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How this Tees Valley art exhibition is changing the way we think about our plastic use

Take a sneak peek at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art’s Chemical City exhibition that explores the links between local historic synthetics production and contemporary art and design.

Written by Rachael Nichol
Published 10.01.2022


As we all are becoming more conscious of our plastic use, we rarely take the time to look back on how we used to use it and how far we’ve actually come…

That’s where Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA) comes in. They bring us Chemical City, a major thematic exhibition on the legacies of synthetics production in the Tees Valley.

Opening with a focus on the development of plastics in the area, the exhibition expands into broader social, economic, material and ecological themes. Selected design products and historical archives show relationships between early experiments with synthetic fibres and dyes and contemporary innovations in a more sustainable fashion.

‘For the first time, we are combining contemporary mainstream fashion products with newly commissioned artworks and historic archival materials,’ says MIMA’s Artistic Director Elinor Morgan. ‘We hope this will create a rich experience for our visitors and community of learners, leading to new understandings of material innovation and environmental concerns. Three major commissions bring together talented artists based in the Tees Valley, London and Rotterdam.’

So let’s take a step back in time. In the early 1920s, Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) was a major employer in the area. Its presence shaped the Tees Valley’s built environment, local ecology and sense of place. Incredible innovations led to the development of important materials and products such as Perspex, Dricold, paints, synthetic dyes, polyester and nylon.

While plastics remain an important part of our material landscape, we now know that their production and use have an environmental cost. The exhibition aims to capture the spirit of optimism and invention that promised a clean and labour-efficient future and shows how some of the fashion industry’s contemporary innovations directly tackle waste and pollution resulting from previous production.

Through displays of company magazines, press photographs, archival film footage, material samples, products and personal memorabilia, the exhibition’s first gallery animates life within Teesside ICI in the corporation’s heyday.

Through painting, sculpture and film artworks by Annie O’Donnell, Onya McCausland and Katarina Zdjelar, each explores a new imaginative realm. The following galleries reflect on themes of memory, relationships to place and ecological recovery.


Let’s take a look…

Onya McCausland

An impressive 13-meter-long wall painting by Onya McCausland is rendered in paint made by the artist from waste ochre at a mine water treatment site in Saltburn, Tees Valley.

Annie O’Donnell

A large display structure by Annie O’Donnell is based on the area’s industrial architecture. It houses sculptures and collages relating to the artist’s family experiences of working with chemicals and plastics.

Katarina Zdjelar

The final gallery shows a bodywork, including blown glass sculptures, a video piece and floor installation, by artist Katarina Zdjelar, that expands on themes of conflict, memory, and international connections.

Sustainable clothing

This illustrates some of the ecological impacts of synthetic dyes and fibres in fast fashion through a showcase of contemporary products – a handbag made from cacti, shoes made from banana leaves, a biodegradable t-shirt dyed with algae– that address waste and toxicity.

“Synthetics production has left a complex legacy and through this exhibition, we take an affectionate look at the positive experiences of those who worked to make the shiny, glamorous products of the future, as well as a critical look at the ecological impact of this industry and others,’ Morgan adds. ‘It has been incredible to work with experts Esther Lesley and Lynne Hugill to analyse these social histories on the one hand, and to understand contemporary creative responses to the problems of plastics production on the other.”

The exhibition will be held between 26th  November 2021 until 24th April 2022

MIMA School of Art and Design, within Teesside University, offers creative degree courses. MIMA is at the heart of the School as a cultural hub and creative resource. Find out more.

Follow MIMA @mimauseful on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and to stay updated with their exhibitions and work.

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