In Wallace Stevens’s poem “The Snow Man” (1926), nature’s indifference to humanity is perceived as if through the lens of nature itself rather than human eyes. The snowman is not human but made in human form, permitting him an intimation of perception. Dan Peterman’s installation La Plage (Plastic Bones) involved a similar double perspective, its “bones” constructed from uniform chunks of recycled plastic. Each module widens slightly at each end, yielding a form that would fit snugly in the palm of your hand. The recycling process has given a synthetic material the patina of nature, making it seem simultaneously organic and man-made.
Peterman tiled these objects over the floor of two of the gallery rooms. The density of the structure held them in place, but they shifted slightly as you stepped on them, a physical equivalent of the perceptual disorientation of being unable to quite identify the material you were walking on. In the first room, the tiling was tightly packed and almost rigid; in the adjoining space, it loosened to resemble the weave of a canvas. Although the modules looked like they might be coarse bars of soap—mostly gray, punctuated by bright red or turquoise—they clicked together like bricks. The reference to Carl Andre’s modular floor works was obvious, but so was Peterman’s variation on them. Andre’s natural materials-travertine marble, copper or basalt-are translated into man-made units by industrial cutting and tiling. Peterman reversed the conceit: a manufactured material acquired natural characteristics through the recycling process. To paraphrase Jackson Pollock’s famous remark, we are also nature, and our technologies-which invent synthetic polymers, make functional objects out of them and ultimately reduce the used objects to this residue-can be defined as natural systems to which basic molecules have been submitted.
Of course, the module, as distinct from its material, is Peterman’s, and he gently coaxed symbolic resonances out of its cartoonish resemblance to a dog’s bone. Forming a surrogate parquet (over the real parquet of Klosterfelde’s interior), the tiling suggested the gray surface of a shingle beach, in which pebbles, ceramic shards and bone are indistinguishable. Peterman has pitched plastic—the most modern of materials and notoriously non-biodegradable—as a metaphor for fossils, relics of life with an antiquity beyond our imaginative grasp. He thus effectively humanizes a material that Norman Mailer once characterized as anti-human and cancer-inducing, even making it synonymous with our bodily substance.
If the bone form was humanizing, it also suggested mortality. The third room of the gallery was empty except for a few bone towers, apparently constructed by the gallerist’s children. Liberated from the tile structure, the plastic appeared more morbidly skeletal, a material we have made and have no more use for, but which will nevertheless outlast us all.
Photo: View of Dan Peterman’s installation La Plage (Plastic Bones), 2011, post-consumer reprocessed plastic; at Klosterfelde.