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Friendly giants made of Styropor®

What happens when an artist has a penchant for robots and the reuse of discarded materials? Oversized "Styrobots" are created from used Styropor® packaging.

American artist Michael Salter creates fascinating statues out of the packaging material and has meanwhile established collaborations with entire cities to get his material.

"I love the idea that an everyday product can be looked at in a completely new way by making small changes," says the 54-year-old artist. His path into the world of liberal arts was not predetermined from the start. Salter originally studied marketing and fine arts. After a few years working as a graphic designer, he no longer wanted to be part of the "capitalist system", as he says. Instead, he began to comment on the visual culture around him with his art. "I look at things we buy and throw away every day and try to put them in a completely new context," Salter describes his work. 

This is exactly what inspired him to create his "Styrobots". As a big fan of Star Wars films and fascinated by the world of science fiction, Salter developed a great love for robots early on. "I guess I always liked the idea of robots that could be friendly or even caring, as opposed to militant or aggressive. I wanted my own giant friendly robot, and that was my first motivation," he says. For the oversized sculptures, he needs a correspondingly large amount of packaging material. When Salter started looking into Styropor® as a material, he found that it was not only abundant among people, but also available for free. Apart from its availability, he appreciates the material's physical properties. "It is strong, light, easy to cut and glue. This makes it quick and easy to work with once I find the right adhesives and fitting designs," the artist explains.

Once he has gathered enough material, there are many details to consider before and during the construction of his artworks. "If the robots are taller than three metres, they need an internal armature made of wood to prevent them from tipping over," he explains. For the particularly large Styrobots, Salter builds the sculptures directly on site in the exhibition space. Otherwise they wouldn't fit in the lifts and through the doors of the museums.

In his early days, he still went looking for Styropor® in rubbish containers and asked the public for donations. In the meantime, his fame has enabled him to enter into cooperative agreements with the respective exhibiting city. For example, for an exhibition in Texas, the city of Houston put out a call on the radio, internet and TV for residents to bring in their used Styropor® packaging. It turned out, given enough time, most people had something to contribute. "So much material came together that I was able to build the biggest robot. People are willing to put in a little effort to see the whole artwork at the end," Salter reports. Following his exhibitions, the robots have to be taken apart and the individual parts made of Styropor® are recycled again by the city. "It breaks my heart every time my elaborate robots are dismantled. My art is just meant for the moment and that kind of preciousness is what I love about it", he says.  

Turning used material into something completely new is Salter's own way of thinking about recycling, "It's not just about reusing the material, the artwork should end up going beyond what the material was originally intended for. In a world that is running out of resources, it makes sense to me to use the things we already have."


Michael Salter

"It breaks my heart every time my elaborate robots are dismantled..."