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The question of how art engages capitalist excess feels only more charged as Covid-19 amplifies resource scarcity for so many. In their current show, cheekily-titled Under / Over, Marta attempts to address this very kind of corporatized waste. In partnership with Plant Paper, a subscription-based company that manufactures sustainable bamboo toilet paper, the gallery commissioned some 50 artists, designers, and studios to rethink the design of the toilet paper holder. The show asks whether meaningfully considering the vessel itself can translate to a more conscientious relationship with the material it contains. (Extraordinarily, the exhibition was conceived in December, pre-pandemic T.P. shortages, and is a collaboration, rather than a sponsorship, though the show inevitably promotes Plant Paper.) Globally, 27 thousand bastardized trees—now fat, bleach-white rolls—are flushed down the world’s toilets each day. Highlighting not only environmental concerns, the press release notes that anti-democratic, anti-environmental mega-conglomerate Koch Industries dominates 29% of the T.P. market in North America.1
While handmade, bespoke objects certainly have a smaller carbon footprint than their corporate counterparts, Under / Over’s environmental ambition doesn’t fully extend to the works on view, leading to the somewhat antithetical suggestion that one should purchase an expensive, non-sustainable vessel as a reminder to fill it with expensive, sustainable toilet paper. While altogether joyful to explore—the works are bright, absurd, and funny—Under / Over ultimately proposes an environmental design solution for the toilet paper, but only a design solution for the holder. Still, art fundamentally isn’t wasteful, and criticism over the ultimately trivial “waste” created by the exhibition traffics in the same kind of guilt that companies hoist onto consumers (while just 20 corporations remain responsible for one-third of global carbon emissions2).
The iterations range in functionality and approach, offering a toilet paper holder for every occasion: one for your sex dungeon, which strings the roll on a thick chain (Chen Chen and Kai Williams, Kraptonite, 2020); one for your cool, modernist highrise (Max Enrich’s sleek-but-obtrusive steel box, A Space Entirely Devoid of Matter, 2020); and one rendered in delicate, blue-and-white porcelain to accompany your porcelain throne (Tyler Hays, BDDW Toilet Paper Holder, 2020). WeShouldDoItAll’s Individualism (2020) provides a convenient mount for the iPhone that you were probably already using while on the toilet. Constructed from a modified selfie stick, the work serves as a menacing reminder of the massive violations of privacy we regularly invite into our most private spaces. There’s a generative attitude at play across the works: central to the very spirit of innovation is the notion that there may be better solutions, still, to problems we don’t really have.
Visitors depart the exhibition with a roll of their own (perhaps a now-familiar parting gift, if you ordered takeout in the early months of quarantine). But those who buy these works will be left to their own devices once their gifted roll runs out, leaving the decision of where to source toilet paper up to the individuals and institutions who acquire them (and their respective budgets). Particularly now, with the country driven into a major recession, a consumer-driven, bottom-up environmentalism is not only a big ask (i.e., Plant Paper’s $24 for 16 rolls), but for many, an unattainable one. Still, we at the proverbial bottom must call for meaningful change, and when we can, utilize our purchasing power to political ends. In offering lighthearted and earnest solutions to a non-problem (design of the toilet paper holder), the works in Under / Over champion making for the sake of making and approach a serious problem (environmental waste) without the accompanying institutional self-seriousness.
Under / Over runs from September 10–November 1, 2020 at Marta (1545 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90026).