Re-imagining a culture of materiality and excess at Dream Farm Commons

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Did you know that 30% of garbage in landfills comes from packaging materials? The bags, boxes, bubble wrap and packing peanuts that are thrown away after delivering that shiny new thing — well, artists Andrea Nhuch and Shilpi Kumar do. In contemplation of materiality and excess, explored through a multimedia use of packaging materials, the artists’ exhibition, titled “Everything and More: Padding Ourselves from the Materiality of Excess” drew to a close on Thursday evening at Dream Farm Commons in Downtown Oakland. 

As the primary featured artist, Nhuch describes herself as a multidisciplinary visual artist who creates dynamic works of art in which disposable objects are re-imagined into opportunities for curiosity, awe and intimacy. On Thursday, the downstairs portion of the Commons was filled with Nhuch’s work, consisting of photographs, sculptures, installations and quilts. In atmospheric contrast, the upstairs space featured a singular piece of art by Kumar, in response to Nhuch’s representations. 

Covering the back wall downstairs was a five-part photo series, printed on large, white-framed paper and spaced out with linear intention. The series is named, “The End or the Beginning,” again, gesturing to a linear but also undecided directionality. The photos are reminiscent of a couple’s photo shoot, consisting of Nhuch in intimate poses with clear wrapping paper, bubble wrap and wire mesh. The series is nurturing and inviting, suggesting a congruency between Nhuch and the materials. 

In contrast to this intimacy, Nhuch’s sculpture art presented a far more stolid representation of material excess. Ceramic sculptures sat by the windowsill, created using a silicone mold of bubble wrap and folded into bucket-like forms, with bulbous bubbles and glossy paint. The unbendable, and therefore unchangeable, nature of these sculptures introduced both a new texture and a new relationship to the exhibition’s contemplation of packaged-based materiality. 

In contrast, the sculptures under the other windowsill were composed of mishmashed ceramic platters stacked on a cement base, connected by a metal rod through the middle. These were described by the curator as Nhuch’s interpretation of the weight of materiality, and indeed, felt far more impending than their counterparts. But again, they offered something new to the space — a rugged and honest display of vulnerability. 

Perhaps the most striking part of the exhibit was the three quilts made of packing materials hanging on two opposite walls. These quilts were a collage of clear, beige, blue, crinkly, smooth, metallic and neon package paper, sewn together with colorful, zigzagging strokes. Packing labels, Amazon’s “prime” logo and other miscellaneous, 2D packing materials were all sewn together in a mesmerizing dance of texture, dimensionality and color. By creating such beautiful pieces of art out of items most people consider to be garbage, Nhuch defies the narrative that packaging is ugly and undesirable. 

Upstairs, Kumar’s singular art installation offered a contrasting perspective to waste and packaged excess. Positioned for viewing with flowers, candles and seating was “Buried Truth,” a life-sized coffin constructed of cardboard, bubble wrap and packing peanuts. Inside, bubble wrap covered a bed of packing peanuts, accompanied by a plastic pillow of packing peanuts. Along the coffin’s interior, packing peanuts were arranged like flowers, while the interior lid was covered with white and green packing peanuts, arranged to form the phrase “CONSUMERISM IS KILLING US.” 

Like Nhuch, Kumar had reused packaging materials that are often discarded — but with an entirely different tone and topic of conversation. While Nhuch’s art displayed comfortability, and even intimacy, with packaging, Kumar’s piece expressed her extreme distress and discomfort with a culture of consumerism and excess that seems destined for destruction. In fact, Kumar explained at the gallery that she had carried those packing peanuts for three years, unable to recycle or reuse them, until “Buried Truth,” which was created specifically for the exhibition. 

“Everything and More: Padding Ourselves from the Materiality of Excess,” centered around the various ways we can and should re-image ourselves in relation to ‘garbage,’ or visually undesirable objects. Nhuch’s art displayed how beautiful and multifaceted packaging can be, while Kumar offered critical contemplation of the more insidious nature of excess. Together, both artists created a space for collective conversation and action, in which their art re-imaged a culture of excess and materiality. 

Nathalie Grogan covers visual art. Contact her at [email protected].