It’s in the Bag—Quite Literally

Feature

Growing up in Colorado, New York-based artist Robin Frohardt was inspired to become a puppeteer not by cute children’s shows but by seeing a couple of puppet shows aimed at adults, including one based on Charles Bukowski poetry about necrophilia.

Frohardt was studying painting in school. “I never really knew what I wanted to paint,” she tells me from her home via Zoom. “I saw these really great puppet works for adults and had never seen anything like that before.

“I realised with puppetry I didn’t have to pick an art form because I get to write the stories and sculpt the puppets and paint their faces and perform them on stage—and so it’s kind of everything, and I didn’t have to choose.”

Frohardt is the creator of the massive ecological art installation Plastic Bag Store, in which all the branded ‘products’ and fruit and vegetables are made of single-use plastics, much of which she personally saved herself and from roommates in her share home.

Robin Frohardt, Plastic Bag Store. Photograph: Maria Baranova.

The store includes secret rooms and a puppet show with two main characters. One of these characters is living in the future, and trying to excavate a deluge of plastic junk, the significance of which he overestimates as having some sort of spiritual value.

A team of seven, including Frohardt, are bound for Australia on sub-class 408 temporary activity visas to reconstruct and work the store at Adelaide Festival, but each team member will undergo 14 days of solitary quarantine when they arrive in the country, due to Covid-19.

Frohardt intends to use this lonesome duration in a hotel room for creating and thinking about art, although she laughs that she’s a little concerned about the lack of fresh air.

The immediacy of life makes an impact on the artist, and her mundane shopping experiences inspired Plastic Bag Store. “I was watching them bag and triple bag my groceries that were already inside of bags, and it was like this Russian nesting doll of packaging,” she explains. “It struck me as humorous and absurd.”

Robin Frohardt, 2018. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

The store was first put on display in the heart of New York’s Times Square, on the corner of 47th Street and Seventh Avenue, beneath a huge LED sign. This was in March, but it was not opened until October because of social distancing requirements.

“It had a long time to generate a bit of intrigue,” says Frohardt. “A lot of people who came to our shows, it was the first time almost all of those people had been to any kind of public performance, so people were moved just to be part of something again.”

When it closed, the store was packed up into a single shipping container at Times Square—in plenty of time to reach Australia, given disruptions to shipping routes in this Covid-19 epoch—to be reconstructed in the disused Harris Scarfe department store in Adelaide’s Rundle Mall.

“Sea is the most environmentally friendly way to go, but of course there are environmental consequences to even what we’re doing, trying to make work of that,” says the ecologically-minded Frohardt.

Across her art, Frohardt typically uses recycled materials such as cardboard, plastic, wood and cloth. “I find there’s something freeing when you’re limited by material,” she says. “If you can make anything out of everything, I kind of feel stifled and don’t know where to start. If it can only be grocery products and plastic bags, I feel there’s infinite possibilities.”

In her 20s, while living in Oakland on the east side of San Francisco, Frohardt joined with sound designer Freddie Price—who worked on Plastic Bag Store—and a couple of other artists to found Apocalypse Puppet Theatre, which ran from 2005 to 2010, building puppets and performing shows in a mobile theatre that operated out of a wagon pulled by bicycles.

Robin Frohardt, Plastic Bag Store. Photograph: Maria Baranova.

“It was DIY and renegade and we were making the shows for ourselves and performing them in the street and at festivals,” Frohardt recalls. “It was a great start to my career.”

In 2013, Frohardt created a theatre work called The Pigeoning, which The New York Times reviewed as a “tender, fantastical symphony of the imagination about a man who wants simply to be left in peace, to work at his tidy desk or eat a sandwich unbothered on a park bench”.

Frohardt’s continuous thread has been concern for the state of the planet. “I grew up camping and spending time in the Colorado mountains and I’ve always loved nature,” she says.

“Coming of age at a time that climate change was starting to become part of our collective understanding has definitely influenced me.

“I definitely feel powerless to make a dent,” she laughs, “and I definitely don’t want to preach or assume that I have any answers. I’m just trying to ask interesting, funny questions.”

Plastic Bag Store
Robin Frohardt
Adelaide Festival
23 February—14 March
(Check the Adelaide Festival website for performance times: adelaidefestival.com.au)

This article was originally published in the March/April 2021 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Steve Dow