In the garden house of a home located in the small town of Buštěhrad (20 km northwest of Prague), plastic bottles pack the space nearly from floor to ceiling. But the PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) bottles haven’t been thoughtlessly placed there to go to waste; rather, they are the main medium of artist Veronika Richterová, who since 2004 has been sculpting them into animals, plants and chandeliers; Venetian mirrors, Persian carpets, a sofa, a pagoda and even a brassiere.
“I have big provisions of bottles,” Richterová says. “When I have an idea, I need to have material. It’s not easy to find it in one moment.”
Richterová’s PET-ART, as she calls, it has been shown in exhibitions throughout the country and the world. Her work could most recently been seen as part of the PLAY exhibition at the Manes gallery. Last year, it was featured in PET Tropicana at Prague’s Botanic Garden and at exhibitions in the Netherlands, Ireland and Germany.
Richterová works from her home studio, which she shares with her husband, artist Michal Cihlář. Located on the second floor of their cozy 1800’s home, the space is filled with drawers full of material, the hot air gun and welding tool she uses for her sculptures, and of course plastic: bits and pieces left over from projects, bottles awaiting her transformation and a few of her finished works hanging from the ceilings or packed inside boxes on their way to an exhibition.
The majority of her completed pieces can be found in her basement or the “depository” as she calls it. She points out one of her Venetian mirrors, some pieces from her Fruits of Paradise exhibition hanging from the rafters and a gigantic blue plastic spider lying on the floor.
“I thought it would be a one-time thing,” Richterová says. “But after [following through with her first idea to make a chandelier from PET bottles] I had a lot of ideas of what to do with PET bottles. I saw the possibilities. So I started to experiment. I slowly learned to how to work with them, and so I developed this special craft.”
Born in Prague in 1964, Richterová attended the secondary school of applied arts in Žižkov; an experience she describes as the most important in terms of her arts education. “I learned to work with different materials, “Richterová says, “Material for me is the most important.”
This was followed by studies at Prague’s Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design (VŠUP) where she studied in the painting studio, which she says was the only possibility during communism. After graduating in 1990, Richterová started to work as a freelance artist and has kept on the path ever since.
Before working in plastic bottles, she created enameled sculptures of animals, plants and other objects from steel plates using different parts of dishes and even scraps from a factory she worked out of as they had an oven that created “lots of possibilities” for her.
Richterová also creates mosaics from tiles and fragments of earthenware, mainly found during her travels. Many of these can be seen throughout her house and in the garden. The exterior of the small house she uses to store PET bottles is adorned with them along with a colored tile floor she made. Two mosaic men on the wall at the end of her staircase were created from leftover scraps from her neighbor’s bathrooms.
What she appreciates about working with PET bottles as a material includes its lightness — making it easy for her to transport (this was an issue she had when working with heavier materials) — and that she doesn’t need a lot of money or other people to work with it.
“I like to do everything myself. Some artists draw and then have someone else realize it. For me it is important to realize the work from start to finish,” she says.
She also appreciates its similar quality to glass (“I’m fascinated with its transparency”) and that it is a material with so many possibilities that can be found everywhere. Its accessibility is something Richterová states as a reason that her work is appreciated.
“People all over the world know this material. Even people not interested in art visit the exhibitions because they are interested in it,” Richterová says. “This material is close to people.” Her traveling exhibition A Tribute to Pet Bottles, which is a joint exhibition with her husband, Michal Cihlář (the two have collaborated on several projects together) and has been translated into six languages and shown around the world, attests to this notion.
Along with giving a view of Richterová’s own work, this particular exhibition includes another important component of her PET-Art: documenting the work of other, anonymous, “PET bottle creatives.” As the text included in the exhibition states, “Their [Richterová and Cihlář] principle activity is photographing ‘popular’ PET-ART, in other words documenting the varied ideas of anonymous creative individuals who use old PET bottles in new ways.”
Although they take pictures abroad as well, Richterová comments that this activity is “mostly a specialty of Czechs.”
“Under communism people were forced to create different things that weren’t available in shops.” She notes it is very rare to see anonymous PET-ART in Western Europe.
“We have made a comparison to west Europe. People are used to going in the shop and buying what they need, so they don’t create things for practical use.” She goes on to say that it is Czech characteristic to use old things, as they don’t like to throw them away and to collect things to use at some point. The couple sees birdfeeders made from PET bottles all the time and when PET bottles came to the country, Czechs used them, in place of glass bottles, to make greenhouses.
“Recycling is a big thing for us. I hate consumption,” Richterová says. “Now people live in higher and higher consumption without thinking what to do after.”
She goes on to say that as a result of this higher consumption lifestyle, Czechs’ spontaneous DIY creations are slowly disappearing. “So we want to preserve them through these photos.”
The work for her, however, is mostly about the possibilities of her own expression. “I am not an ecological fighter. It is not a dogma, “Richterová says. “For me it is an important period [of her art].”
Out in the garden house, Richterová points out her National Museum of Plastic Bottles exhibition, which lays boxed in one corner. Comprised of around 1,800 pieces, the exhibition features bottles she has collected from over 60 countries. With the exception of few kind gestures from her neighbors, she personally collects the majority of the bottles she stores inside the space. She laughs after referring to this activity as her “secret missions.”
Speaking of her 13-year-old daughter (she has a 17-year old daughter as well), “She hates when I collect them. If we are in the car, she doesn’t want me to stop.” Richterová laughs again. “But sometimes she makes things with the plastic too.”
— Joann Plockova is a Prague-based freelance writer