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36ème Congrès du CIHA - Lyon 2024

Parrainé par le Ministère de la Culture,
le Ministère de l'Enseignement supérieur et de la Recherche,
le Ministère de l'Europe et des Affaires étrangères

The Last Plastics Show

Charlotte Matter 1, Teresa Kittler 2
Institut D'histoire De L'art, Université De Zurich - Zurich (Switzerland), 2History Of Art Department, University Of York - York (United Kingdom)

Sujet en anglais / Topic in english

As the umbrella term for a whole range of products derived from hydrocarbons, plastics are a fairly recent addition to the history of art. They became widespread in the 1950s and have since then profoundly expanded the material culture of our modern world. Indeed, they appear synonymous with everything deemed “modern”—along with all the desirable and problematic associations of the term. While in recent years scholars have been engaging with plastics from the perspectives of cultural studies, environmental sciences, or conservation and restoration, much remains to be discussed from the point of view of art history. In this session for the CIHA 2024 congress, we want to explore the significance and the ambivalent implications that plastics have come to occupy in artistic practices and exhibitions after WWII. Exhibition making around plastics became something of a phenomenon in this period, inaugurating the heyday of plastics in the 1960s, or what some have called the “plastic age.” Their ubiquity in everyday life and break with visual arts’ traditions made them relevant to new audiences; this omnipresence, in turn, was parodied in an exhibition titled The Last Plastics Show (1972). Their subsequent drastic loss of popularity in the wake of the 1973 oil price crisis gave rise to another, more sombre term to describe the era: the “plasticene.” Despite growing awareness of their harmfulness for humans and the environment, plastics have endured, as evinced by a recent reiteration of that historical exhibition bearing the tongue-in-cheek title The Very Last Plastics Show (2014). As such, plastics in art present an opportunity to think about the broader cultural reach and the enduring legacy of these materials.

The session seeks to understand the elastic and sometimes highly contradictory meanings of plastics in art from the 1960s onwards. It also aims to reflect on the different temporalities and implications of their production and use as it has unfolded in diverse geographic contexts. By paying special attention to exhibitions that specifically addressed the question of materiality, ranging from large museum shows to smaller gallery or artists’ projects, we want to explore the way these materials have been conceptualised and presented to audiences, and the legacy of these early exhibitions in contemporary art making and curating.

How can we make sense of plastics in relation to the politics of gender, health and well-being, the interests of big industry and cold-war politics—that is, to topics that extend beyond the material itself? What has changed, but also, what continues to make plastics so compelling for our culture and its production? These are some of the questions we hope to tackle in this session.