Single-use Plastic Engulfs Woodland in New Installation

Artist Clare Townley’s first installation at Cheeseburn is a commentary on the global plastic crisis.

Contemporary art destination Cheeseburn Sculpture in North East England exhibits sculpture from over 40 international artists. Spread across ten acres of woodland and gardens, Cheeseburn has exhibited work from artists including Qi Yafeng, David Mach, Joseph Hillier and Simon Hitchens. 

As part of its work in the North East region, Cheeseburn supports the development of young people into the art world through curatorial internships, commissions and competitions. 

Since 2015, Cheeseburn has partnered with the Gillian Dickinson Trust, to offer artists aged 18 to 25 the chance to secure a £6,500 commission with the Gillian Dickinson North East Young Sculpture Award. 

Newcastle University Fine Art graduate Clare Townley is the third recipient of the award, which has seen installations inspired by the endangered red squirrel (Dan Gough, Scurry, 2017) and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (Peter Hanmer, 2018). 

In May 2019 Townley previewed ‘Nostalgie de la boue: Plastic Friend’ to over 1,000 art enthusiasts. Using reclaimed or recycled plastic, Townley transformed a section of woodland in the estate’s grounds with a series of long, sinewy, sprawling sculptures. Using plastic to mimick the garlands and vines of the natural world, Townley uses the installation to foreground the impact of plastics on the natural environment. 

The artist describes the global plastic crisis as “a burden we want someone else to carry, which will not improve without widespread cognitive dissonance.” With ‘Nostalgie de la boue: Plastic Friend’, Townley creates space to consider the lifecycle of plastic, an environment in which to explore the spectrum of humanity’s psychological adoration, subsequent disgust and eventual disposal of plastics.

As part of the Gillian Dickinson North East Young Sculpture Award, artists are also offered mentoring and career development from curators and arts professionals.  Such as Cheeseburn curator Matthew Jarratt, who has previously been part of the Arts Council England team that shaped the North East’s arts renaissance in the mid-1990s – during which significant capital projects transformed the reputation of the region and put the North East on the map of the international cultural tourist.

“The mentoring and support from art professionals was distinctly helpful because I was able to bounce ideas around and evolve the project,” explains Clare, aged 25. “When there appeared to be difficulties, it was great to be able to talk to someone who had masses of experience within the art world and together we were able to overcome challenges and move the project forward.”

‘Nostalgie de la boue: Plastic Friend’ is made up of 1000 metres of plastic rope created by hand from some ten thousand recycled bags and bottles. To achieve this ambitious feat, Townley reached out to several organisations for assistance and donations from around the country, and in particular pays special thanks to Bircotes Leisure Centre,  Nottinghamshire County Council, Serlby Park Academy, Doncaster Council Recycling Department, FCC Environment, Heaton Back Lane Finds, Tesco, Frank’s the Flooring Store, The Foundry Climbing Centre, MadebyScavenger, Richard WholeTree and Kedel Ltd.  

The starting point for ‘Nostalgie de la boue: Plastic Friend’ was Townley’s Fine Art BA degree show at Newcastle University in 2017, in which she produced a room full of ten large prehistoric plasticine creepers and vines, seemingly set loose from a fossilised plastic fragment. 

“From the offset, I was intrigued by the old school visuals from retro sci-fi films and hand-built sets. When I began working on the piece I realised I needed to reconsider my material choices, ensuring they were in keeping with my practice, but were also site-specific. For example, weatherproof materials would be necessary for the installation to work at Cheeseburn.”

After securing plastic bags and bottles from donations, Townley began hand-knitting them together to form the vines, branches and garlands of the natural world. 

She believes that they retained the layering and detail which were aesthetically paramount to her previous work. She then created large flowering stems from tin cans, based on knits from smaller French-knitting bobbins. 

With scientists divided over whether we are at a turning point in geological history, Townley was keen to acknowledge the rising wave of global concern regarding plastic pollution.

Townley cautioned visitors to the installation against the ‘demonization’ of plastic, urging a more responsible approach, “We have plastic in our houses, wiring systems, computers, surgical implants,. The list is endless. Eliminating plastic entirely may not be possible or desirable. A more responsible, controlled approach to plastics and a big worldwide clean-up of the environment is necessary, so in my view, it is now a matter of reducing the amount we create and reusing and recycling the remainder.”