum cans into objets d’art with a bit of strategically applied paint, artist Joshua Allen Harris merges the much maligned plastic bag with the raw power of air (or more specifically, the hot, stinky air radiating through the Big Apple’s subway grates). It may not be terribly glamorous, but no one in the history of the world (aside from Marilyn Monroe) has bothered to take advantage of it with such humor and artistic insight. The photos throughout this article capture the infinite ways in which Harris has given life to a carefully crafted array of recycled plastic bag creatures, both real and imaginary. “Recently, I think we have all become more aware of our human footprint and what it means for our environment,” Harris explains, “and we all have a space in our kitchen where these bags begin to accumulate.” Tapping into his personal cupboard collection of crumpled-up bags, the artist was able to transform a perceived eco-scourge into a superb icon of creative reuse while also boasting an environmental undercurrent. Everyone has probably witnessed at least one cast-aside plastic bag taking flight above an urban street when a strong gust of wind sweeps through. It’s a weird sight to behold, both beautiful in its liberation and ugly because we innately recognize that there’s truly nothing “pretty” about pollution. Interestingly, the actual inspiration for Harris’ unique plastic bag menagerie came from one common New York City sight — orange tape flapping above a subway exhaust grate. Recalling the way in which “it just glided skyward, almost asking for attention,” the artist was soon “interested in what that wind could do and how I could work with it.” Melding energy-charged air with recycled plastic bags has proven to be a brilliant combination for the artist, and the effect… well, you be the judge. On the surface, Harris’ creatures simply make you smile, but if you read between the lines, his art is also capable of triggering light bulb moments. There are infinite things to appreciate in this world and yet we continue to take far too much of it for granted, preferring instead to turn a blind eye to the impact that our energy-intensive lifestyles are having on the natural environment. Acknowledging that, “the polar bear is an icon of global warming and that wind is an example of a renewable energy,” the artist feels that in terms of his plastic bag bear, it “looks happy” when it’s fully inflated, but “when the resource is gone, the bear slowly dies.” Kind of like what’s happening out in the real world.
Lofty New Heights for Recycled Plastic Bags
Reusing plastic bags as public conversation pieces, apparel or home décor items is gaining popularity. Here are some of the best examples.