News Release

Disappearing Dresses, Dissolving Bottles: A New Recycling Vision

7th October 2008

Photograph: Opera Coat by Nick Knight

The University of Ulster unveiled a unique art-science project today that aims to help reverse the wastefulness of our throw-away society.

Disappearing dresses and plastic bottles that dissolve and spawn plants: these phenomena form the centrepiece of Wonderland, a major exhibition that Ulster has brought to the Ormeau Baths Gallery, Belfast. 

Wonderland is about art meeting science in ways that make people think about how we are using materials, how we dispose of them and where all this senseless waste is taking us,” leading research chemist Professor Tony Ryan of Sheffield University told reporters at the Ormeau Baths Gallery in Belfast.

The exhibition-installation is a joint project of Professor Ryan and leading UK designer Professor Helen Storey of the London College of Fashion. Interface, the University of Ulster’s design-research centre, created the textiles for the exhibition, which has already had high-profile launches in London and Sheffield. 

The exhibits may sound off-the-wall but they are a firmly-rooted research-based effort to focus people’s minds not just on waste but on why and how we should recycle it. It’s what happens when fashion and design meet chemistry and nanotechnology.

Professor Ryan said: “Wonderland is about stimulating the public conscience in visual and dramatic ways and empowering people to dream about alternative ways of consuming. People throw away 20 tons of plastics waste in their life. Hopefully, Wonderland will make us think about what we are doing to the earth.” 

Interface’s Trish Belford said: “Aesthetically and scientifically, it is raising awareness about real worries of the world. Tony Ryan and Helen Storey have brought wisdom and real flair to what is an everyday problem for mankind. Interface’s participation is a landmark step that is adding to our growing reputation internationally.” 

The organisers describe the exhibits as metaphors with a solid practical edge. The action of the exhibits is generated by novel science-based recycling processes.

If they catch on, the processes could revolutionise packaging and material design and benefit the environment and humanitarian development.  Two of the processes are being patented and commercial interest has been aroused. 

Professor Storey, who heads the Helen Story Foundation, said in a message to the news conference: “No one person has the solutions to some of mankind’s greatest challenges. Now is the time to bring science, art and business together and through beautiful audacity and rigour help to change the environment for the better.”

Wonderland will be used by 100 A-level and FE art/science students as project topic for portfolio coursework and many teachers and schools at all levels will be involved in spin-out workshops and educational aspects of the exhibition. 

Interface has linked up with Creative Youth Partnerships (CYP) to devise a series of “Wonder-Labs” which will facilitate the students in their responses to Wonderland and the work of the Helen Storey Foundation. The unique integrated education and cross-curricular project involves a range of age groups with backgrounds in art, fashion and science. They will also benefit from participation by professional artists. CYP is funded by DCAL, DE, ACNI and the Education and Library Boards.

The Ormeau Baths Gallery will also host workshops and discussions. Exhibitions officer Feargal O’Malley said: “This remarkable exhibition carries deep messages and raises massive questions. Anyone who comes along will want to return because the more you see it the more you’ll get out of it.” 

Dresses made from dissolving textiles created by The Fabric Forward team at Interface will be hung from scaffolds. They are then gradually lowered into giant goldfish bowls of water in which they dissolve slowly over three weeks, creating vibrant underwater fireworks. This element of the exhibition questions the environmental sustainability of our current fashion industry.

The dissolving bottles have been described as “an exploration of intelligent packaging”. Once finished with, the bottles dissolve in hot water to form a gel in which flower seeds can be grown.  The concept could shake up the packaging industry as it highlights many of the issues that surround waste plastic.
Trish Belford said: “Raising the issues in Wonderland shows how science and art can map awareness and discussion to problems of the planet.”  

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