Initially people seem unsure of whether they’ve stumbled across a new exhibit or a work in progress. Indeed, Strangers In A Strange Land, the new exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery by Robyn Woolston – last year’s winner of the Liverpool Art Prize – rather invites that sense of ambiguity. The main element of the exhibition consists of nine bales of compacted plastic waste – shopping bags, wrapping and so on – from a nearby recycling depot.
Despite some neat resonance with the ceiling above, the juxtaposition is impossible to ignore and that’s really the point. Our relationship with the stuff we consume stops at the point it ceases to become useful to us, but that doesn’t mean that its own journey ends; several tonnes of branded plastics bags – from John Lewis and Waitrose – amid the classical elegance of the Walker are a handy reminder of that fact.
These hundreds of thousands of bin bags and plastic wrapping, squashed into cubes in the Walker’s upstairs lobby, will likely be fashioned into briquettes or a plasticky chipboard-style material that could find its way into agriculture, countryside paths, fencing, walkways or even furniture.
After that, who knows? Each one weighs the same as two baby elephants (or one elephant in their mid-30s, perhaps?) and is worth between £300-400 according to Ronnie Doctor of Centriforce, a Bootle-based company that takes plastic rubbish from all over the country and turns it into something useful. Twas ever thus; where there’s muck there’s brass.
So heavy are the bales (3,600kg) that questions had to be asked about the load-bearing capacity of the first floor at the gallery. As a way of making an impact in the art world, bringing down a floor of one of the most prestigious national art galleries would have a certain cachet. But there’s more to the exhibition than the bales.
The rubbish in our lives mirrors our own trajectory; some day it will all we be returned to the soil. One of the pictures on the wall shows a bouquet of flowers on the eco-friendly grave of Woolston’s mother. The flowers have decayed but the raffia that bound them is still there, quite unaffected by the passage of time – a stubborn, undegradable fact for decades to come.
Meanwhile Woolston’s images of the plastic in situ are vital, full of colour. They lend a certain grimy romance to these peculiar edgelands that encircle our towns and cities: the rubbish depots, storage facilities, sewage plants and power stations – another example of how we tend to banish the vital, if unglamorous, functions of modern life out of sight.
A work from the Walker’s own collection, Starling’s Strangers in a Strange Land depicting people living on the fringes of society, has provided the name for the exhibition, while Woolston’s time in Istanbul, with its stray dogs and unofficial recyclers, lends an added resonance; it’s represented by a book of images that resulted from her residency there.
If there’s something to take away from it all it’s the idea that we only ever own things for a while. Our belongings – our houses, cars and clothes – will likely pass into the hands of someone else; even our own bodies. Woolston is keen to point out that, as a society, we need to understand that we aren’t the end users of thing we consider to be our possessions; the price we pay for them is essentially the cost of hiring those goods and services before they move on in their life cycle – or we move on in ours.
When the exhibition closes in June the bales won’t be carted off to a new exhibition. The idea of loading these bales of rubbish – packaging them even – does seem fatuous and their eventual fate, to be recycled into something useful, seems very fitting. And even though the Walker will go back to business as usual with its wealth of paintings, sculptures and media exhibits it’s worth remembering that even this wonderful gallery will, one day, be so much pretty rubble.
Woolston’s work may give some an unwelcome moment of reflection on impermanence and entropy, but it’s a useful reminder of our impact on the world around us and our own, inherent, recyclability.
Strangers In A Strange Land
Walker Art Gallery
Until 23 June
Win Waste.Product.Istanbul by Robyn Woolston
We’ve linked up with the Walker to offer readers the chance to win a signed copy of Robyn Woolston’s limited-edition Waste.Product.Istanbul. The books is available from the Walker Art Gallery shop, priced £50, and there are a mere 50 copies available. Five runners up will win a New Works at the Walker exhibition poster, featuring artwork by Louise Bourgeois – simply answer the following question and send your contact details to firstname.lastname@example.org by Sunday 7 April.
What is the combined weight of the plastic bales in Robyn Woolston’s installation at the Walker Art Gallery?
a) 4,000 kg
b) 3,200 kg
c) 3,600 kg
The small print
One entry per person will be entered into the prize draw. Employees of National Museums Liverpool are not eligible to enter. Prizes are offered subject to availability, there is no cash alternative. Multiple entries will be recycled. The judges decision is final and winners will be notified by 5pm on Monday 8 April 2013. Your details will remain confidential and never be disclosed to third parties. Your information will only be processed for the exhibition and events mailing list. If you would rather not receive these email updates please mention this after your competition answer.