In purely linguistic terms, you have to make art out of plastic, as the name suggests something completely different from disposable cutlery and disposable bags. And the French word plastique invites you to design a sculpture out of plastic. The material of the 20th century has had a decisive influence on the art of this very same secular building. It has democratized and banalized art, deprived the material of its valuable substance and turned the artist from a lonely studio creator into a designer of mass products. And with 105,000 tons of plastic waste a year in Germany, we are not far from the concept of disposable art. 

Plastic as a material at the emco Group

Christian Gnaß, managing partner of the emco Group, has a completely different view of plastic, which plays a not inconsiderable role in the group of companies: "Plastic is a material that offers invaluable advantages - from durability to designability and recyclability. That's why plastic plays a role in all our business areas alongside metal, from bathroom accessories and loop pile goods for entrance mats to office aids". In many cases, the product would be inconceivable without plastic. This applies to the entrance mat systems from emcobau as well as the staplers and staplers of the Novus brand, the emco electric scooters or the soap dispenser pumps from emcobad - so naturally, the emco Group is constantly thinking about innovative materials and also uses recycled plastics. Recycled plastics are also being experimented with in art - and plastic was used in art long before emco was founded.

Plastics and art

The beginning of plastic art can be clearly defined: in 1916, the Russian Naum Gabo (1890-1977) created the "Tête No. 2" in Paris, a sculpture that was still classical-cubist. The material Rhodoid is still used today for billiard balls. The development of completely new plastic compounds began and has not yet come to an end. For example, the chemist Walter Bauer (1893-1968) played a major role in the development of polymethyl methacrylate, better known as plexiglass or acrylic glass, which has been on the market since 1933. The transparent plastic sheets opened up completely new design possibilities with light sources, refractions and oscillations.

Niki de Saint Phalle Grotto in the Herrenhäuser Gardens of Hanover, photo: © Karsten Behrens, NikideSaintPhalle-Grotte, CC BY-SA 3.0


The plastic was established in art, was used for stage sets and installations. As early as 1920, Naum Gabo had called for a new type of sculpture in the "Realist Manifesto" and called for light art as an essential tool, which spread rapidly with electricity. Light and plastic complement each other ideally, in addition to their easy malleability and minimal weight. This was also appreciated by the artist Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002), who could not have created her monumental female figures, the legendary Nanas, with any other material than polyester.

When the first exhibition on the subject was opened in Wiesbaden in 1968, entitled "Kunst & Kunststoffe" (Art & Plastics), the material, so malleable, so cheap, so ubiquitous, was also sanctioned for the art world. The renowned art critic Peter Gorsen (1933-2017) saw it as proof "that plastics are not at all as characterless and uninspiring in form as their opponents claim. They have properties that are different from those of the natural materials wood, metal and stone and can be worked out as such. They stimulate the will to shape them in a certain non-popular direction." So Gorsen spoke. He also found that plastic reduces the scruples of haptically grasping a work of art; a "do-not-touch" sign on a plastic body still seems absurd to us today. The conceptual content of the work of art is already higher because the artist usually has it produced, i.e. he is only a designer, not a performer.

Value and work

Does a cheap material also make the work of art made from it cheap? The artifacts of Niki de Saint Phalle and her artist colleague Jeff Koons (*1955) speak against it, while the plastic artist Ottmar Hörl (*1950) speaks for it. Familiar with plastic figures for 40 years, he says in an interview that even a nurse must be able to afford a Hörl; on the Internet, prices start at fifty euros. Hörl focuses on mass, large series, has produced 500 Luthers, Wagners, Marx' for the anniversary years, in 2020 it's Beethoven's turn, he celebrates his 250th birthday in Bonn. Everyone can order a Beethoven for 300 euros at Yes, this is art for the nurse. Hörl also appreciates the durability of the material, the figures are standing in public places in several hundred places, defying rain, snow and hail. The restorers in the museums see things quite differently. Plastic is a horror material for them because its durability is limited by softeners and its chemical artificiality, and professional restoration is almost always impossible. Art as a classic consumer product with a disposable fetish.


Which plastic artists should you know?

Alexandra Wendorf
Chief editor of the art magazine "Barton"



Plastic recycling and ethics

Alejandro Duran (*1974) finds a completely different approach to plastics. Under his motto "Washed up - Transforming a trashed landscape", one finds great works of art in the tradition of the "objets trouvés": he collects plastic waste from all over the world, washes the individual parts and uses them to create environments that make the viewer shiver and marvel. From the gigantic world of plastic waste, he again makes works of art that make us doubt and despair of our consumerism. Duran appears like a transformer that holds the plastic mirror in front of our eyes and hopes that we will recognize reality. Thus art with plastic also makes an ethical demand on our handling of plastic. What more could you want?

Photos (foreground): © Images courtesy of Alejandro Durán from the series Washed Up: Transforming a Trashed Landscape

The emco Group and art

The emco Group is also committed to art, architecture and culture - in addition to its involvement on site, emco products are used in museums and theatres - and here in the magazine there are regular reports on corresponding projects, for example on museum buildings and theatres.

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