Plastic Entanglements: Ecology, Aesthetics, Materials

February 13 - June 17, 2018

The story of plastic is as complex as the polymer chains that make up its unique material properties. Plastic Entanglements brought together sixty works by thirty contemporary artists to explore the environmental, aesthetic, and technological entanglements of our ongoing love affair with this paradoxical, infinitely malleable substance. Both miraculous and malignant, ephemeral yet relentlessly present, plastic infiltrates our global networks, our planet, and even our bodies.


This major loan exhibition featured work by an international roster of emerging and mid-career artists, including Mark Dion, Marina Zurkow, Zanele Muholi, Vik Muniz, Jessica Stockholder, Chris Jordan, Brian Jungen, Aurora Robson, Willie Cole, Pinar Yoldas, Tejal Shah, and Moreshin Allahyari. Visitors encountered a varied array of artwork, from meticulous drawings, photographs, and video installations to 3d-printed objects and sculptures fabricated from found plastic.


Plastic Entanglements unfolded in three sections, charting a timeline—past, present, and future—of our ongoing engagement with this ubiquitous manmade material.


Plastic Entanglements: Ecology, Aesthetics, Materials was curated by Palmer curator Joyce Robinson; Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor, professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies and English; and Heather Davis, post-doctoral fellow at Penn State’s Institute for the Arts and Humanities.


This exhibition was made possible by available funds from the Donald W. Hamer Endowment for Art Acquisitions and Exhibitions. Major support was provided by The Arboretum at Penn State, College of Arts and Architecture, Materials Research Institute, Sustainability Institute, University Libraries, George Dewey and Mary J. Krumrine Endowment, and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.


Organized by the Palmer Museum of Art.

Exhibition Itinerary:

Palmer Museum of Art

February 13–June 17, 2018


Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, University of Oregon

September 22–December 30, 2018


Smith College Museum of Art

February 8–July 28, 2019


Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison

September 13, 2019–January 5, 2020

Exhibition Itinerary

The Archive

The Archive examined the ways in which plastic objects make up an inadvertent record of daily life from the mid-twentieth century onwards. Resiliently non-biodegradable, plastic has created both a cultural and literal archive for artists to salvage, identify, and assemble.

The Archive

The Entangled Present

The Entangled Present revealed the ways in which plastic binds people, plants, and animals together across diverse geographical locations and through global systems. The works of art in this section focus attention on the complex effects of the reach of plastic on ecological—that is, interactive human and natural—networks as well as on current artistic practice and reveal the ways in which we are bound up in plastic realities, often regardless of our individual choices or ideals.

The Entangled Present

Speculative Futures

The exhibition concluded with a section dedicated to Speculative Futures, asking what unknown worlds are emerging from the omnipresence of plastic, including new geologic and biologic forms. Engaging with new materials and modes of plastic production, artists are also opening up our imaginations to the range of possible futures in plastic.

Speculative Futures