Dutch and Flemish Still Lifes Rendered in Plastic

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Plastic Vanitas, Still Life with Ketchup Bottle and Lemon

Mariele Neudecker's new series recreates the haunting Dutch and Flemish still lifes of the 17th century, but with one key twist: everything is made of plastic

Cast your eye over the 49 dark, atmospheric tableaus which make up the newest body of work by artist Mariele Neudecker and you’ll quickly recognise that, traditional though they seem, something is amiss. Where heaps of softening fruit, sinister scowling skulls and wilting flowers should stand, instead there are kitsch singing sunflower toys, bottles of ketchup and hockey helmets. Every item in the series, in fact, is made of plastic.

There is a reason behind Neudecker’s subversion of the materials traditionally used to create such images, of course. The photographs are the result of the artist’s 2015 residency at the Museum of Design in Plastics, over which time she was invited to create a body of work inspired by the extensive, and at times haphazardly assembled collection of plastic materials the institution has gathered. Her approach was inspired by the variety tucked away. “The museum has put hundreds and thousands of objects into a kind of order, or even a disorder; they had put the light objects at the top and the heavy objects at the bottom, so they ended up with boxes full of random mixtures,” she explains.

“The way I proposed for them to represent the collection was by focusing on a collection of individual boxes, and representing them with photographs that resemble Dutch and Flemish still life paintings. I selected boxes which had at least one object in them that would have been used in that period – for example, the flute, or the book, or something similar – and then I used every other object in that box.” The fun part was discovering what, she continues – “sometimes you have funny plastic forks, or bits of window frame” – and incorporating it into her composition.

The result is a series of curious collections with a loose theme running through them, photographed under the rich, heavy historical weight of their artistic predecessors in Dutch and Flemish still lifes. There’s something oddly pleasing about imagining the likes of Flegel and Claesz looking down, brows furrowed, as they attempt to make out the curious form of a box of heated rollers. Neudecker tells AnOther about her newfound appreciation for the material. 

On the negative cultural view of plastic…
“The director of the collection, Susan Lambert, has come from the V&A, and one of her criticisms is that they ignore plastics too much there. I think they have some plastics, but they don’t show it as a cultural material – they don’t look at the material in terms of the bigger picture, the history of humankind. It’s interesting to realise that plastic is absolutely everywhere you go, and yet it’s so easy to overlook, or take it for granted."

On plastic and the environment...
"I found it very interesting to reconsider the material's positives and negatives in relation to climate change. Alex Rodgers, who I’ve been working with for quite a while, is a marine biologist, so he knows a lot about plastics in the ocean, which is obviously a big, big, negative. At the same time, I think through this residency I have learnt to see the positive sides of recyclable plastics. It’s all to do with the interface of either reusing it, or getting rid of it properly. Often it’s actually more sustainable to reuse plastic than to chop down some trees, or use natural materials.”

On her favourite object in the collection…
"There were lots of beautiful things in there, old and new, but for some reason I keep coming back to the billiard ball. I don’t even know the exact name for that plastic; it’s very heavy, and off-white, but very rich in its quality and its texture. It's perfectly, perfectly round but it’s got a lot of odd patterns. I photographed it for the smallest print in the exhibition, and I just didn’t want to put it back in the box.

It’s a big collection, and I loved the way yoghurt pots could be wrapped in two layers of archival tissue and kept amongst really precious things like horn, items that were really interesting. It was fun to see what they shoved into one box along with something else, just because there was a bit of space, or it arrived at that time and that box was open. I liked that weird kind of concoction of things."

Mariele Neudecker: Plastic Vanitas is showing at Nunnery Gallery until March 27, 2016.