‘The Plastic Bag Store’ crafts a magical world out of waste

‘The Plastic Bag Store’ crafts a magical world out of waste

Plastic bags are fodder for art in playwright and puppet designer Robin Frohardt‘s grocery store. At first blush, the gleaming shelves stocked at 20 Times Square hold familiar items. But upon a closer look, it becomes clear that these boxes of crackers, trays of cupcakes and cartons of milk are made of inedible plastic bags, warped intricately by the hands of a master artisan to deceive as well as delight.

Installation shot of "The Plastic Bag Store." Photo: Maria Baranova-Suzuki.
Installation shot of “The Plastic Bag Store.” Photo: Maria Baranova-Suzuki.

On view through Nov. 7 by free timed-ticket entry, the exhibition — aptly titled “The Plastic Bag Store” — aims to use the playful nature of its designs to encourage “a different way of thinking about the foreverness of plastic” and “the permanence of the disposable.”

“It is my attempt to make something authentic and human from that which is mass-produced,” Frohardt said in a statement about the project, which is produced by Pomegranate Arts. “There is great humor to be found in the pitfalls of capitalism, and I find that humor and satire can be powerful tools for social criticism especially with issues that feel too sad and overwhelming to confront directly.”

Cigarette cartons included in "The Plastic Bag Store" installation. Photo: Maria Baranova-Suzuki.
Cigarette cartons included in “The Plastic Bag Store” installation. Photo: Maria Baranova-Suzuki.
Bananas and tomatoes crafted by Robin Frohardt out of plastic bags. Photo: Maria Baranova-Suzuki.
Bananas and tomatoes crafted by Robin Frohardt out of plastic bags. Photo: Maria Baranova-Suzuki.

Uncanny in their resemblance to real food products, the creations held within the multi-media installation originate from single-use plastic bags and waste assembled by Frohardt for about a year. With brand names such as “Yucky Shards,” “Shredded Waste” and “American Plastic,” a vein of dark humor underscores the light-hearted appearance of the public art initiative.

Coupled with magazines carrying catch-phrases such as “Desserts to die for” and fruit crafted from bags, the installation contains within it the possibility of inducing a gagging rash of anxiety at the thought of ingesting all of this plastic.

Magazines in "The Plastic Bag Store" installation. Photo: Maria Baranova-Suzuki.
Magazines in “The Plastic Bag Store” installation. Photo: Maria Baranova-Suzuki.

“Within the unassuming, amusing and completely illogical proposal of a ‘plastic bag store,’ Robin is addressing capitalism, consumerism, and climate change, and asking big questions about how what we value the least can become our most consequential inheritance,” said Jean Cooney, director of Times Square Arts, which commissioned the project.

Originally slated to open in March, “The Plastic Bag Store” was delayed as the COVID-19 health crisis took a grip on the city. The new opening of the exhibition coincides with New York’s reinstatement of its plastic bag ban, enacted with the goal of helping to curb the state’s use of an estimated 23 billion plastic bags annually.

Installation shot of "The Plastic Bag Store" installation. Photo: Maria Baranova-Suzuki.
Installation shot of “The Plastic Bag Store” installation. Photo: Maria Baranova-Suzuki.

With the delayed opening of the store came a shift in its presentation, necessitated by the current health landscape. The original iteration of the installation was meant to include a live show element, complete with a cast of six performers and an audience of 50 people.

“Clearly that is not possible anymore,” Frohardt told ALL ARTS over email. “We have transformed the live show into a film, and merged live performance elements and creative projection design to make the film experience feel as live and as immersive as possible.”

What visitors to the exhibition can expect is a newly staged vision of the piece, complete with filmed puppetry and shadowplay rather than a fully-live performance. The timed-ticket entrance to the installation admits a dozen audience members at once for the altered hour-long show.

Film still from "The Plastic Bag Store" installation.
Film still from “The Plastic Bag Store” installation.

“I really love the puppets and sets we made for the film. My favorite is all of the cardboard animation,” Frohardt said. “In the store, my favorite object is the salmon. The bag color for the meat and skin are so perfect.”

Produced by Pomegranate Arts, the immersive installation has shifted Frohardt’s gaze in multiple ways.

“The project has changed the way I look at everything in the grocery store,” the director told ALL ARTS. “It’s stressful trying to find food that isn’t encased in plastic.”

Installation shot of "The Plastic Bag Store" installation. Photo: Maria Baranova-Suzuki.
Installation shot of “The Plastic Bag Store” installation. Photo: Maria Baranova-Suzuki.

But beyond the potential waste produced for the sake of consumer convenience, Frohardt explained that grocery stores now hold an artistic allure.

“It’s also overwhelming because I am seeing all the different products that I have yet to make for the store,” she said. “I am always getting more ideas for stuff to add to my project when I am in the grocery store.”

The Plastic Bag Store” is on view at 20 Times Square through Nov. 7. Registration information can be found here.

Top Image: Robin Frohardt, creator of "The Plastic Bag Store." Photo: Maria Baranova-Suzuki.