Writer Jim Medieros responds to the 2010-2012 installation Swallowed, featuring thousands of empty plastic water bottles.



reviewed by Jim Medeiros, Feburary 2010:

The windows of the Hampden Gallery rise the full first floor, floor to ceiling, and glow at dusk, scintillating with glass reflections, while inside, the gallery sparkles where the lights buff hundreds of plastic bottles lining the room like a corrugated plastic skin.  The warm yellow bulbs and apparent glow of the bottles themselves draw in intrigued passersby with promise of Swallowed, the installation by Maggie Nowinski, now in its closing week at the University of Massachusetts.

Artists have always considered their art and the subject of their art from every angle.  For centuries painters have produced sketches of their colored conceptions beforehand.  Cheap painters practice on the canvas itself before committing permanent color to a surface.  Sculptors produce advance sketches and even models in clay and wood before applying their ideas to a lifetime of permanence in stone.  Artists have learned to exhibit their practice as “studies in a reclining nude.” Or, “series for a bowl of fruit” (though whether the studies revealed more of the artist’s mind or the variform aspects of the subject is open to debate.)  Although we could say Maggie Nowinski’s Swallowed partakes of this tradition of multiple examinations of a subject, hers is an approach intended to spotlight the multiplicity of a thing, to examine the thing in depth, rather than to  simply illuminate all the angles, and the thing held up to the light and probed with her razor wit is the mundane plastic water bottle, part of our daily lives.

If water is the elixir of life then water bottles are the common carriers of life.  Maggie has given us not only a look at all the permutations of life in a water bottle as a painter might in preparing for a masterwork, but her permutations are the masterwork, offering up great insight into the fabric of our common days.  She uses every means she can grasp in this rich event.  First, comes a video–complete with sound track–of a woman swallowing a long bottle of water, the model seen from the neck to the border of her rib cage, and then ghostly images of water bottles apparently draining each other in water spouts of disappearing shadows are superimposed over the human model.  The sounds set my own tummy churning.

Next, in the main room nearby, hundreds of empty plastic bottles have been strung together to hang in curtains from the walls, in thigh high curves across the floor, in Doric columns from the ceiling in the middle of the room, and just everywhere.  Lights hidden behind some mounds of plastic give the installation a form of pseudo life.  These strung bottles are all of the standard sixteen-ounce size we tote from house to car to studio to school to meetings–every situation and location of daily life.  But Maggie’s vision far exceeds the narrow confines of one-size-fits-all.  Looking carefully around the room you will spy small snapshots of crumpled bottles in gutters, bottles in cup holders, bottles full with the promise of life for sale on store shelves, bottles in trash bins, on car mat floors, on kitchen tables, everywhere we are.  There is even a DVD with a series of video shorts.

The DVD features multiple vignettes of volunteers drilling and stringing the bottles, the artist scrounging though trash bins for her plastic to the puzzlement of staring bystanders, some collected bottles breaking free from their artistic captivity to become free-range bottles in their natural habitat, washing down a stream, and even a recording of a young woman arranging a braided clump of the strung bottles on the floor in a crazy series of twisting mounds that looks part Greco-Roman wrestling and part sweaty lovers’ embrace.  Plastic bottles, she seems to tell us, defy any attempt to control or coax, to restrain or deny reproduction.

Although the strung bottles are all of a size, sitting here and there about the room you will also see empty five-gallon blue plastic bottles, refugees from office water coolers.  They have the effect of sitting enthroned above their strung smaller cousins that festoon the walls.  The giant economy-sized water bottles reign quietly as the kings of their clan.

A disquieting aspect of the display involves one of the scattered clutches of photographs, this particular display composing two eight-by-tens in a corner.  The photos show first a young woman dressed in a flowered shift in a field, a breezy fresh familiar image.  The photo below it juxtaposes the same woman from the waist down, legs akimbo, and an apparent stream of urine plashing the plants of the field.  The caption advises we can use processed bottled water, now urine, cut with water as fertilizer.  Amidst the bevy of bottles, the jostling of plastic impinging everywhere like ping pong balls bubbling in a lottery machine, the photo jarringly calls our attention to everything the plastic bottles are not: recyclable (just in case the auditor/viewer has missed the implication of thousands of plastic bottles finally put to use somewhere beyond a landfill).

I am always suspicious that an artist is making some political statement in art, whether its Dante Alighieri peopling his hell with popes and potentates or Andy Warhol’s wry take on our ubiquitous consumerist labels.  In case you missed it in the empty carcasses in the whole room, Maggie Nowinski draws the picture here with this photo of a girl in a field performing what some would see as a crude but very human act, returning the gurgle in the bottle naturally to earth.

That is one of the great accomplishments in this exhibit: it takes one of the most prosaic talismans of contemporary America and strings it together to make not only art but also a stab into our collective consciousness that forces us really to understand our daily lives.  Maggie has given us the “aha” moment of art.  As one visitor exclaimed in front of me as he looked through the doorway into the exhibit hall to confront the plastic of his life: Wow.

Wow, indeed.