Dangerously Attractive. Recycled Plastic in Jewellery. An exhibition review

Article  /  SaskiaVanEs   Review   Exhibiting   Curating
Published: 20.11.2020
Saskia Van Es
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Exhibition view Re-Start, Mix Art Gallery, foreground work by Sander Stada, Amsterdam, 9 oktober 2020. Photo: Saskia van Es..
Exhibition view Re-Start, Mix Art Gallery, foreground work by Sander Stada, Amsterdam, 9 oktober 2020. Photo: Saskia van Es.

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In the October 2020 exhibition 'ReStart' at the Mix Art Gallery, recycling was a common thread, as was the low threshold, “Because,” says gallery owner Natasja Peerdeman: "there is so much more than just the designers we usually hear from in the Netherlands."

A marbled brooch made out of shopping bags, dancing earrings crafted from plastic washed-up ashore or gems of molten bicycle lights: all of this jewellery is made from plastic waste. Light, colourful, sturdy, and readily available. Perfectly ideal, right?

Actually… far from ideal. The fact that the ‘miracle material’ is so widely available today is because recycling is apparently much more difficult than we wish to admit. Ecosystems and civilizations are engulfed in plastic waste. And the production of plastic is still growing today. In this article, I will reflect upon four artists who presented their refreshing perspective on this material at the exhibition "ReStart" at the Amsterdam Mix Art Gallery.

Sander Stada, Reflect, neckpiece, found bicycle lights, 2020. Photo: Saskia van Es.

Caps Become Gems
In the October 2020 exhibition 'ReStart' at the Mix Art Gallery, recycling was a common thread, as was the low threshold, “Because,” says gallery owner Natasja Peerdeman: "there is so much more than just the designers we usually hear from in the Netherlands."

This point of view perfectly suits Amsterdam resident Sander Stada. He finds his treasures in the city. A walk on the city beach, especially after the weekend, delivers a bag full of bottle caps. By the time the packaging industry finally attaches caps to bottles, such as is done with tabs on cans, Stada will have collected mountains of plastic caps on his forays. Just like how he does not have to fear running out of shattered bicycle lights for his work, reflectors or discarded scaffolding nets.

So much for the easy part. Stada melts his finds into clumps of coloured plastic. He then drills holes through them and gives them roughly textured facets. It is hard work with risks, making a safety mask a necessity. Sometimes the print of the soft drink brands are still legible in the molten plastic. The chunks become beads for necklaces and bracelets that can best be described as raw and naïve at the same time. For a moment, you think you are dealing with gemstones.

Of course, a free and for the time being endless source of material is most welcome for Stada: Hashtag Trashure. But he is mainly concerned with finding the poetic connections with the plastic finds in the city, such as the diamond patterns in bicycle lights. And, did I know that Dutch road markings are made from reflective pearls manufactured in the Swarovski factory? That brings us back to jewellery. Stada believes that the beautiful material itself is not to blame, as long as we don't throw it away so easily.

Mario Albrecht, brooch from the series Vielschichtig, polyethylene (plastic bags and foils), silver, dental steel, 2018, at Re-Start, Mix Art Gallery. Photo: Saskia van Es.

The Value of Disposable Bags
In 2016, the EU implemented a radical measure: no more free plastic disposable bags with groceries or other purchases. Back in the time of mindlessly being offered and accepting a plastic bag, jewellery designers had long discovered the material. For instance, Beppe Kessler designed the ‘Plastic Bag Necklace’  as early as 1985 and, in 2011, Ineke Heerkens gave swirling plastic bags, observed in passing, a colourful starring role.

Mario Albrecht's work resembles the laminated metal technology of Damascus steel or mokume gane: stacked layers of plastic shopping bags are heated into a block, cut into slices, placed in a rhythmic order, and allowed them to cool down again. The pin’s rivets glitter on the slices of plastic of one of his brooches. With meticulous craftsmanship, Albrecht prevents us from associating his creation with shopping bags. And that is exactly his point: we are constantly surrounded by plastic bags, sachets and foils yet we hardly ponder over the material. Albrecht’s goal is to transform the material beyond recognition into something of more durable value and thereby compel people to think.

Laura Stefani, Adria, bracelet, PET bottles, 2018, at Re-Start, Mix Art Gallery. Photo: Saskia van Es.

"Exotic" Plastic
In the work by the Italian artist Laura Stefani, we see airy shapes that she creates with strings of coloured PET bottles. Friends bring her bottles from all over the world. Her point of view: this material that is still casually thrown out by others (PET is relatively easy to recycle, but deposit stations are not available everywhere) is her greatest treasure.

Stefani's work appears to illustrate a historical constant. For millennia, people have been making jewellery from materials that are available near and far. Today, the packaging industry has the largest share of global plastic production and waste. After shells, bone, stone, and natural fibres, people can now adorn themselves with local and – when given the opportunity - exotic plastic.

