Projects home


Island of Discarded Plastic (Leonia)
3m x 1.5m x 1m    
Plastic Water Bottles + Glue    
Venice, Italy    

Island of Discarded Plastic (Leonia) was created during the artLAB residency, Summer 2006 in Venice, Italy.

The work was exhibited in the resulting exhibition:

Fatti e Finzioni on the Island of San Servolo, Venice, Italy from Oct 7 -Nov 19, 2006, concurrent with the

10th Architecture Biennale

View quicktime movie :    
Text from the Catalogue:

In 1969 near Vancouver, Robert Smithson attempted to create an earthwork which was never realized:“Island of Broken Glass.” In the middle of the Georgia Straight he intended to dump 100 tons of broken glass onto a small rock island called Miami Islet, completely covering its surface with the shattered material. Due to the swirl of protests stemming from environmentalists and anti-Americanists, the project was suspended by a governmental telegram at the last moment. Aside from drawings, letters, and plans, the only physical artifacts which remain are studies which Smithson called “maps.” One in a series of different material, “Hypothetical Continent-Map Of Broken Glass:Atlantis” was a temporary small pile of broken glass arranged in a field in New Jersey, USA. A version of “Map of Broken Glass” presently exists at the Dia: Beacon which presents the work in a white cube context.† While “Island of Broken Glass” would have been Smithson’s first “permanent” earthwork, the idea’s failure morphed into the famous“Spiral Jetty” made the following year. A site-specific rendition of “Island of Broken Glass” remains to be made.

† The Dia Foundation also acquired “Spiral Jetty” as a gift in 1999.
When invited to Venice, Italy to make a site-specific work, my natural inclination was to revisit Smithson’s work. Several years earlier, while living in Vancouver I created a series of work that intervened (at the request of the curator) with the Smithson exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery. In dialogue with Smithson’s ideas, the work engaged with site-specificity,“non-sites”, and the museum as a site. In practice, each of Smithson’s work in the exhibition curated by Grant Arnold,“Smithson in Vancouver: Fragment of a Greater Fragmentation,” was documented using various coordinate systems, treating each hanging as a specific location in an institutional structure.‡ Each work’s temporary coordinates were gleaned from a GPS receiver, maps, architectural plans, or gallery measurements, and were printed on “Post It Notes” that were placed beside the title labels.  

Charles Stankievech, Post(it)Smithson: Map of Broken Glass, 2004

Photographic documentation of the intervention included a corner of the Smithson work, the title label and a Post-It Note with the prescribed coordinates. Situated somewhere between Smithson’s irony and Louise Lawler’s tongue-in-cheek documentation, the work attempted to continue, or perhaps reverse, the spiral of thought present in the exhibition and the legacy of Smithson’s work in Vancouver.
‡ The Smithson exhibition ran from September 20, 2003 to January 4, 2004 at the Vancouver Art Gallery. A catalogue was published under the same title by the gallery.
Along with “Glue Pour” which was actually performed in Vancouver,“Island of Broken Glass” held a central role in the configuration of the show and the catalogue. A request to build a site-specific work in Venice—a mythological city that is both sinking and the source for world renowned glass craftsmanship—immediately brought Smithon's piece to the surface. However, a simple execution of Smithson’s original plan appeared problematic for two reasons: first, the site had changed locations, and second, a direct recreation of the work is more of a museological issue (like the Dia reconstruction) than an artistic concern. Finally, if we were to seriously consider the aspect of site-specificity, not only would the geographical location need to be considered, so would the temporal concerns arising 30 years later.
Each decade Venice is flooded a little bit more due to several factors. While the acqua alta of 1966 brought this fact into international limelight, the precariousness of Venice has always existed. Looking back over its long history, many of Venice’s islands have come and gone over the ages.The most recent addition to the Venetian Lagoon is an unnamed island at the western tip of Giudecca. This unnamed island doesn’t appear on many maps, and is particularly absent from tourist maps of Venice. Appearing in the 1950’s, this triangular-shaped island was formed out of trash in order to process trash. The island was created by the waste disposal organization Vesta as the location to collect and incinerate Venetian garbage. However, with the discovery that the building material asbestos was cancerous, the incinerator was closed in the 1980’s. To distract from the real reasons why the incinerator was shutdown,Vesta held an architectural competition to create a recreation centre for its employees in place of the incinerator. The winning design was never actualized and only in 2003 was the derelict incinera-tor destroyed. The island now remains empty with the exception of a sorting operation on the south side and a colony of rabbits. On the direct opposite side of the island of Venice is the famous island of Murano where “factories” pump out world famous glassware of all colours …and qualities. If one was to continue past this island and along the same compass line farther northeast, another island of glass has recently been added to the constellation: Santa Cristina. While not a commercial island selling glass to the tourist, this private island is owned by the crystal tycoon Swarovski.
In light of all this glass glistening in the Venetian Lagoon, Robert Smithson’s “Island of Broken Glass” would seem to be right at home.† However while glass is one of Venice’s greatest exports, plastic water bottles might be its greatest import. One could joke that Venice is sinking due to all the bottled water shipped into the lagoon for tourist consumption.With a ratio of 12,000,000 visitors to a dwindling 60,000 inhabitants, the strongest presence in Venice is not Renaissance art but the tourists clicking a photo where Madonna shot her “Like a Virgin” video, or the Biennale tourist searching for a temporary pavilion. For years Venetians have expressed concern about Venice’s fate as an Italian theme park (Muntadas’ exhibition at the 2005 Venice Biennale formalised this worry). But if the increase in tourism makes sense on a global scale, the increase in the bottled water market does not. Originally marketed as a luxury item, bottled water reached the status of the everyday while the world was in an economic recession. Leading this market trend, Italy consumes more bottled water per capita than any other country in the world. Extreme tourism in Venice exacerbates this fact to excessive proportions. Plastic water bottles literally exuded from every part of the entire city: floating in canals, flowing out of garbage bins, and flooding San Marco’s square. In one rotation around San Marco collecting discarded bottles, I could easy fill more than two 50 litre bags. Surprisingly,Venice does not recycle.‡ Of all Italo Calvino’s descriptions of Venice in Invisible Cities, Procopia and Leonia are the cities growing more and more visible.

A sample from over120 different brands of water collected.


† Veneto (the province in which Venice is situated) is an ancient term for “shining.”

‡ While recycle bins exist on Lido, there are no receptacles on the island of Venice for recycling plastic.

A sample of the various collection sites around Venice.

Made in the footprint of Smithson’s “Map of Clear Broken Glass: (Atlantis)”,“Island of Discarded Plastic: (Leonia)” reflects its environment: literally and conceptually. A 3m island that floats in the lagoon between the island of San Servolo and the Giardini, the work is solely composed of glue and tourist water bottles collected from a selection of sites around Venice.§ The island will float with the tides for the duration of the 10th Biennale for Architecture, perhaps meeting the same fate as Atlantis—or reflecting the future of Venice.
Project review forthcoming in Onsite Review iss. 17, spring 2007.


artLAB_San Servolo artist residency is a programme promoted by San Servolo Servizi in collaboration with the Province of Venice and the following institutions: Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, Fondazione Querini Stampalia, Venice International University, the Faculty of Arts&Design at the IUAV University of Venice, the Venice Academy of Fine Arts, the Abate Zanetti School for Glass of Murano, European Association Pro Venetia Viva.

Charles Stankievech would like to thank the Canada Council for the Arts, Hexagram + CIAM for making this project possible--particularily Steve Bates, Joel Taylor, Lynn Hughes and Martin Pelletier.