Carnegie Museum of Art reimagines plastic

Hannah Peters | Staff Writer | Norman Teague's "Re+Prise" utilized "cultural memory," according to the exhibit website, by drawing inspiration from basket weaving techniques in his reuse of plastic materials.

Hannah Peters | Staff Writer

As Earth Day draws near, we’re called to reflect on the place we call home and how to protect it. Carnegie Museum of Art’s exhibit, “Everlasting Plastics” is using environment-forward art to do just that.

On display from March 9 to July 21, “Everlasting Plastics” features the work of five artists, architects and designers – Xavi L. Aguirre, Simon Anton, Ang Li, Norman Teague and Lauren Yeager – who focus on both the metaphorical and material relationship that society has with plasticity.

“I wanted people to think about how plastic is a global commodity. It works in the same way that a lot of materials have worked throughout history – people in power control the way the material flows over the Earth and how people move through space,” artist, designer and educator Simon Anton told The Duke.

Originally commissioned for the 18th Venice Biennale of Architecture in 2023, the exhibit is a reaction to society’s extreme use of plastic and man-made environmental disasters, such as the 2023 East Palestine train derailment.

To tie the conversation back to Pittsburgh, the museum curated the exhibit with the Steel City’s strong history in ​​petrochemical manufacturing. It emphasizes criticism of the Shell cracker plant in Beaver county and fracklands of Marcellus Shale.

The exhibit “highlights our unseen dependency; demonstrates how plasticity has created expectations for the behaviors of other materials; and points to plastic’s unknown, long-term and indelible impact on our futures,” according to the exhibition’s website.

While staying true to its message, the exhibit acknowledges the material as a potential agent of change and strays from “making a value judgment about plastic.”

Employing a more nuanced approach, the curators hoped to shift away from the overused rhetoric that the problem will be solved if we just reduce, reuse and recycle.

Anton said that integrating these perspectives for his featured collection, “This Will Kill _____ That,” called upon harmonizing opposing methods of expression.

“It was a challenge for me to aesthetically make something that can be appealing and more enticing in some ways, but can also be kind of repelling or even repugnant in a way,” Anton said.

By using small pieces of plastic from toy factories in his hometown of Detroit, Anton chose to coat politically relevant pieces of steel with the waste material using a unique grafting technique that he developed in graduate school.

The transformed pieces include a barricade, window covering and turret clock now covered in brightly colored toy remnants. Anton said his inspiration came from exploring architectural ornamentation and the different typologies surrounding them.

“Through these forms, I found different ways to bring the conversation of plastics into these historical conversations to make pieces that combine different materials, worldviews and different times of history to make these larger, stranger, more complicated narratives about plastic, power and architecture,” he said.

In this way, Anton sought to explore symbolism and storytelling through architecture, his work offering various interpretations.

“There wasn’t any direct one-liner message that I wanted people to take away, but more so to give an impression that makes people want to dig deeper,” Anton said. “Each of these different designs tell a story about our world of plastic pollution.”

To museum visitor Kimberly Lawless, the story told by “Everlasting Plastics” was a personal one. A social work professor from Bethany College, Lawless shared how her community was recently devastated by floods, resulting in long strips of plastic sheeting to infiltrate a local creek and cover surrounding trees.

“I see my community literally being covered in plastic waste and I am horrified … so when I see this art, I carry with me a constant awareness of plastics and how plastics are damaging to the environment,” Lawless said.

She said other pieces, like Yeager’s sculptures, use plastic coolers, crates, chairs, buckets and even basketballs, reminded her of the things she saw littering the streets after the flood. Despite being prompted to recall her community’s destruction, Lawless shared that she was captivated by the artists’ ability to address our complex reliance on petroleum-based materials in a creative way.

“I’m fascinated by how artists take this toxic material and do something with it that’s functional, useful, and beautiful,” Lawless said. “That’s what artists do – they take things that are often toxic and turn them into art.”

From colorful plastic coil sculptures to crown moulding made from styrofoam, “Everlasting Plastics” cultivates a more expansive way to think about the materiality of plastic and its evolution on our planet.

“The stuff that’s being used to create plastics are devastating our oceans, our Earth and are now in our bodies. It’s just distressing to me,” Lawless said. “I’m happy to see that they are bringing a show like this to the museum. Hopefully it will build some public awareness.”

General admission at the Carnegie Museum of art starts at $25 per adult, but students with a valid ID can purchase tickets in person or online at for $15.