In “Milky Way,” an art installation crafted from recycled plastic milk jugs, artist Weiling He, an associate professor of architecture at Texas A&M University, demonstrates how “design and labor can transform common household waste — the ugly — into the beautiful.”
The installation, a community art project realized with help from a host of volunteers, debuted at a public reception Dec. 4 at the Brazos Valley African-American Museum, 500 West Pruitt St. in Bryan.
The project, orchestrated by the Texas A&M College of Architecture Diversity Council in partnership with the museum, will be on exhibit through January 2016.
Crafted from 2,500 used milk jugs cut into more than 10,000 pieces, fastened together and installed on the museum’s patio, He said “Milky Way” explores aesthetic reassignment. It showcases the potential for discarded objects, even trash, to assume aesthetic qualities that evoke pleasure.
“Mass-produced plastic milk jugs become waste after their use, but, held up to the light, they are transparent, bright, and even delicate and airy when clustered,” she said. “Is there a way to give discarded jugs a new life? Are the jugs waste, or have we just not found a way to redirect the ugly to the beautiful?”
The process of transforming everyday objects into art leads one to ponder societal values, said He. “Can the mundane become valuable?” she asked. “Is value inherent? Is recycling an economic solution or an ethical position?”
Volunteers from throughout the Brazos Valley community, including students from Bryan and College Station high schools and middle schools, Texas A&M students and folks affiliated with the museum, were involved in the collecting, preparing and assembling of materials for the installation.
Volunteers started collecting and cleaning the milk jugs for the project more than a year before it was assembled and installed at the museum.
As the jugs were collected, Jim Titus, woodshop supervisor for the College of Architecture, prepared each piece, strategically cutting the jugs to He’s specifications.
For 14 Saturdays leading up to the Dec. 4 unveiling, volunteers gathered at the museum to punch holes in the plastic pieces that facilitate the cords and zip ties holding the installation together.
The volunteers were organized by He, Oliver Sadberry, curator of the museum, and Cecilia Giusti, the college of architecture’s associate dean for outreach and diversity. Sadberry and Giusti partnered to curate the project.
Once woven together, He’s final “Milky Way” design was installed over the museum’s patio with engineering oversight from John Nichols, an associate professor of construction science who devised a system for hoisting the artwork into place.
He and Nichols also collaborated to create “Plastic Poetry,” a massive piece that consisted of 14,000 plastic grocery bags that was installed on the University of Texas campus in 2013.
In March 2014, He created another art installation using large plastic jugs, “Cloud Igloo,” at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm, Sweden.