How Modern Artists Are Shifting Perspectives on Waste and Consumption

Throughout history, visual art has been used as an instrument of human expression and imagination, appreciated and admired for its technical proficiency, emotional power, and conceptual ideas. As our rapidly changing climate crisis continues to raise alarms, many modern artists are aiming to spark environmental activism through their innovative and impactful designs.

In recent years, the dire consequences of the climate crisis on the environment have become strikingly clear, and being conscious of our carbon footprint and the waste we produce is essential. As devastating wildfires, melting ice caps, and rising temperatures continue to hold consistent spots in news headlines, many creative minds are turning towards somewhat unconventional methods as vessels for their climate activism.

Can art truly be beneficial and impactful in the fight against climate change? In this article, I will discuss how modern artists and designers are recycling and reengineering discarded items and waste in their work, alluding to the drastic consequences a relentless cycle of overconsumption and unsustainable habits can have on our planet.

Tan Zi Xi

Singapore-based artist and illustrator Tan Zi Xi pushes boundaries with her innovative installations, stepping outside of aesthetic and decorative constraints in hopes of contributing to a powerful political and environmental narrative. In 2015, Tan Zi Xi’s Plastic Ocean debuted at Singapore Art Museum’s Imaginarium: Under the Water, Over the Sea. Plastic Ocean is an immersive walk-through installation curated to appear as a physical manifestation of the Pacific Garbage Patch from the perspective of aquatic life; the deep blues of the ocean dimmed by the mountain of plastic overhead.

How Modern Artists Are Shifting Perspectives on Waste and Consumption

Plastic Ocean by Tan Zi Xi (Image Source: LICC)

In 2017, Plastic Ocean was recreated at Sassoon Docks for St+Art India in Mumbai. The massive installation was composed of over 20 000 pieces of plastic and required an exhausting creative process, including purchasing and cleaning plastics, structuring and designing, mirroring and meshing installation and lighting setups. 

Plastic Ocean was inspired by an earlier collection of illustrations by Zi Xi titled An Effort Most Futile, aiming to encapsulate the irreversible negative effects mankind has had on the environment on a visual scale. A brief but powerful excerpt from the final of the set of ten illustrations reads; “There is only so little I can do to help our Earth and our environment. However concerned I am, it will take much more than my individual efforts to truly make improvements in the areas most important. Until then, I can only silently do my part whilst dragging out the trash and watching the tragedy unfold as the sky steadily fills up with plastic bags.” 

How Modern Artists Are Shifting Perspectives on Waste and Consumption

Illustration from An Effort Most Futile by Tan Zi Xi (Image Source: MessyMSXI)

Approximately 8.8 million tons of plastic are dumped into our oceans each year. According to National Geographic, this “equates to about a dump truck of plastic poured into the ocean every minute.” Tan Zi Xi states that Plastic Ocean “seeks to scrutinize our daily consumption of plastics” and inspire consciousness in regards to our overconsumption and waste, sparking necessary action during these integral times for our oceans. 

From a viewer’s perspective, Tan Zi Xi’s Plastic Ocean is a chilling and perhaps unsettling manifestation of humankind’s negative environmental impact, especially on the biodiversity in our oceans. The piece forces viewers to confront their individual impact on a large scale; it delivers a stark and chilling warning as to a future in which a “plastic ocean” would be an irreversible reality. Zi Xi’s use of collected and washed ocean debris illustrates the extent of the waste we produce through its experiential set-up and eerie display, making the viewer feel as if they are in an ocean covered in plastic. She rejects the comfortable fiction that a large-scale, irreversible impact on the biodiversity in our oceans is a futuristic concept through her work, provoking people to examine the amount of waste they produce and the personal choices they can make to reduce their use of single-use plastics. 

Guerra de la Paz

Guerra de la Paz is a creative team consisting of Miami-based and Cuban artists Allain Guerra and Neraldo De la Paz. Since the birth of this creative collaboration in 1996, Guerra de la Paz has examined our culture of overconsumption through a futuristic and artistic lens. Through installations constructed from discarded textiles and fabrics, pieces such as Atomic and Ascension emphasize the extent of our fashion footprint and consumerist habits and their possible effects on the future of our planet. 

