On Earth Day, April 22, you may have seen a plastic bag mummy, Plady, picking up trash while riding a mini plastic car, Toxicar, down Main Street in New Paltz. This was not an early celebration of Halloween, but performance art. Plady and Toxicar were created by the Taiwanese artist Maxine Leu, an MFA sculpture student at SUNY New Paltz, and enacted by performer Sanford Fels, a BFA sculpture student also at SUNY New Paltz.
Leu, an environmental artist, used about 500 reused plastic bags from a New Paltz supermarket to create Plady and Toxicar. Five hundred plastic bags sounds like a lot, but that is the number of plastic bags that an average American uses and discards each year.
“I’m glad to see our lovely town has stopped offering straws in restaurants, and will soon not allow plastic bags to be given away in stores. However, recycling is not a perfect solution, because the process of using old plastic to make new plastic products releases poisonous gases into our air.” Leu said. The Ulster County “Bring Your Own Bag Act,” a ban on single-use plastic bags, goes into effect on July 15 this year.
The inspiration for Plady and Toxicar came from Leu’s observations about the differences between how Americans and Taiwanese treat plastic bags. Her home country, Taiwan, is smaller than New York state, but the population density is much greater. “Because of this, Taiwanese cherish limited resources more than Americans. In the US, a lot of people don’t treasure bags from the store because they get too many for free,” Leu said.
In Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, supermarkets do not provide free plastic bags to customers. Taiwan strictly regulates recycling. To dispose of recyclables and garbage, citizens buy special bags from their government which they use to divide waste into categories which are never mixed. Old batteries, paper, plastic, metal, fabric, aluminum cans, styrofoam, glass and electrical appliances are each recycled separately. Kitchen wastes are divided into two separate bags, one for composting and the other for feeding pigs.
Plady reminds us that it’s not enough to just reduce, reuse and recycle. Leu and Fels offer a new version of the three R’s: reduce, reduce and reduce.
Taiwanese artist Maxine Leu’s work focuses on the environment, communication and identity. In 2015, when Leu came to New York from Taiwan, she became interested in cultural differences between Western and Eastern societies. She collaborated with the New Paltz ReUse Center to build a giant dung beetle sculpture from used materials, and led Upcycling Recycling craft workshops at The Habitat for Artists at Woodstock Artists Association & Museum. She has received awards for her art including at Recycle 2018 Art Exhibition at BWAC (Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition) in Brooklyn and at the Earth Speaks V exhibit sponsored by the Pocono Arts Council in Tannersville, Pennsylvania.
Leu and the performer Sanford Fels care deeply about the world around them. Much of their work focuses on trying to start conversations about social issues, including what could be done to improve the natural environment around us.