Polystyrene 

Mathieu Gallois, 2001

Polystyrene defies easy definition. Held up to the light in sheet form it is surprisingly translucent and empty looking – the surface dissolves into the whole. Reaching into a bag of polystyrene balls is a little uncanny – the seemingly weightless balls both evade one’s grasp and, with a little static electricity, ‘stick’ to one’s skin! Polystyrene has considerable strength in compression – and can be used like a brick – yet it floats, burns like fuel and, when I tried to eat a chunk, its dry, mushy texture and elasticity repelled each bite; it was almost impossible to swallow! In contrast to polystyrene’s consumer life cycle, which is usually exceptionally short, its biological life is still to be determined. Scientist don’t know how long polystyrene takes to biodegrade, or if it biodegrades at all.

A plastic engineer will tell you that polystyrene is a light-weight thermoplastic polymer foam, that it is 99% ‘air’, and that unlike other plastics and foams, its molecular structure is rigid. As such, polystyrene resonates when strummed, and when bent or twisted, it either springs back to its original shape, or snaps into two, in a clean, satisfying way. These qualities set it aside from other plastics and foams, the acoustic dullness and soft malleability of which were said to signify their ‘inferiority’ as a material when they were introduced in the 1950s.

Today, both omnipresent and hidden from sight, polystyrene’s ubiquitous non-status is definitive. The concrete foundations of many homes and commercial buildings rest on thick sheets of polystyrene (that insulate the building from the earth). Its exceptional thermal properties have also lead to its very frequent use as an insulator in the walls of fridges and aeroplanes. It is found most commonly as ‘hidden’ filling in the negative space between the smooth glossy surfaces of our consumer products and their poly-form contents.

Polystyrene came to occupy a special metaphorical place in my practice. The negative-insulated non-space it fills is analogous to an empty material culture, and expressive of an ensuing sense of material and social alienation.

Revised 2018


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