It is hard to believe these beautiful intricate mandalas are made from recycled plastic bags. American artist Virginia Fleck’s work is stunningly beautiful to look at but also contains her humorous and subversive views on consumerism. We caught up with Virginia to find out just how many plastic bags it takes to make a mandala.
Please tell us a bit about your recycled plastic bag mandalas.
These mandalas are definitely rooted in the American woman’s handcraft tradition of quilt making, but when I construct with throw-away plastic bags instead of fabric, I’m adding a contemporary narrative that ensures that each piece is as layered with content as it is with color and material. These are intricately crafted, large scale works, some have 8 to 9 foot diameters.
The wall-sized mandalas reference painting, but are created by collaging pieces of detritus from our consumerist society with the intention of revealing the hidden beauty of the overlooked, disposable materials that continually pass through our hands. Our current plastic bag inundation is emblematic of our consumer society. These mandalas, each crafted from thousands of used plastic bags imprinted with familiar logos and slogans are meant to be both humorous and unnerving.
Why do you use plastic bags in your art?
In 2003 I had the opportunity to exhibit in Cuba through Gallery 106, which is an affiliate of Med-Aid, a Latin American medical aid organization. At the time, we could enter Cuba legally because we were bringing much needed medicines with us, but we couldn’t find a definitive answer regarding customs regulations as they pertained to bringing artwork in and out of Cuba. Ultimately, I decided to bring something that would fit into my suitcase and not present itself as art at all. I thought that an inflatable sculpture would be great but the cost of fabric was out of reach for me at the time. I had a “eureka moment” while looking in my pantry where, on the floor, there were plastic bags stuffed into plastic bags, waiting to be recycled. I figured out how to work with them and I created a room sized inflatable (“The dream dreamed me “) for this show made entirely out of plastic bags, taped and sewn together.
So at first, I used plastic bags out of necessity, but I immediately became very interested in the words and the pictures printed all over each bag. The logos, slogans and promises printed on plastic shopping bags, as well as the color and typography, are all the result of exhaustive market research by advertisers.
I think it’s important to know that we are continually monitored, manipulated and seduced by marketing campaigns carefully designed to appeal to our conceits as consumers. When working, I purposely employ the current tropes of graphic design within the mandala context. Armed with an Exacto knife, I have a lot of fun taking on and altering the consumer messages found on each bag. While indulging my inherent nature to be a wise-ass, I like to think that I am also chipping away at the more noble-mission of subverting these slogans and logos into a critique of their original purpose, which would be to seduce us into unconscious patterns of consumerist excess.
How do you make the mandalas?
The simplest way to explain my process is to say that I cut the plastic bags and then tape the pieces together. The cutting can get very sophisticated. I use many quilt making tools such as rotary cutters, shaped cutting templates, and circle cutters. I also use a beam compass for drawing large circles, various Exacto knives and a reducing glass (the opposite of a magnifying glass) for viewing and assessing the large highly patterned mandalas while they are in progress.
How long does it take to make a mandala?
It could take as little as 2 weeks but sometimes it takes 2 months depending on the complexity. I usually have 3 or 4 mandalas under construction at once. This way when I get to a stopping point with one piece I can just move on to another. I like to keep working.
How does the plastic bag fit into the sacredness of the mandala?
A mandala is not sacred per se. The mandala is a universal, non-religious tool for meditation, typically composed of highly decorative, symmetrical patterns. That said, mandalas do show up in about every religion or spiritual practice. The carefully chosen symbols and imagery of a traditional mandala imbue it with meaningfulness for the person meditating. Traditional meditation begins on the outer edges of the mandala with slow contemplation of the imagery that then progresses toward the center of the mandala where enlightenment could eventually be attained.
My meditation mandalas are made with plastic bag imagery, designed by advertisers to cause instant association with worldly acquisitions, so in my work I am looking at consumerism through the lens of a spiritual encounter.
Where do you find the plastic bags?
My neighbors, my friends and my relatives drop them at my doorstep. People mail them to me from other parts of the world. People are more than happy to unload their bags on me. I must have tens of thousands of bags at my studio.
How many plastic bags go into a mandala?
There is no nice, neat number I can give you. Hundreds? Thousands? Hundreds of Thousands?
Are your mandalas a commentary on the environment?
When I first made the inflatables in 2003 I had no idea that plastic bags were a problem in the environment. I saw my art, primarily as a critique of consumerism, after all, each bag is proof of a purchase.
Very soon after making that first inflatable I stumbled onto a website with a lot of information about plastic bags and the environment. I learned about the North Pacific Sub Tropical Gyre, and I saw the shocking numbers on worldwide bag consumption. The next piece I made was a 70ft temporary outdoor art installation called Laguna Gyre. My intent was to call attention to plastic bag pollution, and I did. It was made from 6,000 plastic bags that I obtained from a distributor. The bags were all seconds — misprints, water damaged or defective in someway and bound for the dumpster.
By the time I started making mandalas I was aware of the environmental impact of plastic bags and yes, my mandalas are definitely a commentary on the environment as well as a critique of our consumer culture, the two are inextricably linked.
Do you work with other recycled materials in your art?
I started dumpster diving and garbage picking in the 70s to furnish my first apartments and to make my first sculptures. I have been working with found objects since my art school days. It may have been a pragmatic decision at first — the price was right, but I immediately became interested in the huge quantities of discarded objects out there and their inherent associations. Over the years, I have worked with all kinds of discarded furniture and clothing, old birdcages, human hair and a whole lot of pop-tops from aluminum cans.