Sari Carel: A More Perfect Circle

Hot air
Sari Carel, A More Perfect Circle, 2024. Courtesy KODA, photo by Argenis Apolinario.

Artist and activist Sari Carel created A More Perfect Circle, a series of ceramic sculptures inspired by the single-use coffee cup, a ubiquitous object that brings into focus people’s daily experience of interacting with trash. Lentol Garden in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, hosts its first public art project that includes columns built of stacked ceramic forms and disks in the shape of plastic cup covers. The handmade, intentional, and individualized quality of each unit contrasts with the mass-manufactured coffee cup that inspires this project. Some of the drawings, experiments and observations that inform the installation are on view at the Greenpoint Library. A series of programs with 350Brooklyn and Climate Families NYC accompany the exhibition. Find out more here. The project is organized by KODA, a New York-based nonprofit arts organization dedicated to mid-career artists of diverse backgrounds. It is curated by Jennifer McGregor, who interviews Sari Carel for the Hot Air section in Art Spiel.

Jennifer McGregor: During our conversations, you mentioned that A More Perfect Circle springs, in part, from the dilemma posed by single-use objects that intensified during the Covid-19 pandemic when bringing reusable containers to coffee shops was prohibited. As a collection of disposable coffee cups piled up in your studio, you observed this stackable form with its inherent intimacy as an object that’s held, sipped from, possessed momentarily, and then discarded. Was there an” aha” moment that led you to the idea of creating the stacked ceramic objects and the cup cover-inspired pieces that we see in Lentol Garden?

Sari Carel: Spending time with this commonplace object that we tune out so easily because it is so ordinary led me to play with the idea of trying to create a body of work that is formally built on the visual properties of a fairly simple object and a pretty banal one. If I engage with this object, will I be able to have enough generative moments to transform it into an exhibition?

So, I took this piece of trash and explored it through a formal prism: shape, volume, seriality, stackability, and repetition. It is a kind of game to dislodge me from a feeling of helplessness or learned apathy, to defamiliarize myself with this common object and start asking some foundational questions about my experience with it.

Adjacent to this play is my environmental angst, a real feeling of loss, and a deep yearning for a circular economy. While mulling over the disposable cup, the lid, and the circle in the studio, I couldn’t help but think about the utopian movements of the early 20th century and how they imbued geometric forms and abstraction with metaphysical and radical powers and had a deep yearning for a better world. Of course, these movements are historically situated and have their own blind spots and biases, but the desire to shape the future resonates.

Sari Carel, A More Perfect Circle, 2024. Courtesy KODA, photo by Argenis Apolinario

JM: When we started working together, you suggested several books that were influential to you Picking Up: On the Street and Behind the Trucks with Sanitation Workers of New York City by Robin Nagel who, among other things, is the anthropologist-in-residence for the NYC Department of Sanitation, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things by political theorist Jane Bennett, Waste and Want by Susan Strasser, and Discard Studies: Wasting, Systems, and Power by Max Liboiron and Josh Lepawsky. Are there particular ideas or concepts from these writings that shaped your approach to A More Perfect Circle?

SC: These writers and their research have opened up worlds for me and informed this project in many ways. Systems of wasting and the history of how we became addicted to plastic and tethered to single-use culture are fascinating to me. Reading these authors has added a lot of nuance and richness to the way I perceive trash and think about acts of discarding.

One concept from Jane Bennet that really resonated with me is how inanimate objects can have a kind of agency, in the way they move through the world after they are used. For instance, after we drink from a disposable water bottle and toss it away into the waste stream or do laundry using a laundry pod, the plastic disintegrates and lives in air, water, and soil. As we breathe, eat, and drink plastic, it becomes part of our bodies and our environment. Whether it is a giant garbage patch in the distant ocean or this breath that I just took, plastic is more part of us than not. The idea that we can really throw anything away, becomes more fanciful and detached from reality.

Susan Strasser discusses how trash is about sorting, classifying, and categorizing and how these processes have an inherently spatial dimension. For me the exploration of discard practices was always connected to sculpture and to how private and public realms negotiate with each other. Exploring these accumulations through formal parameters and therefore reducing the judgment and ick factor that usually comes with trash.

