Artist Interview: Elizabeth Kruger – Plastic Perspectives, Or Wasting Not, Wanting More

August 7, 2021

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This year has seen the rise of art as non-fungible tokens (NFTs), with digital artist Beeple’s NFT fetching $69.3m at a recent Christie’s auction. Much noise has been made around NFTs and climate change, given how energy-intensive they are to create. This has given rise to calls for more sustainability in the art world, with the use of recycled materials as one way to foster an environmentally conscious approach. This was a focus for the 2021 International Public Arts Festival (IPAF), which had the theme ‘100% Sustainable’. Festival organiser Baz-Art has a longstanding mission to showcase the pivotal role recycling plays in contributing to an environmentally stable planet and greener future for all.  To bring this home visually, IPAF featured several environmentally aware artists, including Elizabeth Kruger, with her powerful Lotus Garden installation.

Kruger is an anthropologist-cum-rubbish-alchemist who transforms trash into playful objects of beauty. Her earth-friendly installations draw attention to the consumption of fossil fuels and petroleum products, and the vast quantities of objects humanity uses once, then throws away. Unified under the mantle of ‘transformation’, her work also uses locally harvested bamboo to allow her to creatively merge organic and inorganic materials as new, hybrid art forms.


What sort of training have you received and how important do you think it is to seek training (in terms of learning first principles and refining technique)?

Other than being exposed to a range of creative media at the Waldorf high school that I attended, I have received no formal training. However, I have worked as an artist’s model for many years and I believe that being in this kind of environment and engaging with various artists and their teachings has influenced my thinking. But more significant in terms of the way I currently work has been my engagement with artists at festivals such as Boom Festival, where hundreds of artists from around the world come together to create art works for thousands of people across a wide space, using a massive array of media in their quest to inspire thought, emotion and creativity. And then simply engaging with the materials that I use, which guide the kind of work that gets produced. So I don’t think that formal training is a prerequisite for creating art. But engaging with other creators is priceless. One can refine one’s technique personally, and also learn so much from learning with others, talking and observing. Ultimately, it is in the doing that the art becomes a reality.


What is your principal medium, and why did you choose it?

Currently, I work primarily with waste plastics and found objects, and bamboo when that is available. I initially began to work with plastics because I wanted to make lights. Although plastic is the medium for much of my work, I see light as the actual outcome of the work. Simple light, artfully placed or cleverly included, can change the entire feeling of a space, and inspire warmth, happiness and wonder, as well as healing. I choose to work with plastics because they are readily available, and in order not to create demand for the production of more materials to clog up the earth’s arteries and the oceans, while also drawing attention to the ways that we wastefully use precious resources. Plastic is a completely undervalued resource which I have learnt has really amazing properties, but we use it once before throwing it away. So I like to draw attention to the many ways that we can use materials before discarding them. My favourite material to work with, though, is bamboo, because it is so versatile and a joy to work with. It is also organic and biodegradable, so when it has run its course, it returns to the earth without any damaging effects.


Describe the techniques you use most? How complicated are your methods, and why is each step necessary?

I currently cut plastics into forms that I can use to create the art works I make – predominantly sea creatures at this stage. While each step is fairly simple, and practically the creations are made of composite single items, it can be pretty complicated. Each bottle needs to be cut into ribbons, holes pierced at the end of each ribbon, and then strung together. The pool covers are all cut into appropriate shapes and then molded into the correct form before putting it together. Other bottles need to measured and cut to size and form, holes pierced through them to create the flower bases of the jellyfish, for example. I use the offcuts to create the seahorses. These start with a spine that is made from all the offcut bottle necks, attached to one another to form the curve of the creature. A five-litre water bottle is then attached for the stomach and to give the creature body. I string together the bottom of the bottles to add to the spine, and fuse these with strings of the pool cover off cuts to create a long mane. All of this is joined up to create structural integrity. Then I use the pool cover to create a skin, which is attached piece by piece to create the overall form. Cutting up all the various parts and pieces, making the holes, fitting it all together, is pretty time-consuming. Not to mention collecting enough of the right kinds of bottles at rubbish dumps, or sourcing the right sorts of pool covers from manufacturers’ offcuts, washing it all and so forth. Each step in the process is necessary to ensure that I can achieve the right kinds of light and colour combinations for the creations that I make, which also need to diffuse light in the magical and unearthly ways that I prefer, and to create beautiful and captivating items out of everyday items that are considered ugly waste after they are used. It’s not just making something out of plastic for the sake of it, but also to create beauty.


What technological tools do you use in your work?

I use simple tools – scissors, pliers, wire, a gas stove and a stapler. That’s about it. And my hands.


Who is the single other artist whose style you most admire, and why?

There is a team of Brazilian artists who work with upcycled materials profusely, and I find their work very inspiring. They are constantly coming up with new, amazing creations made from waste and all manner of materials – Nonon Creaturas. Nana Lavender is one of them, and she really draws attention to environmental issues through her art works, which use really simple waste materials to make such beautiful art works. I also love the work of the Ibuku Bali team under Elora Hardy, who create the most mind-blowing bamboo constructions. All of these artists feel into the materials that they work with and seek out the essence of the materials to bring these to light and inspire wonder, joy and beauty. I feel that there is so much trouble in the world, and if we have the opportunity to bring a sense of wonder and beauty to others in any way, we should do that. Of course critique and exposure of the darker sides of life are important too, but I feel if we can bring a small spark of beauty into our own and others’ lives then there can be a little less darkness – and if we can create beauty while at the same time shedding light on the dark aspects of life (like human impacts on the environment and so forth) even better. 


Galleries and other traditional means are only one way of marketing art. What do you believe are the most important other routes, and what is the most important insight you have gained in that area in your career?

I have found my engagement in festivals has been a forgiving and welcoming space to develop myself as an artist. In this context, one encounters well-established artists but there is also space to develop as a new-comer, while at the same time reaching broad audiences outside of very particular gallery spaces where you need to already have established your name. I also think that reaching out as an artist and just putting oneself out there for small-scale events which might not have a lot of budget, for the love of what one does, and for the opportunity to participate and engage with other artists is invaluable. This can work as a good entry point, especially when it comes to things like public art. However, it all does cost money, and it would be nice to have some kind of compensation, but in my experience most (not all) festival producers do try to support the artists as best they can with limited budget. I guess it’s the difference between having to make a living as an artist alone, or pursuing art for the love of it – both of which are valid approaches. Of course, the digital and social media world is another way of getting one’s imagery out there, and I have found chatting with people working with digital art and media helpful in terms of thinking of new ways to produce my art works.


Why do you create? What are your stated goals in producing art?

Creative expression is a necessity for me as a way of processing my thoughts and feelings. It is also a way of touching the source, of tapping into deep internal resources I’m not even aware exist until they emerge. It is also a way of accessing information that cannot be accessed through the intellect. And, instead of simply engaging in consumerist behaviour – consuming media, information and imagery fed to me from the outside – especially the media in all its forms – it is a way of creating, contributing and communicating. So on one level, art provides a way for me to access information otherwise unavailable, and communicating this with others, if they even see it. I create art in order to bring more beauty and love into the world. It is a process that allows me to access love, to express it and to share it.

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