The stuff that arts are made of

Plastic, art and artificiality

Linguistically speaking, the German word for art (“Kunst”) could be said to be made of plastic (“Kunststoff”). So the name suggests something else entirely than disposable cutlery and throw-away shopping bags. The Germans also use the word “Plastik” to refer to a sculpture, which makes it seem only right to create a sculpture out of plastic. Indeed, the 20th century material has had a considerable influence on the art of this era. It has democratised and trivialised art, removed the value from the raw material and transformed the artist from a lonely workshop creative to a designer of mass goods. With 105,000 tonnes of plastic rubbish produced every year in Germany, we are not far away from the concept of throw-away art. 

Plastic as a raw material at the emco Group

Christian Gnaß, CEO of the  emco Group, has a very different view of plastic, which has a considerable role to play in the group: “Plastic is a raw material offering invaluable benefits – from stability and formability to recyclability. As well as metal, plastic plays a role in all areas of our business, from bathroom accessories to loop pile fabric for entrance mats to office helpers.” In many cases, it would be unthinkable to make the product without plastic and this applies to entrance mat systems made by emco bau, as well as to tackers and staplers from the Novus brand, the emco electric scooter or soap dispenser pumps from emco bath – that’s why at the emco Group we are constantly thinking about innovative materials and also use recycled plastics. Recycled plastic is also being experimented with in the world of art – and plastic was used in art a long time before the emco Group was first established.

Plastic and art

The origins of plastic being used in art are easy to define: in 1916, the Russian artist Naum Gabo (1890–1977) created a classic cubist sculpture in Paris called “Tête no. 2”. The material Rhodoid is still used today to make billiard balls. The development of plastic compounds began and still continues to this day. The chemist Walter Bauer (1893–1968) played a significant role in the development of polymethylmethacrylate, better known as plexiglass or acrylic glass, which has been on the market since 1933. The transparent plastic sheets led to new design opportunities with light sources, light refraction and oscillation.

Niki de Saint Phalle, grotto in the Herrenhäuser gardens in Hanover, photo: © Karsten Behrens, NikideSaintPhalle grotto, CC BY-SA 3.0

Plastic had become established in art and was used for stage sets and installations. By 1920, Naum Gabo had claimed a new form of sculpture in his “Realist Manifest”, as well as light art as an essential medium, which was spreading rapidly with electricity. Light and plastic complement each other perfectly, added to which are easy formability and minimal weight. This was also appreciated by the artist Niki de Saint Phalle (1930–2002), who couldn’t have created her monumental female figures, the legendary “nanas”, with any other material than polyester.

When the first exhibition on the subject opened in Wiesbaden in 1968 with the title “Kunst & Kunststoffe” (“Art and Plastics”), the formable, cheap, omnipresent material was sanctioned for the world of art as well. The famous art critic Peter Gorsen (1933–2017) saw in it the proof that “plastics are not as characterless and uninspiring as their opponents may think. Their qualities make them different from natural raw materials such as wood, metal and stone and mean they can be processed as such. They stimulate the will to shape them in a certain, not arbitrary direction.” He also found that plastic reduces any misgivings about understanding a work of art by feel. A “Do not touch” sign on a plastic work of art still seems absurd to us today. The design content of a work of art is higher, because the artist generally has the work made for him so he is just the designer and not the executor.

"Serial art made from plastic by contemporary artist Ottmar Hörl”
Photos: © Christoph Busse (top left), © Simeon Johnke (bottom right)
Video: © Karl Marx - Installation in Trier

The value of art

Does a cheap material also make the art work created using this material cheap? The artefacts designed by Niki de Saint Phalle and her artist colleague Jeff Koons (*1955) speak against, whilst the plastic artist Ottmar Hörl (*1950) speaks in favour. Having worked with plastic figures for 40 years, he has said in an Interview that even nurses should be able to afford a Hörl, and prices for his work on the internet start at EUR 50. Hörl uses mass protection of large batches and has made 500 Luthers, Wagners and Marx’s for anniversary celebrations. In 2020, it will be Beethoven’s turn as the 250th anniversary of his birth is celebrated in Bonn. Anyone can order a Beethoven for EUR 300 from the website unser-ludwig.com. So yes, it’s art for nurses. Hörl also appreciates the stability of the material, since his figures stand outside in their hundreds in public squares, in the rain, snow and hail. Restorers in museums see things quite differently. For them, plastic is a horror show, since, although its durability may be limited by plasticisers and its chemical artificialness, professional restoration is almost always impossible. Art as a classic consumer product with a throw-away fetish.