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“Disposable Culture” Exhibit at AAAS Leaves Indelible Impression

Photographs of Bangladeshi ship breakers and bundles of metals in the middle of the recycling process, sculptures of sea creatures, abstract mixed-media collages, and images of repurposed plastic bags are all featured in a new exhibit in the AAAS Art Gallery.

Inspired by the 10 August “Working with Waste” special issue in the journal Science, the “Disposable Culture” exhibit encourages attendees to reconsider what waste is and what happens to waste after it has been discarded.

Informational graphics from the issue complement the exhibit, and a photograph by one of the artists in “Disposable Culture” was featured on the Science cover. Washington, D.C. photographer Huguette Roe visited more than 100 recycling centers in the U.S. and France while taking pictures of waste in the recycling process for her Recycle Series, which included the cover image “Blocks to Go.” “The compressions offer an unusual view of everyday objects,” Roe said of her work.

Sculptures by Helle Jorgensen also showed off this unusual view. Jorgensen repurposed plastic bags—a ubiquitous sign of waste and consumerism—by turning them into yarn, then crocheting sculptures of sea creatures. Dean Kessman transformed plastic bags into works of art by scanning the bags on a large format scanner using the transparency and reflective settings, then merging the scans into a single document.

“The glowing shapes may be instantly recognized for what they are, a byproduct of our culture of production, consumption, and waste,” Kessman wrote in a statement on his “Plastic on Paper” series. “Yet with a blink of an eye, these plastic bags will once again become something much more beautiful than what they just were, much more intriguing than the objects themselves.”

“I’m very excited to be one of the artists in ‘Disposable Culture,’” Kessman said. “’Plastic on Paper’ is starting to seem relatively old at this point, at least it seems like I made the work a long time ago. Therefore, in addition to the obvious connection that the work has to the exhibition’s theme, it sort of feels like I am recycling an older project that I haven’t shown for some time.”

“Disposable Culture” also features pieces by Val Britton, an artist who creates abstract mixed media collages. Britton’s work was developed during her time in the artist-in-residence program at Recology San Francisco. “Recently, using recycled materials in an effort to reduce my environmental impact has informed my work in unexpected ways, imbuing it with unknown histories,” Britton wrote on her Web site.

For her contribution to “Disposable Culture,” Jana Asenbrennerova photographed those who work with waste in her series Shipbreakers of Chittagong. The city in Bangladesh contains the second largest yard in the world for shipbreaking, the process of taking ships apart after their last voyage to recycle as scrap metal. Shipbreaking is an unsafe occupation but it is a rare employment opportunity for many Bangladeshis who weigh the need to feed their families against the risk of developing cancer from asbestos exposure during shipbreaking.

To maximize the educational potential of the exhibit, Beatrice Schmider, a senior project coordinator and exhibit organizer at AAAS, included information panels next to the artwork that utilize QR codes, black and white bar codes that smartphone users can scan to learn more about the art.

“We didn’t want to overwhelm attendees with information, especially when this exhibit offers so much to take in,” Schmider said. “However, more and more art museums and galleries are using QR codes to give visitors access to more information if they choose to check it out. It’s just another way to for us to create a memorable, interactive experience for attendees.”

The AAAS Art Gallery is located in the first floor lobby of the AAAS headquarters at 1200 New York Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. It is open 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Watch an audio slideshow featuring interviews with the artists of Disposable Culture.

Learn more about the AAAS Art Gallery.