By Amanda Koehn

Plastic items discarded across Cleveland curbsides have been used to create art at the center of one of the most prestigious art exhibitions in the world this May. 

Thanks to a clever, timely and slightly lucky application to the U.S. State Department to organize the country’s pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale, the Ohio City art nonprofit SPACES was selected for the job. Opening May 20 and through Nov. 26 in Venice, Italy, the exhibition is a global opportunity for the city and artist-designers connected to the region.

For SPACES Executive Director Tizziana Baldenebro and Lauren Leving, curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, their first reaction to being selected for the honor was “disbelief,” they tell Canvas. The pair collaborated on the project’s proposal and together are curating the exhibition, titled “Everlasting Plastics.” SPACES is the exhibit’s commissioner. 

Tizziana Baldenebro and Lauren Leving. Photo / McKinley Wiley

With only about 10 months from being notified to the exhibit’s opening, SPACES had to fundraise, work alongside the artist-designers selected to create the exhibition, and manage the many details of curating a huge show focused on the ubiquitousness of plastic. 

“What we are really doing is bringing these conversations about these single-use experiences with materials … and critiquing that in a way that I think is really important in how art gets transformed or how people start to develop those auras of permanence,” Baldenebro says during a City Club of Cleveland talk at Happy Dog in Cleveland in February. 

Yeager. Photo courtesy of the artist.

While representing the United States as a whole, Northeast Ohio is represented throughout the exhibit. Cleveland sculptor Lauren Yeager is among the five artist-designers chosen by the curators to make work for it. Yeager’s pieces – which will take over the U.S. Pavilion courtyard – are made from plastic items repurposed from trash on the streets of Cleveland. Additionally, Case Western Reserve University students in the course Issues in 20th/21st Century Art, taught by professor Andrea Wolk Rager, are the programmatic partner on the exhibition. On a larger scale, the exhibition comments on the plastic industry in Ohio and beyond. It aims to portray the complexities of American disposability on an international stage. 

The application

Baldenebro and Leving met in Cleveland through a mutual connection, but they both have history in Chicago and with the Venice Architecture Biennale. Baldenebro worked on a project related to the biennale as a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Leving was an exhibition manager of Wrightwood 659 in Chicago, which brought the 2018 U.S. exhibit to that gallery after it debuted in Venice.

Their eventual proposal for “Everlasting Plastics” was one Baldenebro had been developing since 2019, when she was working on a show on plastics in Detroit. 

“There are a lot of artists and designers in the region who are working with plastic materials and waste materials in general,” Baldenebro says. “I had done a few studio visits with some architects and designers who are working a lot in these materials and had started developing a proposal. Even the title itself ‘Everlasting Plastics’ is this homage to Motown – this kind of romantic, love to hate it, hate to love it, toxic love story kind of thing.”

“Booster Seat Stack” by Lauren Yeager. Found object sculpture, commissioned for Sculpture Milwaukee 2021. Photo / James Prinz

The pair decided to rework the idea for the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale “just to see what the application process was like,” Leving says. Their proposal also addressed how reliance on plastic has changed since the COVID-19 pandemic, as the public has become more aware of the medical necessities plastic serves. It pitched artist-designers who each take different approaches to working with plastic to create work for the exhibition.

While many American organizations applying for biennale commissioner are major arts centers or universities that often have expansive resources to work on proposals like this, for Baldenebro and Leving, it amounted to working on their application during a few weeks of late nights. 

Then last July, the State Department contacted Baldenebro, asking her to join a video conference. She thought they would probably compliment their attempt and encourage them to try again in the future, she remembers. 

When she found out they in fact got it and relayed the news to Leving, their immediate reaction was disbelief, she says. Then, a combination of joy and panic at having to see their vision come to life on such a tight timeline. 

“It’s kind of a dual feeling like, ‘oh my God, this is the best feeling in the world,’ and ‘oh my God, we have so much work to do in so little time,’” Baldenebro says. 

The application’s timing this year was also a bit lucky, as the biennale’s all-encompassing theme is “the laboratory of the future” – fitting for SPACES’ ideas to explore the uses, reuses and effect of plastic now and in the future. 

Receiving the honor also required SPACES to quickly begin fundraising for the exhibition. The organization sought to raise $1 million to support it, in addition to a $375,000 grant from the State Department. 

The theme

Plastic is inherently full of contradictions, and “Everlasting Plastics” doesn’t give answers as much as it creates conversation. It’s a major source of pollution and contributes to throw-away culture – harming our planet on an immeasurable scale. It is also life supporting and incredibly convenient. Its footprint destroys ocean life, while also insulating our homes and making lifesaving medical care around the world feasible. The term plasticity, usually used in a positive sense, creates expectations for materials generally being flexible but sturdy.    

The exhibition isn’t meant to be a value judgment, but to showcase plastic’s many uses by designers with the aim that “people walk away with feeling invigorated about the ways we can be creative to continue to use materials, and also just be really conscious about disposability,” Leving says.  

“Cooler with Vessels” and “Dish Rack Tower” by Lauren Yeager. Found object sculpture, commissioned for Sculpture Milwaukee 2021. Photo / James Prinz

Venice specifically is a city known for tourism, and with tourists come plastic trash. In that sense, the exhibit is also ripe for the biennale in addressing the culture of waste that comes with travel, Leving says. It’s also a commentary on American culture, specifically our reliance on disposable plastic to sustain our demanding lifestyles. 

“I think that really there are no definitive answers – there are just real challenges that we need to understand in terms of how we address materials and material systems,” Baldenebro says.

