From Iceland — The Renaissance of Milk Cartons

The Renaissance of Milk Cartons

Published March 4, 2023

The Renaissance of Milk Cartons
Photo by
Art Bicnick

The happy tones of Italian children’s music fill the cavernous workspace of Íslensk Grafík. The peppy pop feels at odds with the imposing machinery in the space, some of which dates back to Victorian times, but complement the happy sounds of children enjoying an impromptu playdate while their parents work through their school’s winter break.

Emilia Telese walks me through the space, her white work coat smeared and smudged with black ink as her gloved hands work diligently to remove excess pigment from an etched image of two women sitting at a balcony door. “You can’t see it, but beyond the balcony is Mount Vesuvius,” Emilia tells me of the etching she created from a photograph of her grandmother and aunt engaged in conversation at home in her native Italy.

While there’s a personal story in the subject matter of the image in her hands, the materials the artist is working with are just as interesting. Etchings for print making would traditionally be carved into metal plates, but Emilia is currently polishing ink off an unfolded carton that once contained oat milk. They take centre stage at Ferna, Emilia’s upcoming exhibition at Íslensk Grafík.

“One of the things I’ve been doing recently is working on milk packaging, so the cartons that we use everyday for milk — and in particular the ones that are made of many layers of different materials,” she explains.

“There are many types of milk cartons or beverage cartons. Some of them are made just of paper and they are more recyclable. But some of them are made of different layers like plastic, metals like aluminium, and paper. Those ones are much more difficult to recycle.”

The majority of these less-recyclable cartons are manufactured by Tetra Pak in Sweden. While Tetra Pak has taken steps in a number of countries to build recycling facilities that are capable of separating their cartons’ paper, plastic and metal layers, the facilities aren’t numerous enough to handle the volume of cartons in circulation. Iceland, for example, sends such packaging to Sweden for processing or simply buries it in a landfill.

“Statistically — and this is something Tetra Pak has recognized — only 20% of these multi-layer cartons are recycled,” Emilia laments. “The rest of them go to landfill.”

One of the themes running through Emilia’s 25-year career as a professional artist is a focus on social and political problems. She tells me about a particular project she created in 1995 for which she created a fashion line out of bubble wrap, complete with adhesive sections on which to store your trash while out and about rather than littering.

Blending the timeless & the disposable

For Ferna, Emilia has created prints from 10 etchings, ranging in size from a single unfolded carton to larger works carved on several cartons adhered together. They’ll be displayed alongside three works Emilia created in collaboration with renowned Italian artist Edoardo Malagigi, whose works regularly employ the materials we tend to regard as disposable.

“Quite a lot of things we do in life have an impact on the Earth, and packaging is one of them. So I’ve decided to make art out of something that is seemingly throw-away, but in reality lasts many decades in the environment,” Emilia explains as the sounds of happy children at play erupt in impossibly loud echoes from the adjoining exhibition hall. “I’ve decided to make traditional etchings out of milk cartons. I use Renaissance techniques to carve and etch into these cartons and then I print them with a technique first used by Albrecht Dürer in the 15th century.”

While the technique is traditional and the paper being printed on is handmade in Italy, it doesn’t mask the unconventional materials in use. Pointing out how the ink highlights the creases and folds of the flattened cartons, Emilia explains that she’s not trying to make them into something other than what they are.

“I am leaving them as milk cartons and playing with the shapes that the cartons have themselves. This also gives them a quality that I’m interested in.”

Ferna opens at Íslensk Grafík (Tryggvagata 17) on March 4 at 17:00 and runs through March 18. There will be an artist talk and a live performance by Emilia at 17:00 on March 18.

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