Student Sasha Fishman Bridges Art and Science with Bioplastics

Mădălina Telea Borteș
March 27, 2024

The walls of Visual Arts student Sasha Fishman’s studio are covered with copper tools, kiln-cast glass, and trays of freeze-dried hagfish cartilage. There are cicada shells and several vials of betta fish, each in various stages of transparency. It is an experimenter’s studio as much as an artist’s space, and Fishman—known on campus as the MFA Sculpture student who collaborates with the Campos Research Group (led by Luis M. Campos, Associate Professor in the ​Department of Chemistry), the Natural Materials Lab at GSAPP, the Making and Knowing Project (a research cluster at the Center for Science and Society), and members of the Axel Lab—is right at home. 

First and foremost a sculptor, Fishman makes small- and large-scale sculptures from biomaterials as varied as wood cellulose and tanned fish skins. Often, she uses bioplastics, which are biodegradable, compostable materials fabricated from a bio-based source. 

In a full-length feature in The Brooklyn Rail, about Fishman’s recent solo exhibition at Below Grand Gallery, Columbia College Art History alum Qingyuan Deng ’23 drew attention to “two poles of Fishman’s practice: the mimesis of biology in all its foreign and mutating proliferation and the mining of latent aesthetics in alternative materiality afforded by technological advancements in sustainability research.”

This unique intersection of aesthetics and biohacking research is an inherent component of Fishman’s practice—her experimentation with molds and materials that shimmer or congeal or transport water predates her time at the School of the Arts. 

As an undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, for instance, where she completed a BFA in Studio Art, she worked with resin and plastics, materials which are inherently toxic and can be detrimental to the environment. 

“A lot of people are sensitive to it. There’s a history of artists getting sick from it, so it’s something that I really try to use sparingly,” Fishman explained. 

When she saw an exhibition in Los Angeles, where the contemporary artists Sterling Wells and Haena Yoo presented works made with bioplastics and food containers, Fishman found the missing piece in an ever growing puzzle of making resin-like artworks out of alternative materials. 

“You couldn't really tell what was bioplastic or what [other materials were] running through, and there was an interesting tension between everything. I fell in love with the tactility and materiality of what they were working with,” she explained. 

After seeing Wells’ and Yoo’s work, Fishman “began cooking bioplastics in the kitchen… working with gelatin and cornstarch.” The first experiments rendered materials that “were very glossy and transparent, but after a day they started to warp and dry and crack; they started to get moldy.” 

“I was pretty devastated,” Fishman said, “but seeing their initial phase, where they had every quality I wanted them to have—similar to resin but from a bio-based source, which was more natural and not toxic to work with—I saw them as a vision of something I could make possible because I knew the qualities of the material that I wanted. I wanted it to be transparent, moldable, castable; something that was waterproof and could be sculpted in all these different ways that I [had] worked with resin.” 

The multiple rounds of at-home testing and experimentation led Fishman to enroll in chemistry and sustainability classes, and, eventually, to a summer research fellowship with the Kornfield Lab at Caltech, where she focused on polymer rheology and learned about the chemistry of long chain molecules, which give plastics their unique properties: they’re “very flexible, malleable, they can be shaped and morphed in all of these different, highly versatile ways.” 

As her practice developed, Fishman applied her growing knowledge of the chemistry underpinning plastics to her artwork with bioplastics. By the time she began the MFA program, she had firmly established a practice where anomalies, discoveries, and a lot of experimentation play a key role in her artwork. 

“In coming to Columbia I sought out labs to work with where I could maintain my creative autonomy,” she noted. One of those labs is the Campos Research Group, where Fishman has collaborated with Dino Wu, a postdoc working on a carbon capture material project. “They made a reagent that allows you to breathe into a balloon, put that balloon on top of a beaker that contains the reagent, and as the gas dissolves into the liquid, the reagent will pull and grab onto the carbon dioxide.” Washing the reagent and adding saltwater then creates calcium carbonate, a substance found in shells, plaster, gypsum and many other materials. “Of course, it’s altered a bit through these different processes," said Fishman, "but it’s basically a material that’s used in a ton of different art processes.”

Working on this process was particularly invigorating for Fishman. "[The reagent] allows you to take something from the air and turn it into a solid that can actually be used, which, for me, is alchemy. It's really incredible that you can do that with chemistry." 

Inhabiting these scientific spaces and building her knowledge of scientific processes has become a key component of Fishman's work. “Working with [Wu], I felt like I got trained to work in a lab. I learned about all of these different processes (distraction, dilution, letting different things settle). I was able to work in the lab on my own stuff. For example, I’ve been using their fume hood, which has allowed me to further experiment in my own work. I’ve felt very lucky to be able to use the resources at Columbia, like going to the lab, developing a relationship, and continuing to work in the lab.”

Fishman's process has also been heavily influenced by the classes she's taken at the Making and Knowing Project through Columbia's Center for Science and Society. This research cluster “crosses the science/humanities divide and explores the relationships between today’s scientific labs and the past’s craft workshops,” vis-a-vis an anonymous 16th-century artisanal and technical manuscript of “recipes” for pigment-making, counterfeit gem production, cannon and life-casting in metal, tree-grafting, and animal taxidermy. 

“When I think about materials,” Fishman said, “I’ll also look back at older recipes because a lot of the time these recipes from pre-industrialization can tell me a lot more about how this material was used, thought about, or formulated.” This often pushes her “to think about what was happening at that time and how people were thinking about and relating to the environment.”