How Modern Artists Are Shifting Perspectives on Waste and Consumption

Atomic by Guerra de la Paz (Image Source: Artworks for Change)

Featuring found garments and a metal wine bucket stand, Atomic is a grim projection of the future impacts of the fashion industry on our planet. The striking installation portrays a fiery cloud, illustrating the effects of our unsustainable consumption, disposal and production of fast fashion on the environment. In contrast, Ascension suggests a more optimistic outlook, representing a brighter, cleaner future if sustainable practices are integrated into the fashion industry. 

How Modern Artists Are Shifting Perspectives on Waste and Consumption

Ascension by Guerra de la Paz (Image Source: Artworks for Change)

The dire consequences of our relentless overconsumption displayed in Atomic highlight an incredibly socially relevant issue. Since 2000, clothing production has roughly doubled and approximately 85% of textiles are ending up in landfills each year. As individuals continue to choose to both consume and discard clothing at quicker rates, the fashion industry, which produces 10% of all global emissions each year, casts the future of our planet in an ominous light. 

Guerra de la Paz incorporates a unique medium in second-hand textiles that emphasizes society’s rejection of sustainable consumption of fashion. Overconsumption is often glorified on social media, and sustainable practices that extend the lifespan of our wardrobes, such as rewearing clothing pieces, are generally considered taboo among fashion influencers. Through their dramatic textile installations, Guerra de la Paz combats these mentalities, rejecting ideals evident in various aspects of consumerism and ultimately, forcing viewers to reevaluate the environmental impact of their closet. As well as shifting perspectives among viewers, Guerra de la Paz was featured in Art Works for Change, a non-profit organization founded in 2008 by Randy Jayne Rosenberg that “addresses the urgent need to live sustainably within the Earth’s finite resources.”

Nienke Hoogvliet

Netherlands-based Nienke Hoogvliet of Studio Nienke Hoogvliet is a designer and self-proclaimed ‘artivist’ whose designs focus on raising awareness about environmental issues affecting the textile, leather and food industries. Her projects aim to contribute to a more sustainable lifestyle industry, especially evident in SEA ME, an initiative that highlights repurposed ocean flora. The studio researched possible contributions of seaweed to optimize sustainability within the textile industry and ultimately, produced SEA ME, a hand-knotted rug made from sea algae yarn and a discarded fishing net. 

How Modern Artists Are Shifting Perspectives on Waste and Consumption

SEA ME by Nienke Hoogvliet (Image Source: Studio Nienke Hoogvliet)

Sea algae could provide an innovative solution for sustainability within the textile industry, as it grows quickly and requires fewer nutrients than other popular materials such as cotton. Consequently, Hoogvliet’s vision stretches beyond individual pieces. “I don’t always want to keep my projects conceptual,” she says. “I really want to develop them further so that they can become industrial, as well.”

In addition to this research, Hoogvliet found that seaweed could not only be beneficial to optimal sustainability in the textile industry but could also be manufactured into natural dyes. She has also engineered dyes made from sewage wastewater, medicinal herbs, such as sage, rosemary, and chamomile, and other reclaimed materials. 

The impact of the climate crisis on the environment and biodiversity is at an evident all-time high, and the necessity to reduce our planetary footprint has never been more clear. Nienke Hoogvliet’s unique area of research seeps beyond the realm of artistic impact; what others view as waste she views as functional and beneficial, seeking solutions in areas others would dismiss. 

Whether you appreciate art for its aesthetics, emotion, or expertise, the visual arts are a unique and vast umbrella of ideas, including environmental activism. Through their work, Tan Zi Xi, Guerra de la Paz, and Nienke Hoogvliet hope to shift consumer perspectives and force us to confront our planetary footprint. 


Check out their work! 

Tan Zi Xi:http://www.messymsxi.com/ 

Guerra de la Paz: http://guerradelapaz.com/gdlpwp/ 

 Nienke Hoogvliet: https://www.nienkehoogvliet.nl/.



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