This essay is written in response to Marysa Dowling’s body of work Blue Plastic Bag. My reply to the work follows an ethnographic trajectory. By this I mean, my reading of the work is based on detailed observation of the interplay between Dowling’s portrait participants and a blue plastic bag. In adopting an ethnographic reading of the work, I aim to highlight the socio-cultural behaviours that are suggested by the participant’s performances in the photographs. Blue Plastic Bag is conceived and created by Dowling, a socially-engaged artist who has worked with a variety of community groups for over a decade, both nationally and internationally. Blue Plastic Bag evolved globally alongside her formal residency placements, in diverse cities such as Beirut, Cape Town, Havana, Kerala, Los Angeles, London, and cities throughout Mexico. The premise of the work uses a deliberately broad methodological framework, wherein the participant is invited to interact with a blue plastic bag in a location of their choosing. Each photograph includes the full body of the participant and accompanying bag, situated in their geographical locale. The participant is then asked to pass the object on to someone either ten years older or ten years younger than themselves, when the process recommences with an unrelated subject and the same blue plastic bag. This sets the parameters within which the work is made. Over the past ten years, Dowling has gathered a substantial body of work that sees one person in each photograph, interacting with the same innocuous blue plastic bag.
Beyond an aesthetic reading of the photograph, I am interested in how the bag is animated by the participant and in doing so, provokes questions about how the object is repurposed. By this I mean, we are familiar with the material culture of the bag, crafted for a specific usage. In this case, a cheaply made and marketed object designed to contain and transport items. Our expectations are that it is used as such. However, under Dowling’s direction, the participant is encouraged to disrupt the normative use of the bag, to reimagine it with a renewed purpose. Anthropologist Alfred Gell (1998), when writing about objects in Art and Agency, claims that every object has a social agency. According to Gell an inanimate object can only be understood by how it is handled and utilised. It is only when the object is enmeshed in an activity, Gell argues, that its agency can be understood. The idea of the agency of the object, rather than the object itself as being where socio-cultural insight is revealed is first pioneered by Malinowski (1922) in his seminal ethnographic work (known as the study of the Kula ring) in the Trobriand Islands, Papua New Guinea. Malinowski examines the integral relationship that shell necklaces and bracelets had at the time, in the inter-island exchange economy. He writes that they transcended their initial purpose and were used to facilitate trade, negotiate status and extend relationships. Although the bags in Dowling’s photographs aren’t used as a form of barter, the bag is however, repurposed beyond its vernacular use, as an omnidirectional prosthetic object, appropriated in creative acts of performance by the participant in the photograph. I am interested in examining the individualities and synergies of the bag’s re-appropriation. Anthropologist Daniel Miller (2008) suggests that objects talk, if we chose to listen to them. What I am suggesting here, is that in the hands of Dowling’s participants, the blue bag is audible, if we choose to listen.
In the titling of the photographs, we are told the name of the participant, the geographical location of the photograph, and the date it was made. No further information is revealed by text or title. We are left to ponder on the creative act with which Dowling’s participants perform with the blue plastic bag. For some participants, the bag becomes an appendage to the self, an item of clothing – a belt, hat, shoe-laces and in one image, a pair of underpants. For others, the bag is an object of play, a balloon, moustache, bow tie, an object of felicitation or comfort. In several of the photographs the bag takes on a socio-political agenda, where participants have imbued the political into their performance. Rafael V. Havana, Cuba 2009 and Jorge Havana, Cuba 2008, reimagine their newfound object as flags. Rafael’s bag holds the insignia of the Cuban flag, his back to the camera, he looks out to sea. Jorge stands, insurgently, waving his flag with authority as he looks down from a rooftop towards the camera. There is something distinctly revolutionary about both these performances. Nelson (2009) has a destructive engagement with his bag. Squatting behind, his bag has been set alight, he stares defiantly at the camera. Alejandro (2009) sits cross-legged and gazes up at the camera; his four bags neatly placed in front of him. They have taken on the shape of bowls and contain what might be herbs and spices. Nelson (2010) sits in a tree. He leans back, his gaze stretching beyond the frame of the photograph, the six blue bags tied to the branches of the tree in which he lays. They capture and contain the fruit borne of the tree. Arguably, these Cuban participants in their own ways all perform acts of protest. The question of whether these performances be a response to Cuba’s socio-political situation, or perhaps a statement about the embargo imposed by the United States since 1960, is left open to interpretation.
This essay asks the reader to engage with an alternative way of looking at the photographs from Blue Plastic Bag and question the motivations of each singular performance. As an ethnographic study, it speaks for the participants involved in the project, and its repetition across borders alludes to the broader cultural behaviours that transcend both the photographic frame and international boundaries. In the hands of each participant there is a creative act or performance, where new meaning is made. Each finds new ways with which to reimagine the relationship between subject and object, image and observer, allowing us to reconsider the signification of the photographic object in each instance. Within Dowling’s framework, subject and object become entwined as each new narrative is created. In enacting this process, the work is inscribed with a new social biography, acting as an interface for creativity, that speaks of the norms of our collective cultural endeavours.
Gell, A. (1988) Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. Oxford: Clarendon.
Malinoswki, B. (1922) Argonauts of the Western Pacific. London: Routledge
Miller, D. (2008) The Comfort of Things. Cambridge Oxford Boston: Polity Press