The Footprints series is the result of two years of research that it has taken Paula Ortega to develop her own casein-based bioplastic. Casein is a protein present in milk and its use dates back millennia. The Egyptians used it as a fixative for their pigments in wall paintings, but it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that casein was first used to make plastic – hardened with formaldehyde and produced in a variety of colours. However, with the advent of WWII came high demand for basic supplies like milk, and the new oil-based plastics were quicker to manufacture and so casein’s production in large scale ground to a halt.
Inspired by her fascination for fractals and the unseen structures and patterns that are part of our world– both created by nature and humankind, Ortega casts her pieces from moulds of the delicate spindles of a vegetable loofah skeleton. The process of creating these sculptures takes over two months and there is a certain degree of unpredictability; the material shrinks and moves whilst drying, determining the piece’s uniqueness.
Ortega has also devised a way of electroforming and plating on top of her pieces without affecting the material. The result is a mesh between a fantastical fossil and a microscopic organism; sparkling metal and gleaming white casein. The ephemerality of these pieces mean that eventually the plastic will biodegrade leaving behind a metal carcass to be enjoyed, or to be melted and reused elsewhere.
Paula Ortega’s work asks both philosophical and environmental questions. Her Footprints series explores the ideas behind the lifespan of a work of art. It also raises the issue of the finite amount of oil, and therefore plastics, and points to casein as a metaphorical alternative for a solution. Her work is an urgent and beautiful reminder that time is running out to tackle the continually ignored causes of climate change.