And it is not just laziness. Stefani is a true fan of the plastic material. It gives her freedom in design. It looks fragile but is sturdy, she says in a video interview, it "remembers the shape." She wants to show the nuances of PET and ‘let it speak’.
Personally, I find one design more successful than the other, but here too, the idea of an ode to plastic waste material appeals to me, in combination with the admirable rule of the game to only use what would otherwise be thrown out.
JoseFine.K (Véronique Belot), Beach, brooch, found plastic, at Re-Start, Mix Art Gallery. Photo: Saskia van Es.
Beach Finds
And then the cheerfully dangling pieces of beach plastic on thin threads attracted my attention. I immediately thought of scavenging along the shoreline or finding treasures in fishing nets, that's how strong the association with the sea is. The French designer Véronique Belot has a keen sense of colour and composition. As playful as her brooches and earrings may appear, she designs them following strict self-imposed rules. Belot only uses what she finds, rather than buying any new material. And the creations always originate from the beach, because she believes plastic from the shore is cleaner than from the street. Nothing is glued; she sews every piece of pierced plastic together using nylon from discarded nets or test samples from a factory for synthetic yarn.

There is a good and a bad side to every raw material used for jewellery. To me, Belot's material is tangible evidence of the global waste problem. Because the result is so deceivingly cheerful, I wonder which side of the story I represent as a wearer of her creations. A few years ago, the artist said that she is fully aware of the fact that the amount of what she picks up and thereby prevents from entering the ecosystem is rather trivial. If that's not her argument for her work method, then what is?
Now that plastic on beaches can no longer be ignored, should we just enjoy the aesthetic side of the misery a little? Or is it the effect that Gijs Bakker's 2012 'Plastic Soup' bracelet had on me: under a layer of gold or silver the bracelet turned out to be comprised of drinking straws, that most unacceptable, worldwide symbol of disposable plastic. Belot's earrings lure me in only to be shocked when I realize that all of this was scooped up from a soup of plastic waste that can no longer effectively be cleaned up! But, Véronique Belot is not that strongly activist, either: for her, plastic is just an ingredient and the manufacturing process is the leading factor.

Work by Laura Stefani made from cut up PET bottles, at Re-Start, Mix Art Gallery, October 09, 2020, Amsterdam. Photo: Saskia van Es.

Problematic Beauty
Let's face it, plastic waste is dreadful but also simply seductive in its shapes and colours. These artists are fascinated by the material and have habitually experimented with it.
For me, the story of the ecological disaster looms in the background. What am I supposed to do with that juxtaposition- close to my skin, in my ears, around my neck? Am I buying the nostalgic notion that recycled plastic can still be cheerful and colourful, an illusion I don't believe? Or am I wearing a scourge, in order to never forget what a sick ;plastic production system we have produced? Should I use it as a conversation starter?
I catch myself seeing it as a badge of my eco-mind and moral compass – they will see how ‘awakened’ I am. The combination of the awkward material and the cheerful shapes in 'Re-Start' keeps puzzling me.

The attempt by these artists to encourage respect for materials that are simply here to stay whether we like it or not, is a brave one. To bring the things around us to our attention is to establish a connection with those things. Wear a piece of recycled plastic waste jewellery and you will take better, durable, care of what has already been produced. At the end of the day, that is a hopeful message.

*This article was previously published in Dutch on SieradenMuze blog, editors Roberto Luis Martins and Derek Westervelt.

Artists mentioned
. Mario Albrecht; video Plastik Recycling – Dieser Designer macht Schmuck aus Müll || Bavarian Makers.
. JoseFine.K (Véronique Belot); chat with Véronique Belot at Sieraad Art Fair, November 08, 2018.
. Sander Stada; chat with Sander Stada at the exhibition Re-Start, October 09, 2020.
. Laura Stefani; video Let’s talk trash.
The exhibition Re-Start by Mix Art Gallery, owned by Natasja Peerdeman, was on view from 9 and 10 October 2020 in Studi-O in Amsterdam. It showed 21 international artists. Many of them used repurposed material. All works can be found on Instagram and Facebook.
More on Plastic Waste
Deia Schlosberg, The Story of Plastic, film, 2019.
Tamar Stelling, 'Briljant bedacht: hoe de plasticindustrie het idee verkoopt dat de burger z’n ‘eigen’ plastic op moet ruimen'  online article De Correspondent (in Dutch).
More on Jewellery from Waste
The Worn Debris Collective.
Jewellery exhibition Wert/Voll Valu/Able, 2019.

About the author

Saskia van Es​
(Amsterdam, 1972) is an art historian. She writes texts on contemporary jewellery, such as exhibition reviews. Her fascination: jewellery materials. She was a board member of the Françoise van den Bosch Foundation. More at