The artist-designers making work for the exhibit were selected for their ability to work within a hybrid of art and architecture, and for their approach to critical issues like plastics in bold and exciting ways, Baldenebro says. They are: Cleveland’s Yeager; Xavi Aguirre, an assistant professor of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Simon Anton, a Detroit designer; Ang Li, an architect and assistant professor at Northeastern University in Boston; and Norman Teague, a Chicago designer and professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. 

Inside the process

On a Thursday afternoon at the beginning of February at SPACES, Baldenebro and Leving were joined by a class of CWRU students to evaluate texts submitted by writers to pair with the visual art-designs in the exhibit. Like the art, the writers explored the tension plastic creates from various standpoints.

The CWRU course – the programmatic partner on the exhibit – has Baldenebro and Leving as community partners for the class. “Issues in 20th/21st century art: Plastocene era: Art, plastics and the future of the planet” is taught by Andrea Wolk Rager, the Jesse Hauk Shera Associate Professor in the art history and art department.  

Leving says it’s been helpful to have the students lend their time, critical eyes and dialogue to zero in on important details of the exhibition. 

“The class is really invigorating because it is easy to get wrapped up in logistics when you are on such a compressed timeline,” Leving says. 

Tizziana Baldenebro, center, talks with Case Western Reserve University students about the Venice Biennale exhibition “Everlasting Plastics.” Professor Andrea Wolk Rager sits at the right. Photo / Amanda Koehn

Some of the written pieces discussed were decidedly anti-plastic, where others took a more neutral approach, and all were considered valuable. Rager discussed the way plastics make many inventions possible, for example, telephones. The group also talked about the dichotomy of artists generally wanting to be environmentally conscious, yet toxic chemicals are involved in artistic processes and contribute to the world’s waste problem. 

At the time of the class, Baldenebro and Leving were also preparing to visit Venice to scope out the exhibit’s spaces. The group discussed what they hoped the curators would come away with from the visit.

“In some ways … this is the hardest part for us – curating a space that we aren’t intimately familiar with,” Baldenebro says. 

An artist’s perspective

Yeager is the only artist in the exhibit from Northeast Ohio, although the other four have Midwest connections. She reuses items left as trash to make her pieces, challenging herself to make sculptures that don’t involve “having to make more stuff,” she says. 

“How can I re-envision these familiar objects in new configurations and new contexts, and re-examine those objects with less limitation?” she explains. 

Yeager sources her materials from street curbs, filling her car with what could be garbage but she makes into art. 

After working on the exhibit on “the tightest timeline imaginable for a such a big project” at Abattoir Gallery in Tremont, Yeager completed her work and was waiting on shipping to Venice, she tells Canvas in late February.

Yeager’s work will take over the courtyard of the U.S. Pavilion, even extending it forward a bit. It’s a lot of space, she explains. She approached her installation as a sculpture garden, a familiar experience for art appreciators that takes them on a well-flowing path – seeing the sculptures from a distance at different angles, and then up close with more detail. 

This major venue is an ideal stage for “seeing these things with fresh eyes,” she adds. The plastic items she uses are by nature American with their branding, representing our culture through the stuff we use and then discard.  

“I’m kind of trying to reference classical sculpture and classical architecture, as well as more modern sculpture and modern architecture – which are both movements (that are) quite familiar with an everyday public audience at this point,” Yeager says. “Both of those aesthetics also I find quite present in product design and these items that we encounter daily.”

The exhibition theme has also forced the artists and curators to analyze the life cycle of everything that goes into artwork – making it, as well as packing and shipping. They find themselves questioning how to further continue reusing the materials involved. 

“(Plastic waste is) not only an American issue, but maybe it’s an especially or exceptionally American approach – and it’s probably not a coincidence that we are the U.S. Pavilion tackling this subject matter,” Yeager says during the City Club talk. “A lot of it comes down to us prioritizing convenience in our lives and accessibility and affordability and convenience and manufacturability over other abilities.” 

NEO on an international stage

The exhibit’s Northeast Ohio ties do not end with SPACES, Yeager and CWRU. Another connection to the exhibition is the sizable plastics industry in Ohio. 

The Plastics Industry Association ranked Ohio as the No. 1 state in the nation for plastics employment in 2022. Ohio ranked at or near the top across various plastics industry sectors due to the state’s concentration of manufacturing activity, such as automobile and appliance assembly plants, according to the association.

To that end, SPACES seeks to include Northeast Ohio more broadly in the project’s impact. Baldenebro, Leving and the CWRU class are discussing how related conversations might take place in local symposia or townhalls, Baldenebro says. There are also plans to bring the exhibit to SPACES sometime after its run in Venice.

Baldenebro also notes SPACES’ longtime respected status both locally and throughout the country, which contributed to the organization being entrusted to create this kind of exhibition. Beginning as SPACES’ executive director in 2020, Baldenebro commends the organization’s past leaders and board for helping pave the way to Venice. 

“It’s a testament to a lot of the work that my predecessors have done and previous boards have done to build up the reputation of the organization,” she says. 

Moreover, SPACES is one of the oldest alternative arts organizations in Cleveland, and Baldenebro says the U.S. Pavilion in Venice puts an international spotlight on our city’s distinctive arts community. 

“When people look to SPACES and realize the work that we’re doing in international realms, we hope that they also look into the work of Cleveland and the amazing arts and culture communities here and that we’ve long been a part of and building support of,” she says. “So, our hope is that it puts an important spotlight on our city and really draws attention to the hard work that many of our creatives have been doing.”