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Indecipherable forms float in the inky darkness of Mandy Barker’s photographs in Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals. While the title of the monograph, recently published by Overlapse, suggests some organic presence, the images are of plastic trash that Barker collected on the shores of Ireland. The book is designed like a 19th-century science album, with 26 “specimens,” such as doll arms and shoe soles, obscured through the use of long exposures, faulty cameras, and expired film. They act as a sample of the millions of tons of plastic debris in the oceans and are meant to draw attention specifically to the microscopic bits of pollution being consumed by plankton.
“The plankton samples in this series represent imperfection in terms of man-made microplastics being able to infiltrate a natural organism,” Barker writes in Beyond Drifting. “Microplastic particles are not normally visible to the human eye, and their contamination of the food chain reflects an unnatural threat to the biodiversity of our planet.”
Beyond Drifting follows the British artist’s previous photographic work on ocean pollution, including SHOAL, which concentrates on marine plastic collected in 2012 in the North Pacific Ocean’s tsunami debris field, and SOUP, a response to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that features salvaged beach plastic photographed as if it were adrift at sea. Barker developed the Beyond Drifting series during a 2014 residency at the Sirius Arts Centre in Cork, Ireland. She was inspired by the 1800s research and plankton microscope slides of naturalist John Vaughan Thompson. He invented a net to collect plankton — which he called “imperfectly known animals” — from the Cove of Cork, where Barker found her marine plastic specimens two centuries later. She photographed them over a period of two years, presenting them as if under a Victorian-era microscope. “These flaws in equipment, technique, and presentation utilised in the creative process mirror the compounding defects in nature, while simultaneously reflecting on pioneering discoveries made in our natural world before plastic was introduced,” Barker writes.
Some of Thompson’s drawings can be detected on the dust jacket and pages of Beyond Drifting, which also has a faded blue binding, bent library card inside, red ribbon bookmark, and printed mold and marks that cleverly suggest a well-used tome. A section sealed with a “CONCEALED HAZARD” sticker can be broken open, revealing an index of the very contemporary trash captured in the book. Heplandista Ica is an electric plug and wire; Amphilima Distinctae, a smashed coat hanger. Red letters in their Latin-inspired labels indicate that each hides the word “plastic” in its name. What appears as the blurred ripple of drifting plankton is actually the plastic chain of a rosary, and it’s a partially burnt plastic flower, not some mysterious organism, that buoyantly bobs in another photograph.
Beyond Drifting could be viewed as a playful project, with Barker using Victorian taxonomy to impart an irreverent sense of awe to discarded stroller wheels and plastic bottles, yet the issue it presents is serious. The beguiling details of these small specimens, from wispy brush bristles to a ghostly six-pack yoke, represent a global concern for the future of life in our oceans.