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Instead of struggling to choose between many loves, Robin Frohardt opted to create one multifaceted practice that brought them all together. An award-winning artist, puppeteer, and director, Frohardt creates engaging narratives on hard-to-swallow topics through works that combine satire with a range of media—like her 2016 installation and performance project The Plastic Bag Store.
Although it appears to be a typical supermarket from the outside, The Plastic Bag Store is actually created entirely from upcycled plastic bags. Offering a clever, thoughtful account of the material’s effects on the planet, the installation is a performance space for a puppet show, which Frohardt calls a “tragicomic ode to the foreverness of plastic in three acts.”
When we initially spoke to Frohardt, she had just learned of the postponement of a second iteration of The Plastic Bag Store (in conjunction with Times Square Arts), which was originally due to open last March in New York City but put on hold indefinitely due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The artist shared with Whitewall how she was dealing with the delay and what she was doing to fill her time.
WHITEWALL: How are you doing in the middle of this strange time of social isolation—are you still making art?
ROBIN FROHARDT: I was going a million miles an hour, racing to the finish line with The Plastic Bag Store for so long. Once we closed, I just kind of
stopped everything for a couple of days. I haven’t really started any new art projects, but I’ve been doing some construction projects, which has been
I’m keeping busy in that way, and to work with my hands and have a focus for the day is really helpful. I think once I do a little bit more of that, I’ll be ready to re-approach art.
WW: The Plastic Bag Store is a great example of how your practice combines different artistic elements. Can you tell us about the project and its conception?
RF: The original idea was that it was going to be a grocery store installation and storefront—a fake grocery store that looked like a real store, but everything inside was plastic bags. That came from experience of watching someone bag, double bag, and triple bag all of my groceries that were already bags inside of bags, inside of bags.
But then, as I started to develop it, I read that all the plastic that has ever been created still exists because plastic doesn’t decompose. I just thought it was interesting that a coffee stirrer I used in 2002 is somewhere on the planet right now. It might be there for a thousand years. I imagined someone excavating it and misinterpreting its significance was pretty good fodder for a puppet show.
[In The Plastic Bag Store] there’s an installation during the day, but at night the show transforms into the puppet show. All the grocery shelves, bakery tables, produce stands, and freezer doors—every single thing in the store—has some sort of trick to it, basically. It transforms into the set, transforms into the seats, and you watch the show that way.
WW: When creating projects that broach serious topics, what do you hope that your viewers come away with?
RF: I definitely don’t want to make people feel bad. I guess my hope is that people get a context for their actions, or they get to feel like they are actually a part of this chain of human history and that the things that we do matter, and they are connected.
WW: Satire is a tool that you use to combat wrongs in our society. Why do you feel this tactic works with something as serious as climate change?
RF: No one would want to sit through an hour-long puppet show of tragic images of the environment being trashed, but if you tell this elaborate, darkly funny story, people love it. They want to stay, they want to talk about it afterwards, they want to think about it, and they want to tell their friends. It’s a better way to bring people into the conversation.
WW: Do you think art and artists play a large role in a time of global crisis such as this?
RF: I feel like there are a lot of people who are looking to that kind of stuff right now. When we’re locked in our houses, people are very excited about these streaming theater events and virtual museum tours. We really lean on that.
But I think there’s also going to be some really amazing work that comes out of this time. Everyone’s going to have a lot of time to write and think, and people are going to really need to celebrate and heal. I think that artists will be all over that. I’m really excited to see what comes out of this in that regard.