In the heart of the Pacific Ocean lies a nebulous mass of plastic debris the size of Texas. This synthetic island of plastic bottles, lids, utensils, and bags has entered the food chain, and is coagulating in your bloodstream.
Artist Olivia Kaufman-Rovira has come toe to toe with this global threat. In 2008, she began to collect hundreds of plastic bottles from the streets and alleyways and dumpsters of Barcelona. From this pile of debris, she constructed a life-size boat that she sailed on a large pond in the middle of the city.
Olivia will have a new sculpture on view in Upcycled, a group exhibition curated by Barbara Lubliner at Ernest Rubenstein Gallery. I recently caught up with Olivia to learn more about her work and the life she leads in Jersey City.
The Ernest Rubenstein Gallery is located on 197 East Broadway in New York, NY. The opening reception is Wednesday, December 8, 2010 6 to 8pm. A gallery talk with the artists will be hosted on Wednesday, January 12, 2011.
Tell us about yourself. Who are you, and what do you do?
I am an installation and sculpture artist. My work is heavily process oriented. I love being hands on, it drives me to create.
I grew up in Maplewood, a suburb of New Jersey about 25 minutes west of Jersey City, went to school in New Jersey at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. I guess you could say I’m a Jersey Girl! :o)
How long have you lived in Jersey City?
I’ve lived here a little over 2 years.
When did you become interested in art?
I have always loved making things and using objects in new and innovative ways. My father is a sculptor – he is a big influence on my art. Growing up everywhere I turned in my parent’s house there was another sculpture made of computer parts, car motors, wire, wood, metal and more repurposed and imagined into new and exciting large scale forms. I loved working with him and seeing everything he created and creates to this day.
I was really involved in all my art classes and became serious about art making in high school. I have a sculpture on permanent view at Columbia High School, my alma matter in Maplewood, Orbiting the Tree.
How did you become involved in the exhibition, Upcycled, and what work will be on view?
I was invited to be in the show by the curator, Barbara Lubliner. She and I had been in a show the year before together, Our Present Planet, a show featuring environmental art.
I will be showing a piece made of plastic bottles – an abstract form that works off of the architecture of the gallery. My piece transforms the entrance of the gallery. A person can walk up to the piece and allow their perspective to be altered by looking through the plastic.
I’ve been working with plastic bottles since 2008. In the body of work – I am interested in a number of concepts. One is to literally transform perspectives when gazing through the plastic and also to add another perspective on plastic, to inspire creativity in re-using this single use object. The other concept is for people to be confronted by the sheer quantity of plastic waste and our society’s overuse and dependence on this product.
When you say that looking through the plastic bottles alters a viewer’s perspective, in what way is his looking transformed? Is it like the experience of looking through a kaleidoscope?
It is kind of like looking through a kaleidoscope – I like that analogy. The view of the other side of the plastic gets warped slightly and circular shapes and lines cut up whatever you are looking at. I guess you’ll have to come see the piece to know what I’m referencing here.
What is this piece’s name
Can you tell me about the piece The Plastic Voyager?
I built The Plastic Voyager in Spain, in 2008. I was living in Barcelona and studying at Metáfora’s, International Workshop program. The Plastic Voyager is small boat made of plastic bottles. On one level The Plastic Voyager is symbolic of freedom, adventure and fun, a creative way to use our waste. On another level the use of bottles is symbolic of the larger problem we are facing – our society’s dependence on single use plastic and addiction to convenience.
How many plastic bottles did you use, and where did you find them?
I must have used hundreds of bottles. In Barcelona the tap water quality poor, everyone at the time bought bottled water from the supermarket. Everywhere I went there were large 5-10 litter empty jugs of water in the garbage cans. I didn’t know what I was going to make at first – I just started collecting them. Friends in the program brought in bottles from home and would leave them in my studio. It was fun to ride the metro with garbage bags full of plastic bottles! I also had a restaurant collecting plastic water bottles for me and went to pick them up after siesta time and before the dinner crowd.
Can you describe the process of making The Plastic Voyager?