Fishman standing next to 'Some days I’m edible' (93” x 21” x 21,” reishi mycelium, firewood, rye, wood, cardboard, egg yolk, tanned salmon skin, chitosan, 2023).

Looking at the past inspired Fishman to make Some days I’m edible (93” x 21” x 21,” reishi mycelium, firewood, rye, wood, cardboard, egg yolk, tanned salmon skin, chitosan, 2023), a spiral staircase structure based on a failed salmon ladder created in the 1930s. 

“Dams have to be built with salmon ladders or some sort of passage for fish to go back upstream when they need to spawn,” noted Fishman. In the case of one of these dams, the French Lake Dam in southwestern Oklahoma, the design of the salmon ladder turned out to be completely ineffective, and the engineers only realized this after they'd built and installed the structure. "Something about the design, the spiral—[the salmon] couldn't figure it out. They couldn't get up the salmon ladder. It was amazing to me, because [the engineers] built this whole thing before even testing it," said Fishman.  

“I kind of love this failure and as an artist I’m looking at these things and trying to understand what these monumentous [sic] events and structures are by trying to remake them in my own way, and in this way, to try to understand what’s happened historically and what’s happening now.”

To construct her version of the ladder, Fishman grew and developed a “Reishi mushroom clay made from sawdust, paper pulp, and other things you could eat in the kitchen.” She then sculpted this material by hand, and used a webbing technique to reinforce the "steps" of the structure with tanned salmon skin she acquired from a hatchery upstate. "It's like the residue of what was supposed to climb up this ladder is left between the steps." Fishman's structure towers upward, gleams, and glistens. It is a sight to see, and, when standing very close, to smell, too—and it is wondrous.

For Fishman, the project was an exercise in working alongside living materials. "There's a kind of agency that a lot of these bioplastics and biomaterials have [because] I don't have a lot of control over what they do." The base structure of Some days I'm edible is cardboard and wood, and the mycelium that Fishman molded over the base has slowly been eating away at the original structure. "It's almost overtaking the entire structure that I built. So it's further eroding this piece that I started to make, and almost finishing it for me." 

Despite her interest in working with these biomaterials, Fishman was quick to point out that the goal is not to eradicate plastics or other synthetic materials in her work (or in the world) entirely, but to interrogate the relationship between them. 

Sasha Fishman, 'Some days I'm edible' (detail)

"I can't do everything with just this material," she said. "There are a lot of other materials in sculpture that I need to use, like wood glues and things like that. I think that having this range of plastic-based materials and bio-based materials creates a really interesting dialogue. We can't actually get rid of all plastics and I think it's important to understand where plastics are really helpful because they do such incredible things. You can stretch them in crazy ways, they're really forgiving, they can be re-melted. A lot of biomaterials can do that too, but they may also come from different spaces that are farther away and take more carbon and costs to extract. So there's a lot of tradeoffs. And when it comes to the properties of these materials—the ways that I use them, like using resin for water-based works—if I didn't have access to these plastics, I wouldn't be able to have this range of material interactions that I do." 

Most recently, Fishman collaborated with the Natural Materials Lab at GSAPP to create Energy Well  (2023-24) as a part of the Reflections of Transcorporeal Feminism project, which is a large-scale fountain installation on view at the Indian Ceramics Triennale in New Delhi. The fountain she created consists of a ceramic basin and a series of forms called ‘flow forms’ that she’s long been making. Water is funneled into these flow forms, which then divert the water and swirl it around and around, endlessly. Fishman traveled to India in December to fabricate this work over the span of three weeks at a ceramics residency at Art Ichol in Madhya Pradesh. 

In making this structure, which spans 8’ x 14’ x 5,’ Fishman considered what was used to hold water before plastic existed as well as novel ways of waterproofing bio-based sculptures, which are nearly impossible to waterproof without some type of resin. “I can’t make my dream biomaterial,” which would be as waterproof as resin, Fishman noted, “so I do my best to minimize waste in my studio. I’m constantly seeking methods of working with this material I want to use so that it is as sustainable as possible.” Her efforts resulted in a stunning feat of engineering and biohacking that consists of a list of materials as rare and wizardrous as Fishman herself: glazed ceramic, water, limestone, mined clay, grog, sand, porcelain slip, epoxy, plywood, burnt mosquitos, paper, pump, cement, latex, tubing, copper, tile adhesive, grout, commercial brick, soil, cow dung. 

Sasha Fishman, 'Energy Well' (Installation collaboration with the Natural Materials Lab + Penmai Chongtoua; filming by Kenny Sale and editing by Sasha Fishman)

As with most forms of innovation, the goal in Fishman’s practice is neither singularly focused nor easily attainable, but it is her willingness to observe and construct, to deconstruct, to try and try again that holds the promise of creating novel inroads into making sculptures, installation works, and art objects which straddle the boundaries of art and science. 

Sasha Fishman (b. 1995, Baltimore, MD) is a sculptor and researcher based in New York where she is currently a Sculpture MFA candidate at Columbia University. Working with materials such as hagfish slime, algae, and cicada shells, Sasha's work investigates marine biomaterial extraction, toxicology and genetic engineering as points for critical analysis and mechanisms for sculpting. Sasha has exhibited her work at Below Grand (New York), Hesse Flatow (New York), Navel LA (Los Angeles), RESORT (Baltimore, MD), the Visual Arts Center (Austin, TX), and has been a research fellow at Caltech (Pasadena, CA). She has presented her work, run workshops and given talks at Genspace, Navel LA, UCLA, UDenver, UColorado Boulder, Kenyon College, Caltech, and CSULB.