East City Artnotes—Kirsty Little: Refuse? REFUSE 35B+

By Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D. on July 17, 2019

While investigating plastic pollution in the oceans, artist Kirsty Little was amazed at her results. The numbers were staggering.  Americans, alone, use approximately 35 billion plastic bottles and containers each year.  Since its invention, which completely transformed consumer culture, we have only increased our plastic footprint, particularly since major plastic production began in the 1940s and 1950s. [1] The change began when three giant polymer-based products appeared: Saran Wrap (polyvinylidene polyethylene), Tupperware (low-density polyethylene) and Lycra (polyurethane). (Yes, it’s in your clothes).  Plastic is everywhere.  And it never biodegrades.  It just eventually degrades into millions of nano plastic bits that are virtually invisible to the human eye but are eaten by plankton and other microorganisms in the ocean, and, through the food chain, end up on our plates.  (Yes, it’s in your food.)  We need to do something about this now, and Little is trying to draw our attention to this inalterable fact by creating a work that calls the viewer to recognize the problem.

Kirsty Little, Refuse?REFUSE: 35B+, Katzen Arts Center Exhibition, American University.  Photo: Bruce Guthrie.  Courtesy of the artist.

With the help of over 150 people, Little gathered enormous numbers of lids of plastic containers of every kind.  Just the lids or the tops.  Their contributions were so extensive that they filled up every room in her house. Think of what you use every day: cleaning sprays, laundry detergents, garden and flower sprays, anti-mosquito sprays…it goes on.  The problem is that plastic is the most useful material that has ever been invented.  But to see the innards of an albatross filled with plastic pieces it thought were food, or a turtle whose shell grew around a six-pack ring that it got caught in as a newborn, it is evident that the material has caused untold damage to the planet and its living creatures, including us.[2]  Little’s installation is meant to draw our minds to this problem and to activate us to do something about it.  This is not climate change, although that is only making the problem worse.  The lids collected which the artist used in this installation represent a very tiny portion of the garbage generated every second all over the world now.  Their bright colors and the decorative look of the work belie the seriousness of its intent.

Kirsty Little, Refuse?REFUSE: 35B+, Katzen Arts Center Exhibition, American University.  Photo: Bruce Guthrie.  Courtesy of the artist.


Refuse? REFUSE 35,000,000,000 + is installed in the long corridor before one arrives at the AU Art Museum, and is a Katzen Center Arts Center Exhibition.  It is depressing, but that’s the point.  The artist wants her viewers to think about how many plastic containers one uses and then discards.  She wants to sensitize them to the problem of consumption, use, and disposal of plastic containers.  It’s a hard, and somewhat frightening, but absolutely timely message.

Kirsty Little: Refuse? REFUSE: 35B+, is on view at The Katzen Arts Center Corridor, June 15 – August 11, 2019.  American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20016.  www.american.edu/museum

[1] Paul Hond, “Plastic, Plastic Everywhere,” Columbia Magazine, Summer 2019, pp. 16-23.  The first plastic product was invented by Leo Baekeland, who, in 1907 made Bakelite which was soon made into telephones, jewelry, combs, radios, lamps and poker chips.

[2] Hond, 2019.