The act of collecting bottles was a huge part of the project… That took a month or so. I kept collecting during the construction. I started out thinking I would make something that could float – something simple like a raft. I started by taping small units together and then by taping the units together to create a raft. Once I started taping plastic bottles together the raft just wasn’t enough. The raft grew sides and turned into a boat and then the boat turned into a sailboat. Then I just had to take it out on the water, or the pond outside my studio. I actually made a second Plastic Voyager after the first. The first was a beta version. In the second one I took all the labels off and the entire object was more fluid and its construction sturdier. (All bottles were recycled after its deconstruction).
When I think of The Plastic Voyager, I see myself sailing to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It’s kind of like the voyage of doom. What are your thoughts on the nebulous mass of plastic bottles, bags, and debris floating in the Pacific Ocean?
Unfortunately I do not like to think about the mass of plastic that is accumulating in our system – it saddens me. Most people don’t think of where their waste is going, that is part of the problem. An even larger issue is our system of single use plastics. We all know plastic is a problem and we still use it. We can’t even buy some products without it. We all need to do our part. We can be aware of the plastic we are using and make a conscious effort to use less plastic, buy less products packaged in plastic and support companies that use sustainable packaging options to create more demand for plastic alternatives.
What would you like for people to take away from your current work with plastic? What sort of experience or meaning?
I want people to walk away with a different perspective than they came into the gallery with. To inspire people to be creative in the way they look at objects in their lives, be it plastic or any piece of refuse or object they encounter. To see it for what it is and then beyond that, to see if for all the things that it could be. If they were moved to recycle more of their waste and use less, that would be great as well.
Waste, consumerism, and the environment seem to be central to your work. What about Jersey City? Has our city informed your decisions inside the studio? If so, how?
My environment informs my work and my move to Jersey City has definitely influenced my decisions… Jersey City has a great recycling and waste collection programs.
All of the bottles I have been collecting in the last few months have been from my place of employment. We do not recycle and the water for employees is bottled – I am sitting on a gold mine for art making materials and a disaster for nature as we throw away hundreds of bottles a week. Seeing all of the bottles we throw away here on a daily basis has compelled me to start creating plastic bottle works again. As a side note – I am currently working on presenting new alternatives to the company to reduce our plastic waste and become more ecologically friendly.
I’ve always viewed urban environments as sterile and unnatural. However, living and working in JC and NYC, I have come to view the urban environment as a natural extension of our lifestyle and further, I have continued to explore the juxtaposition of the organic world and forms with inorganic materials.
What three pieces of advice would you give to an artist just starting out their career?
1. Believe in yourself and your work and tell everyone you know about what you are up to. Sharing and being in conversation about your work is fun and its important to keep your dialogue going.
2. Document EVERYTHING! Your experiments, failures and masterpieces. Take GOOD pictures of everything you ever create – get your photographer friends to take your pictures if you feel your pictures aren’t good enough.
3. Keep making things even after a long break. You are still an artist even if you are taking a long break. We all have our periods of inactivity, incubating ideas and absorbing the world around us and we have our periods of productivity. Both inactivity and activity are part of the process and are equally essential.
What are you working on now?
I’m still exploring and working with plastic bottles – not to mention the large collection I have going. I’ve got an unlimited supply of bottles at the bottom of my stairwell (thank goodness my neighbor is a performance artist and doesn’t mind my large collection outside her doorway).
Let’s focus on Jersey City. What is your favorite place to eat? Who has the best jukebox, and where can you find a decent cup of coffee?
I love More on Grove Street. I just can’t get enough Thai food and their food is consistently good. Believe it or not, I’ve always shied away from jukeboxes; it’s some sort of wanting to please others complex… I’m working on it though! Legal Grounds Coffee, on Grand Street is a totally chill place for coffee – I especially enjoy the small hidden backyard space in the warmer weather.
I’ve moved 3 times within Jersey City in the last 2 years. It was a lot of moving and settling in. It has taken me some time to get back to my art practice and some time to feel settled and connected here. The last piece I made, Hive, was linked to that period of transition, flux, and incubation… Hive represented a new part of my life—of being more involved in the arts locally and connecting with myriad of artists here in Jersey City.
The original post may be found here.