Transforming Plastic Waste into Art: Madelon Vriesendorp’s Passion for Keeping Everything | Art and Design

“I just can’t throw anything away,” confesses Madelon Vriesendorp. “I would feel so guilty discarding all this beautiful milky plastic.” The Dutch artist stands beside a row of plastic milk bottles that she has transformed into a mysterious cast of characters through slicing, splicing, and manipulation during the pandemic lockdowns. These creations now illuminate from below, resembling precious objects in a museum. One bottle resembles an African tribal mask, complete with furrowed brow and wiry hair. Another exudes the air of a bossy teacher, with handles forming the shape of hands on hips. A third bears a striking resemblance to a Japanese warlord, although Vriesendorp playfully insists it is a French nun carrying a handbag. “If these characters are eventually thrown away,” she quips, “at least the fish will have something nice to look at.”

Plastic Surgery, part of Cosmic Housework at The Cosmic House. Photograph: Thierry Bal

Not many people perceive plastic milk bottles as possessing sculptural curves and delicate pallor as they toss them into the recycling bin. However, Vriesendorp sees the world differently. To her, the plastic balls in roll-on deodorants are enlarged pearls that can be strung together to create a necklace. By artfully slicing a green plastic mushroom container with a scalpel, she transforms it into an exotic mutant beetle. Group a few plastic plug protectors together, and you have a miniature skyline of skyscrapers, ready to be encased in a faceted crystal dome (which, in reality, is a disposable trifle bowl). One can only imagine what she could do if given free rein on the vast Pacific garbage patch.

Vriesendorp’s work transcends mere upcycling; it is a process of transmutation, infusing domestic odds and ends with new meanings and personalities through surrealist alchemy. “This was an incredible find!” she exclaims, holding up a bottle of toilet cleaner that she transformed into a person hunched over their phone by adding a tiny pair of hands. “It already had arms! Can you believe it? It’s as if Waitrose made it just for me.”

These intriguing creations now inhabit the intimate corners and crevices of the Cosmic House, the former residence of the late architectural theorist and garden designer Charles Jencks in Holland Park, London. This exhibition, entitled Cosmic Housework, pays homage to Vriesendorp’s close friendship and collaboration with Jencks, whom she met in the 1970s through her then-husband, architect Rem Koolhaas. Vriesendorp co-founded the Office for Metropolitan Architecture with Koolhaas. Jencks’s house serves as a befitting venue, embodying a riotous manifesto of postmodernism and ad-hocism. The house overflows with architectural inside jokes and cosmic symbolism, with every surface adorned with collected trinkets. Like Vriesendorp, Jencks delighted in elevating everyday, off-the-shelf items, such as painting MDF to resemble marble or fashioning a Hindu-esque frieze out of wooden cooking spoons in the kitchen. Even his filing cabinets in his study were dressed up as miniature skyscrapers, or “slide-scrapers,” housing his extensive slide collection.

Swan Lake. Photograph: Thierry Bal

Their collaboration began serendipitously in the 1990s. “We were having dinner at Charlie’s house,” Vriesendorp recalls. “I saw his model of the Parco Portello landscape project he was working on in Milan and told him it was no good. So he asked if I could start working on it the next day.”

Fitting venue … The Cosmic House. Photograph: ©Sue Barr

Jencks was a brilliant writer and cosmologist but lacked skill in model making. He also had little interest in the practical aspects of bringing his designs to life. Vriesendorp created Plasticine models for his cosmic landscapes, which are on display in the house. These include the Garden of Cosmic Speculation, co-designed with Jencks’s wife, Maggie Keswick Jencks, on their family land in Portrack, Scotland, and the mammarian mounds of Northumberlandia, also known as the “Lady of the North,” located near a Newcastle open-cast mine. Vriesendorp downplays her role, but it is evident that their collaboration was a two-way street. She helped give form to Jencks’s abstract ideas.

“My role was to get him to stop,” she chuckles. “He always wanted to add more, with multiple focal points scattered around. In his garden, he was the master of the universe, constantly adding and subtracting, translating the cosmos into little bushes and stones. It was so crazy.”

She has little interest in theorizing her own work. When asked about her motivation, she grins and shrugs. “No reason. It’s just pure enjoyment. I made a lot of these things to entertain the kids in my neighborhood.”

Body Pillows, Clock, and Dice from the Mind Game series. Photograph: Thierry Bal

The enjoyment is infectious. Throughout the house, one encounters giant cardboard dice, a foot, a dog, and a spotted golden bean, among other props. These are scaled-up versions of pieces from her Mind Game, a pseudo-psychoanalysis table game that she plays with visitors to her home. She asks guests to select miniature items and arrange them in a tableau, from which she deduces a tarot-like reading. “Once, a famous museum director played the game,” she recounts. He chose a black egg and positioned it in front of a disembodied woman’s torso. “It revealed so much about his attitude. He was terrible with women, always leaving them with the children.”

skip past newsletter promotionGet our weekly pop culture email, delivered free to your inbox each Friday”,”newsletterId”:”the-guide-staying-in”,”successDescription”:”Get our weekly pop culture email, delivered free to your inbox each Friday”}” clientOnly config=”{“renderingTarget”:”Web”}”>Privacy Notice: Newsletters may contain info about charities, online ads, and content funded by outside parties. For more information see our Privacy Policy. We use Google reCaptcha to protect our website and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.after newsletter promotionEszter Steierhoffer, director of the Jencks Foundation, seeks to highlight the often overlooked contributions of women to the Cosmic House program. The first artist in residence, Marysia Lewandowska, focused on showcasing the vital role of Maggie Keswick Jencks in Charles’s work, bringing her presence to life through voice recordings throughout the house. The title of Vriesendorp’s exhibition speaks volumes. “Housework is the work we do so that we can pursue our real work,” she explains. “It is often carried out by women and often goes unnoticed.” However, she insists that Jencks never belittled her contributions.

Enlightened Gamers, at The Cosmic House. Photograph: Thierry Bal

One of Vriesendorp’s paintings adorns the cover of Jencks’s 2011 book, The Story of Post-Modernism, which also features her whimsical drawings that animate his enigmatic ideas of “enigmatic signifiers.” These drawings, on display upstairs, depict how the forms of iconic buildings, such as Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim and Norman Foster’s “Gherkin,” hint at other objects, like a woman lying down or a bulbous sex toy. “We laughed the entire time,” she recalls. “He would talk, and I would draw my cartoons. We had so much fun.”

Laughter echoes throughout the house, whether in the form of milk bottle swans adorning Jencks’s baroque whirlpool bath or scattered dismembered limb cushions in the living room or the “handelier” hanging at the top of the staircase. The house brims with playful puns. A giant cardboard foot props open a door downstairs. “It’s a foot in the door!” Vriesendorp chuckles. “Charles would have loved that.” After all, this is the man who designed lamps with coiled springs in his “spring” themed living room and who used to tell visitors, “If you can’t handle the kitsch, get out of the kitchen.”

Like a surrealist Easter egg hunt, there are countless discoveries awaiting in every corner. A blown egg with a screaming face emerges from a small box on a windowsill (“that’s Ted Cruz drowning”), a devil’s face lurks in a window, and a pig made out of a toilet roll peers out from a honey bottle like a haunted, pickled specimen. But for Vriesendorp, it is still not enough.

“I brought so much stuff here from my house, and it still looks empty,” she sighs. “And my house looks just as bursting at the seams as ever.”


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