Brightly colored produce made of plastic line neat grocery store shelves. The bakery’s special is tarts topped with bottle caps, and the cereal aisle is filled with Shredded Waste, Yucky Shards, and Caps N’ Such.
It doesn’t sound very appetizing, and it’s not supposed to be. This supermarket is an art installation called The Plastic Bag Store hosted by the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
It’s the work of Brooklyn-based artist Robin Frohardt, who has meticulously crafted every section of the store out of plastic bags in a satirical commentary on excessive packaging.
“I have always been kind of environmentally minded, but just being in a grocery store and watching someone bag and double bag all my groceries that were already inside of bags, inside of boxes, inside of bags, I realized this is pretty obscene,” Frohardt tells Metro Times. “I thought it’d be funny to make a grocery store that just sold packaging, just sort of highlighting the ridiculousness of it.”
The store, with its made-up products like Plastic Dew, Baygo Redbag (yeah that’s a knock at Faygo), and Uncle Bags rice, is only half the installation, however.
It morphs into a performance art piece with a mockumentary film screening and a museum of plastic artifacts during special time slots.
The film starts in ancient Greece, where disposable vases were invented as the original single-use water bottles. After realizing the devastating environmental impacts of plastic, the Greeks decide to warn future generations against plastic bottles by inscribing their story onto vases.
Cut to the year 2020, and a custodian named Helen is working at a museum where the vases are on display. After picking up plastic bags and bottles that have been carelessly discarded, she writes a message on a receipt about how we’ve screwed up the environment, and puts it in a plastic bottle.
She figures, since it’ll take approximately 450 years for the plastic bottle to decompose, that the message will eventually be discovered in the future. And she’s right, except when a man does find the CVS receipt in a bottle — in a frozen future where the only food is cockroaches and jellyfish — her handwriting has completely faded. The only thing that remains is “most valued customer” at the bottom.
Thinking “most valued customer” is the name of a previous civilization, the future man builds a museum of the artifacts he uncovers. This is where the experience transitions from film to performance art, as visitors are led on a museum tour in a space hidden within the store.
With no understanding of what the trash would have been used for, the “museum” labels plastic lighters as funeral urns, and swizzle sticks are thought to be talismans. Those little plastic tables that come on top of your pizza are labeled as “sexual devices.”
“I started thinking, this stuff isn’t going to decompose. Someone could find it and completely misinterpret what it is,” Frohardt says about the film and museum. “Like, why would we make so much of it and make it last so long if it was meaningless? So maybe they would think that it had an incredible amount of meaning and then put it in a museum. Then, thinking about whose trash it was, I wanted it to be someone who worked in a museum, but not an obvious choice of someone who would be considered an important person in the past.”
While the experience can feel a bit heavy-handed in the way that absurdist work presents itself as over-the-top, Frohardt says her goal isn’t to shame anyone about their plastic use.
“I’m definitely not interested in making this about our own personal plastic consumption, or just being like, ‘you should all carry your water bottle, shame on you,’” she says. “That’s why the show element is really important to me and the story because it adds some depth of understanding to the complexity of the issue more than just some diatribe on anti-plastic. It’s definitely going to be on the corporations that are creating all this stuff to stop, because often, then there’s no alternative or affordable option.”
She adds, “I’m trying to call out what’s in the grocery store more than what you take away from the grocery store. I’m not trying to tell people what to do or to think, but I hope that I pile on enough layers to at least keep you thinking about it for a while.”
Frohardt, who has a background in theater, premiered The Plastic Bag Store in New York in 2020. The show has since traveled to Austin, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Adelaide, Australia, before ending up in Ann Arbor.
The Plastic Bag Store installation is at the 777 Building at 777 E. Eisenhower Pkwy., Ann Arbor until Feb. 5. Performances are Wednesdays and Sundays, and advance tickets are required.
For more info, see ums.org.
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