DUSSELDORF, GERMANY — Plastic gets praised for making cars lighter and hammered for being hard to recycle.
But a museum in Dusseldorf would like it to get some recognition from a new source: the avant-garde of the art world.
Dusseldorf, the city that hosts the world's largest plastics trade fair every three years, opened the Kunststoff Museum in late October, dedicated to the history of plastics in everyday life and featuring an exhibit on the use of plastic in art.
The art exhibit has some unusual entries: a bundle of magazines wrapped in polyethylene by Christo und Jeanne-Claude, the artist famous for wrapping entire buildings; a plastic seascape by pop artist Roy Lichtenstein; and foam and fiberglass figures with webbed feet and hands scaling the outside of the building.
Plastic provides some of the artists with newfound flexibility and deserves attention in the art world, said Wolfgang Schepers, curator of the museum's art exhibit, an art historian and a board member of the museum.
The museum has one of the oldest works of art in plastic, a 1939 piece called Space Modulator by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, who fled Germany before World War II and helped establish the New Bauhaus school in Chicago.
Moholy-Nagy's entire family helped him put sheets of acrylic into his oven at home and shape it into waves of plastic, Schepers said.
``It must have been very exciting for a man in those years to work with this material,'' he said. ``To him, it was very modern.''
Another artist who found plastic an essential part of expressing an idea is Arman, a 1960s realism artist who took everyday objects and made them into art.
An Arman piece in the exhibit shows a violin that he smashed and then encased in polyester, to offer an image of the instrument at the moment of destruction.
``Arman said plastic is the only material that lets him fix his vision,'' Schepers said. ``A lot of the artists said plastic is the only material they can use to express themselves.''
The piece by Christo — a bundle of magazines wrapped in PE and twine as if ready to be shipped — seems an unlikely work of art.
Part of the goal of Christo's art is to raise interest in objects by packaging them, obstructing the view of the magazines or buildings with hazy wrapping so the viewer wonders what is on the other side, Schepers said: ``He plays with the voyeurism in each person.''
The exhibit includes other eye-catching pieces, including a very realistic sculpture of a worker leaning on a ladder, an image of an actual employee at the Haus der Geschichte, or Museum of German History, in Bonn.
The museum also has a work called ``Der General,'' a pile of plastic junk gathered from along the banks of the Rhine River and shaped to look like a plastic bottle of German household polish sold under the name ``Der General.''
And the polystyrene foam figures on the outside of the building are meant to represent half-human, half-animal creatures emerging from the Rhine, trying to make their way into the building. The river is across the street from the museum.
The art is on display until January and will be replaced by an exhibit on the new Volkswagen Beetle, but the space will feature other exhibits dedicated to plastics during each K show, including a planned exhibit on sports and plastics for the 2001 event.
The other half of the museum has a permanent exhibit showing plastic in applications more familiar to the industry: the new Smart Car, pacemakers and replacements for broken bones, and mobile phones and computers.
It features themes on living with plastics, such as fire-resistant clothing and bottles, and on how plastics make people more mobile or help them communicate. And it includes films about how plastic is molded.
The museum took 12 years of development work by the local business and scientific communities, and was funded by the K show, German plastics trade groups and Schenker Eurocargo AG, which provided transportation for the museum collection.
The permanent exhibit, particularly the car and other machines, drew the attention of many of the 6,000 people who attended the opening of the museum. But those visitors eventually wandered over to the art exhibits, Schepers said, and provided the artists with an audience they don't typically get.
One of the visitors asked artist Dorothee Golz, who was displaying a Dr. Seuss-like chair and lamp encased in a plastic bubble, whether art should be made of expensive materials and not cheap products like plastic. But Golz said she was proud of the materials.
Artists are rediscovering plastic as a material of this decade, after it fell out of fashion from its heyday in the 1960s, Schepers said. The ecological debates and oil shortages of the 1970s and 1980s dampened the enthusiasm for plastics, he said.
``It took a long time to discuss plastics without any emotions,'' he said.