Isabella Dobson ’21 is the Summer 2020 Nancy Horton Bartels ’48 Scholar for Collections at the Johnson.

Descending from the ceiling in a cascade of plastic, Tony Feher transforms a material normally regarded as a waste product into a delicate work of art. With small bottles affixed to the top of the hanging chain, progressively increasing in volume as they spiral toward the ground, this work recalls the conical shape of a stately pine tree. The stray wires that secure the bottles to the chain suggest errant twigs, and the slight tilt of the surface of the water/alcohol mixture in the bottles’ base adds more layers of sharp diagonals to the branching boughs of plastic. Feher is not known for outspoken environmentalism, but I could not help but notice the ironic statement inherent in the use of man-made materials to fashion such an organic form, especially when that material is one so chemically derived and artificial as plastic.

Before his death in 2016, Feher mined the ordinary for sculptural material, utilizing marbles, sponges, and cardboard in addition to bottles of all shapes and sizes. While the elevation of ordinary, ready-made objects to aesthetic ends recalls the work of Marcel Duchamp, Feher’s approach to their assembly and occupation of space, and thus their visual output, adheres more closely to the tenets of minimalism. Instead of using artistic media to depict a form in the real world, such as a human figure or landscape, minimalist artists use the physical forms themselves to create. Feher explained that his work, in particular his hanging sculptures, is characterized by “open-endedness,” occupying a space often ignored by other artists. This novel occupation of lofty spaces encourages viewers to notice the work and then formulate their own reactions and stories based on the objects themselves, not on comparisons to an ideal form.

Feher’s exaltation of the everyday is especially poignant at this moment because current pandemic restrictions have forced us to shelter in place and become more intimately aware of the slower rhythm of life at home. Since I started working from home back in March, I have noticed myself become more attuned to the less obvious arrangement and movement of objects in my own household: a pink straw in the sink means my sister made iced coffee, an absent key lanyard tells me she’s not at home.

Along with an increased awareness of the quotidian, the pandemic has heightened the visibility of environmental issues, whether they are positive, such as decreased vehicle emissions resulting from homebound workers, or negative ones, such as increased disposal of single-use masks and gloves to protect individuals from contracting COVID-19. Seen through this lens, the 2004 sculpture exemplifies the “open-endedness” of Feher’s work; it is not just an ode to the everyday object, but an act of environmental consciousness.

This sculpture came to mind as I watched The Story of Plastic, a documentary directed by Deia Schlosberg for the nonprofit Story of Stuff Project. As a part of their continued effort to increase awareness of and promote sustainable practices within the Museum and among their employees, the Johnson’s Green Team recently facilitated a special online screening of the film for Museum staff and interns.

As I watched a bird fly with a streamer of plastic stuck to its tail and people fishing used diapers out of a river in the film, I thought about how easily Feher marries natural form and unnatural material when—in real life—plastic production and disposal has had such a debilitating effect on the health of the environment and the life forms that inhabit it. Though his work was assembled, and subsequently acquired by the Johnson, in 2004, Feher’s materials continue to resonate in current environmental discussions around plastic pollution.