Sari Carel, A More Perfect Circle, 2024. Courtesy KODA, photo by Argenis Apolinario

JM: You collaborated with Nick Hoynes, PhD Student in Sociology at NYU, on a survey of local coffee shop patrons and baristas that uncovered, among other things, that people have overwhelmingly negative feelings about using disposable cups every day. How did this research inform the shape of the installation and what do you hope to convey to visitors to Lentol Garden and participants in the programs?

SC: The research component of this project provided a conceptual framework and expanded my understanding of the local coffee shop as a system. This methodology required other tools and helped me see the neighborhood through the eyes of a researcher. It also braided together two processes; one is building with clay, and the other is fieldwork that included the experience of visiting many coffee shops, asking to put up our survey flyers, and talking to baristas and patrons. The physical aspects of these activities informed each other as a way of building and doing. Through its accumulation of handmade forms, this installation invites us to spend time with and reconsider our relationships with an object that can be dismissed as inconsequential. Many survey takers reported conflicted feelings about this daily routine, even feelings of grief over environmental degradation. These were layered with curiosity to learn more about the origins and fates of these cups.

The research and data are woven into the ceramic pieces as pie charts and other visual representations of survey results. There are around 200 cups, half-cups, lids, and cup templates in the garden that approximate the number of single-use coffee cups sold on an average day in one Brooklyn coffee shop.

A glass shelves with papers and cups on it

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Sari Carel, A More Perfect Circle, 2024 at Greenpoint Library. Courtesy KODA

JM: The programs that accompany the installation of A More Perfect Circle offer opportunities for adults and families to consider ways that they can make a difference. What have you learned through activism that helped shape this project?

SC: I have learned so much from folks in the climate movement, who are knowledgeable, dedicated, creative, and resourceful. This project was conceived as an art and public engagement project that includes a platform for these voices of activism and outreach. It’s important to me to involve a range of partners including Clay Space, Powerhouse Arts, Lentol Garden, NYC Parks, Greenpoint Library, 350Brooklyn, and Climate Families.

We live in a world that makes it incredibly hard not to transgress against others (human or non-human) because so many of the things we buy are produced through a system of exploitation, whether it is a phone or an avocado toast. On the other hand, messaging that we can shop ourselves out of desperation predominates. Time and again we are reduced to being consumers with an implied freedom to buy this or that and be a better person. (And what a paltry freedom that is.) As a results-driven person, I engage in activism because it is a better alternative to feeling anxious about the environment. I learned quickly that working with other people to make a difference is a more productive way to shape our shared future. It is good to buy ethically, but what you buy or don’t buy matters less than your connection to other people. By joining a grass-roots campaign to expand access to composting or reduce plastic packaging, my time and energy are much better spent with other people who share some of my core values. Most of us want something better, and there are very concrete things we can do collectively to bring on this change.

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Sari Carel, A More Perfect Circle, 2024. Courtesy KODA, photo by Argenis Apolinario

Sari Carel: A More Perfect Circle April 20 – June 30, 2024 At Lentol Garden and Greenpoint Library and Environmental Educational Center Presented by KODA

About the Artist: Sari Carel is a Brooklyn-based, interdisciplinary artist and environmental activist. Her projects consider interspecies communication, nature and the built environment, and how the senses inform perception. She participated in a Land + Environment artist residency with KODA in 2021. She occupied a studio on Governors Island in partnership with Swale House, exhibited her work at FiveMyles and conducted a tree-care and stewardship workshop with Trees NY in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. She received a commission award for Korea Art Forum’s 2024-2025 “Shared Dialogue, Shared Space” program. Recent exhibitions beyond New York include The Shape Of Play, a public art project in Boston’s North End, and Mud Songs For Anni at The Schneider Museum Of Art’s Art Beyond in Ashland, OR.

About the curator: Jennifer McGregor is an arts planner and curator who collaborates with organizations to activate public spaces and create opportunities for artists to engage diverse audiences. Her place-based curating focuses on ecological, historical, and cultural concerns. Recent curatorial projects include Sari Carel: A More Perfect Circle with KODA, Rivers Flow/Artists Connect at the Hudson River Museum, Bay Ridge Through an Ecological Lens at Stand4 Gallery and Community Center, Brooklyn and upcoming exhibitions include En Foco’s Nueva Luz Study Center Commissioned Projects at WallWorks New York in the Bronx. Previously she conceived and implemented arts and cultural programming at Wave Hill, Bronx, NY, and she was the first director of New York City’s Percent for Art Program in the 1980s.