Plastic Trees

By Alex Talbott

Trees don’t grow horizontally. These slender trunks jut out from the sterile flat of the white cube wall, no roots here. Caught on the branches, plastic bags are both kitsch blossom and trapped trash. The drably named Plastic Tree C seems to epitomize the way in which artist Pascale Marthine Tayou positions himself. Unwilling to be labelled a ‘militant ecologist’ he prefers the term ‘observer’, using his work to point out incoherence, contradictions and problems which lurk beneath our daily actions.


A tangled web of petrol pump lines and nozzles creates a cartoon like effect in his piece Octopus. This mess of tubing is darkly mocking, taken away from the garage environment these lines become floppy and non-threatening, and yet the nozzle -  more than anything else- is reminiscent of a gun.


So it is that beneath the playfulness of Tayou’s material choices, is a lurking question about how we have reached a point in the Global North where those objects we have created to make our lives easier have become symbols of unease – associated with an environmental exploitation that is just far enough away that we can turn our backs on. The quotidian is on the edge of being dystopian, and soon it’s going to hit us in the face – making ‘boomerang’, the title of Tayou’s last show so pertinent.  Somehow though, Tayou avoids moralizing finger pointing in these statements, he does pass judgment, but does so knowing he is part of the problem – we all are.


Tayou confronts more than our environmental woes, because of course it’s not that simple. He simultaneously shines light on post-colonial feeling, gender politics and the kind of voicelessness that is so often the result of our grapple for more. Oil Pipeline, uses plastic piping to weave in-between pieces with haphazard annotations at various points recording facts about the most polluted places in the world. These scribbled facts and muddled annotations, so easily overlooked seem to parallel our ability to do the very same with the subject matter – forget it, we can’t read it properly let’s move on.


His piece, The Falling House, a reference to Chinua Achebe’s novel ‘Things Fall Apart’, positions a shed like structure on its head. The outside walls are covered with a collage of pictures, images of Euro notes combine with photographs of West African wooden sculptures and a makeshift sign for a ‘salon de coiffure’. The viewer is forced to manoeuvre himself around this upturned structure, which is removed of all traces of domesticity and instead hovers precariously from the ceiling. Our history and our present are deeply entwined and Tayou’s choices recognise the complexity of the relationships that are emerging as a result.


Essentially Tayou isn’t afraid of tackling the mess we are creating. He knows our own lives are chaotic but doesn’t let us off the hook, refusing to allow our continuing blindness when it comes to the contradictions between our lifestyles and our ambitions for the future of this planet – and all this with the absurdity of a petrol pump octopus.

Photo by Andrea Rossetti / Courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins.

Alex Talbott has lived and worked in Brussels for the last year and a half in the philanthropic sector.


Prior to that she studied History of Art at Oxford. Next year she will return to the UK to study Arts and Cultural Management at Kings College London.

© Anthropocene Magazine 2016