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ArtPrize Artist Profile: Lisa Yarost's Recyclable Container for Humans

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Yarost's Recyclable Container for Humans at 45 Ottawa Ave.

Yarost's Recyclable Container for Humans at 45 Ottawa Ave. /Kris Carpenter

If you've been wondering what those huge bundles of crushed plastic tucked behind the 45 Ottawa venue are all about, here's a hint: Lisa Yarost's Recyclable Container for Humans is all about consumption and waste—the kind we can't throw "away" even if we think we can—and it seems fitting to me that the installation's 27 tons of plastic sits at the base of (incidentally) another symbol of affluence and consumerism: the bank.

Talking to Lisa, the two of us surrounded by 54 one-thousand-pound bales of crushed plastic bottles, detergent containers, and other throw-away items, the artist asks "What if all this stuff didn't go away? If we didn't haul this waste out of our lives?" It's an impressive question, especially when you stand, as Lisa instructs, in the far corner of the rectangular shape, where you cannot see out.  "From here, you can only see up. It's quiet here, and you can't escape the enormity of the problem."

The problem that Yarost has been dealing with in her work for several years now is "consumption and its effect on society."  In years past, Lisa created ceramic versions of items we use for incredibly brief periods of time: to-go cups and water bottles we think of as temporary, when in reality, their effects on nature and humans are lasting, perhaps permanent.  She created "imprints of clothing that [she] called 'fossils'" to sensitize people to the waste that occurs when we insist on purchasing and wearing clothing that is new, which by default, means a lot of materials go to waste.

Yarost, a west Michigan native, began to hone in on the inescapability of the waste we generate while working toward her MFA at Goddard College of Vermont.  Her recent solo show at Aquinas, “Made of Money and More,” commemorated the completion of her degree.

"You have to be obsessive about consumption to assemble 27 tons of plastic," Lisa says with a smile.  The 54 bales of recyclable plastic (originally she had hoped for 100 but ran into height problems) are stacked three rows high and engulf the viewer who allows them to.  The quantity represents one week of plastic collected by the Kent County Recycling Facility, which represents only a small portion of plastic used and discarded, because as Lisa points out, "only twenty percent of Grand Rapids residents recycle." 

Home Acres Building Supply generously donated the staff, two flatbed trucks, and a skylift to set the bundles in place.  Lisa hopes the sheer size of her ArtPrize entry, and perhaps its lack of inherent beauty, will help viewers "take a second to think about the enormity of the amount of waste we produce."  She's quick to add that she doesn't believe art has to be preachy or make one particular point.  "The experience doesn't have to be limited to one statement."

Lisa may not make one statement, but I will.  Standing in the corner of her Recyclable Container for Humans, contemplating how the spread of turbo-capitalism and consumerism is degrading and polluting our environment with never-before-witnessed speed, I find myself hoping every viewer leaves with this take-away:  The great majority of plastic is not recycled—about 94% is discarded, most scientists believe—and when it comes to discarding plastic, there is no "away." There is only water, soil, and sky.

Experience Yarost's Recyclable Container for Humans in the parking lot of the 45 Ottawa Ave. building.

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When accompanied by this article, Yarost's statement sinks in. It is meaningful and timely. However, on it's own in a bank parking lot with only a chalk name written on the ground, it is simply a pile of plastic bales. I saw people mention things like, seeing their contribution to it, but I think she would've been far further ahead to post these facts vividly in front of the viewer.