Books Editor Sofia Stephens reflects on the visual and cultural significance of plastic bags.
When I think about plastic bags, I think about pollution: turtles suffocated by straws, dolphins choking on carrier bags, a more realistic version of Finding Nemo where Dory is permanently disfigured by a plastic net. I do not, for instance, think of the artistic and cultural value that plastic bags may have. And, I definitely do not think of them as an instrument capable of highlighting and defining human history. It’s perhaps time to reconsider this.
Katrina Cobain is the Glasgow-based artist behind the first-ever Plastic Bag Museum. The collection, which is exhibited online, features around 35 plastic carrier bags from different years and countries. The oldest one dates back to the 1970s, but many of them will be familiar to people today.
From style changes reflecting the evolution of design to downright makeovers, the British High Street branch of the exhibition takes us on a trip to the 80s and 90s. Well-known brands like Primark, WH Smith, and Asda had yet to commit to their iconic fonts, like teenagers trying to settle on a hair colour. The sober and minimalistic style that features on the thousands of bags that we all keep under the sink, clashes vividly with the grunge hip-hop-y motif that decorates the antique bags Cobain has collected.
The evolution of graphic design is especially evident: as the Co-op plastic bag celebrating the new millennium pops with psychedelic colour, 2020’s soberly compostable green Co-op bag is brutally indicative of the glow down we’ve all had.
The trip down memory lane continues with the limited edition Historical Events bags, celebrating occasions such as the turn of the century, Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s royal wedding, and more peculiar occurrences such as the 2001 population census (why? Not sure).
An exotic touch is given by the European selection of plastic bags, some of which the average university student may recognise from their interrailing summer. The black Kilo Shop plastic bag, for example, immediately reminded me of happier times spent digging through every Kilo Shop in Paris looking for bargains while munching on overpriced pain au chocolat. This is perhaps just one example of how something as banal as a plastic bag can revive memories and meaning that differ individually from one person to the next, in a way that is remarkably similar to art.
A whole branch of the exhibition is dedicated to bags advertising tobacco brands, inviting a reflection of just how much advertising has changed over the years in relation to consumer trends. Another example of this is a noticeable shift towards bags made out of more eco-friendly materials. As our preferences and environmental consciousness evolved throughout the years, so did the plastic bags we packed our groceries in.
As there may come a day when plastic bags will become obsolete, which is definitely a blessing environmentally, the Plastic Bag Museum allows us to briefly adopt a different perspective and consider what they say about our society, reminiscing as we evolve.
The exhibition aims to become a physical one as soon as the health crisis permits it, showcasing an ever-growing collection representative of our social and cultural history. It is currently available online here.