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From Beach Sandals to Ghost Nets, Artists Confront the Plastic Pollution of the Oceans

Anne Percoco, "Indra's Cloud" (2009), plastic bottles, rope, boat, site-specific project in Vrindavan, India (courtesy Asian Cultural Council and Friends of Vrindavan)
Anne Percoco, “Indra’s Cloud” (2009), plastic bottles, rope, boat, site-specific project in Vrindavan, India (courtesy Asian Cultural Council and Friends of Vrindavan)

The rotating current of the North Pacific Gyre contains in its ocean vortex a cloud of plastic debris constantly moving below the surface, a marine hazard nicknamed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The impact of marine debris, according to NOAA, includes animals killed by ingesting bits of plastic, habitat deterioration, entanglement, and navigational dangers for ships. A study published this year in Science estimated that in 2010, eight million tons of plastic entered the ocean.

Plastic pollution is a major problem, and a traveling exhibition examines how art can turn public attention to the issue. Gyre: The Plastic Ocean, organized by Alaska’s Anchorage Museum, opens September 2 at the USC Fisher Museum of Art in Los Angeles.

Mark Dion, "Cabinet of Marine Debris," mixed media (courtesy of Tanya Bonakdar Gallery)
Mark Dion, “Cabinet of Marine Debris,” mixed media (courtesy of Tanya Bonakdar Gallery) (click to enlarge)

“By bringing the arts and the sciences together, as well as other disciplines, university museums have the ability to challenge the public’s assumptions, and impact their visitors’ thinking,” Ariadni Liokatis, curator at the USC Fisher Museum of Art, told Hyperallergic.

Liokatis added that there is a deceptive nature to much of the art in the 25-artist exhibition, with beautiful colors in works like Pam Longobardi‘s “Bounty, Pilfered,” a cornucopia overflowing with 1,000 vibrant pieces of ocean plastic scavenged from beaches in Alaska, Greece, and Costa Rica. “Through their artistic interpretations and personal insights, artists create visually impactful, provocative and meaningful documents and testaments to humanity’s impact on our planet,” Liokatis explained. “They can be powerful agents for change and activism.”

For example, John Dahlsen’s photograph “Thongs” is an aerial view of hundreds of plastic sandals stranded on an Australian beach, while Sue Ryan’s “Ghost Dog” was sculpted with the “ghost nets” discarded by fishing vessels in the sea and that continue to hunt marine life long after a ship’s departure. Anne Percoco’s “Indra’s Cloud” was built in 2009 from plastic bottles collected in India’s Yamuna River, with the detritus assembled into a mobile, floating sculpture. The art is accompanied by a National Geographic film highlighting the Gyre Project that involved a 2013 expedition of scientists and artists to Alaska (shown in a video below). Some of the work in the exhibition involves plastics from this project.

Pam Longobardi, "Dark and Plentiful Bounty," mixed media (courtesy Anchorage Museum)
Pam Longobardi, “Dark and Plentiful Bounty,” mixed media (courtesy Anchorage Museum)
John Dahlsen, "Thongs," digital print on canvas (courtesy the artist)
John Dahlsen, “Thongs,” digital print on canvas (courtesy the artist)

It is a significant time to bring an exhibition like this to California, which is in the midst of its own water crisis. “This exhibition fits into the larger discussion of environmental issues in Los Angeles,” Liokatis stated. “In recent years we have developed a greater consciousness of environmental degradation and have launched citywide cleanup initiatives and the ban on plastic bags. The recent drought is also bringing awareness to environmental and conservation issues.”

Whether trash in the ocean or water conservation on land, the strong visuals of art can encourage a more urgent awareness about the longterm influence of our disposable consumption.

Sue Ryan, "Ghost Dog," recycled wire, synthetic ghost net, beach rope, cotton thread (courtesy Martin Browne Contemporary Gallery)
Sue Ryan, “Ghost Dog,” recycled wire, synthetic ghost net, beach rope, cotton thread (courtesy Martin Browne Contemporary Gallery)
Steve McPherson, "28 Objects That Measured The World," plastic objects, entomology pins, text on card (courtesy the artist)
Steve McPherson, “28 Objects That Measured The World,” plastic objects, entomology pins, text on card (courtesy the artist)
Mandy Barker, "SOUP Refused," digital print (courtesy the artist)
Mandy Barker, “SOUP Refused,” digital print (courtesy the artist)
Judith Selby and Richard Lang, "Shovel Bands," digital print (courtesy the artist)
Judith Selby and Richard Lang, “Shovel Bands,” digital print (courtesy the artist)
Andy Hughes, "UFO Plastic Gyre Series," digital print (courtesy the artist)
Andy Hughes, “UFO Plastic Gyre Series,” digital print (courtesy the artist)
Susan Middleton, "Shed Bird Stomach Contents," digital print (courtesy the artist)
Susan Middleton, “Shed Bird Stomach Contents,” digital print (courtesy the artist)

Gyre: The Plastic Ocean opens at the USC Fisher Museum of Art (823 Exposition Boulevard, Los Angeles) on September 2 and continues through November 21.

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