Plastic Water Bottle Sculpture Provokes Recycling Thoughts
People in her neighborhood of South Orange think Kate Dodd a little mad when they see the garlands of plastic bottles she has draped over her big oak tree or the letters “Please Don’t Litter” spelled out on her hedge in plastic bottles. But she is more than a bit mad about the burgeoning use of plastic water bottles.
Dodd is particularly worried about what escaped plastics are doing to sea creatures. There is growing concern among scientists over microplastics called “nurdles.” When unrecycled bottles and other floatable plastics find their way into the oceans, they are picked up by the various currents and then cycled into huge floating garbage dumps. Sun and wave action will decay the plastics into smaller and smaller pieces, but they never totally decompose. When they are ingested by various sea life and birds, the plastic either blocks their digestive systems or gives a false sense of being satiated and the animals starve to death. The smallest particles have been found in tiny plankton, the animals that form the basis of the food chain.
Dodd has recycled her global angst over these events into site-specific art works. Similar to the internationally known artist Christo, she creatively manipulates environments to force us to pay attention. This summer, the Noyes Museum invited Dodd to raise our consciousness with her installation “Water: Illusions of Purity.”
Last Thursday she gave a talk at the Noyes and introduced people to her oeuvre.
Like all her site-specific works, Dodd first visited the Noyes and its surrounding landscape to conceptualize the way she would translate her mission into a visual punch.
She focused on the museum’s double-paned windows that allow for rather large objects to be sandwiched between them. In the past, they have been used to display mobile-type artworks. For her works, the artist collected hundreds of liter plastic bottles and filled them with water, some dyed in shades of blue and green. Then she stacked them on their sides to build up her picture.
“I wanted to create the bucolic landscape that so many bottled water companies use as their logo,” said Dodd, “mountains that are reflected in water.”
In most cases, this advertising is misleading. “Poland Springs does come from springs in Maine, but they can be located right next to a highway or a parking lot,” she said.
Dodd uses a reusable container for her own water needs and said she regularly grosses out her high school students by going over to the sink in her room and filling it with tap water. “They are horrified to see me drink tap water.” Her students seem to have a dark concept of what’s lurking in pipes, she said. But according to Peter Gleike’s book Bottled and Sold, tap water is tested several times a day for quality control purposes while bottled water is tested between once a week and once a year, and is not subject to the same stringent standards for fecal coliform counts.
A fact sheet Dodd compiled states that 25 percent of the plastic in bottles is made from petrochemicals, 1,000 bottles are thrown away every second in the United States, not recycled. And recycling is not really recycling as the bottles are “down-cycled,” made into other products such as synthetic fabric for rugs. It’s the shedding of fibers or micro-plastics that find their way into the water stream and into the food chain.
“Water: Illusions of Purity” also includes a giant floating duck made of clear plastic bottles seen floating on Lily Lake outside the museum’s back windows. “I don’t usually create representational objects,” said Dodd. “But when I was looking at the museum and grounds I was interested in the decoys.” The plastic duck also references a book called Moby Duck written by Donovan Hohm that chronicles the journeys of 28,000 rubber duckies that were released by accident into the Atlantic when a container broke apart on route form China. The rubber duckies were taken up by currents and washed up all over the world.
Dodd explained that as a child she was inordinately fascinated with collecting stuff. She said her father used to take her to restaurants and ask for bottle caps so he could create curtains out of them. “The thrill of stuff followed me through my life. I was also fascinated with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books, particularly how they made stuff out of nothing.”
She moved from California to Brooklyn to attend art school, and had to adjust her thinking of what was beautiful. “I saw a lot of sidewalk cracks and that got me thinking of how land gets used by people. When it came to my BFA, I didn’t want to create more ‘stuff’ so I started thinking of impermanence as an alternative strategy, making something that would only exist temporarily.”
For her important bachelor’s degree show she created trails through the space in her studio, busting out a window to create a window seat and a spy hole in the wallboard between her and her neighbor’s studio.
The idea of creating trails was further explored in an installation in an artists’ colony in New Hampshire where she braided the grass along a path in a wheat field to draw people to an adult playground she made of recycled materials. “I didn’t realize that other people were using the field, it was actually a crop, and one day I awoke to see an angry man on a tractor circling the sculpture. So then I had to think about how other people use the land or view the land.”
Another trail she created in Snug Harbor on Staten Island was made with fluorescent orange paint, and included a bridge she made and decorated that was then fought over by rival teen gangs. “They finally built a bonfire under it,” said Dodd. The orange paint she used on the trees was actually nontoxic paper mache-like material, but the park ranger was sure it would kill the trees.”
Another piece in her own hometown, where she created plastic bottle “blooms” in a park pond, garnered bad press for Dodd and a discussion over what is art. For Dodd, any publicity is good publicity since she can then get her message across about the need to treat the environment better.
“Water: Illusions of Purity” is a beautiful piece and, through the magic of sunlight in water, changes hues as the window light changes.
And, yes, Dodd will recycle the artwork in the Noyes when the installation comes down Aug. 27, but owing to the propriety-minded officers of municipal recycling, she may have to return them to the South Orange recycling yard where she collected them. “I was told I was stealing state property. The public works guy said, ‘We sell this stuff for $25 a ton,’ so I offered to buy it from the city administrator, but I think I’ll just return it.”
— Pat Johnson