My daughter Jenn’s 20th wedding anniversary coincided with Labor Day. So my husband, Dave, and I adopted Averyl (11yrs) for the weekend which included an afternoon at the Anchorage Museum. The three of us headed for the exhibition Gyre–The Plastic Ocean (through September 7th).
Averyl, a sixth grader and science enthusiast, began giving us a lesson on gyres or swirling ocean currents that unfortunately collect detritus tossed into oceans by humans worldwide. This show intersperses scientific facts displayed on easy to read signage with paintings, sculpture and two looping DVDs, all designed to make visitors aware of a growing pollution problem, discarded plastic materials dumped into oceans or collected on beaches. There were photographs of marine life strangled by fishing nets and sea birds poisoned, having eaten plastic bits resembling sea creatures — the ocean behaves like a giant Cuisinart. Rearranged ropes and bottles scavenged and remade into fine art works added not only social awareness but an ironic recycled twist to this global plight—what is horrible is often beguiling.
We had strolled through the first room when Averyl slumped onto a bench admitting that the show was making her depressed. That thought shocked me out of my normal museum wanderings and into my maternal role, as I worried whether continuing through the galleries was hazardous to her health. So I slumped down too, gave her a hug, and suggested we write this month’s Townsquare49 art essay together.
According to Averyl, schools and exhibits show pictures of trash and the killing of the environment, but they don’t tell how you can stop it. As a kid, it is kind of a depressing subject, because when they tell you that plastic is everywhere and not decomposing in the oceans you feel like it’s kind of your fault, but you haven’t really done anything. Besides you are told how you are living in a generation where everything is recycled, reused and conserved. But the worst part is in school when they say, this needs to stop! For instance, we’ll run out of oil or power for ships but they don’t present us with a solution. Hey, they say, you can stop all this if we just put trash in a bin. We are told as students things are dying, we need to stop global warming. People are not going to stop using fossil fuels or keep tigers from dying. The people who control mines make money. They don’t want to make renewable power because it costs too much. Maybe the oil companies should change their products. Our generation doesn’t know any other way. Solar heat isn’t going to replace fossil fuels for a very long time.
Needless to say, I was blown away by Averyl’s observations and insight. Was this exhibit just artists recycling found materials without any narration? Are these creators truly selfless or out for fame and remuneration? True, today’s artists are criticized for being narcissistic and their content being merely ‘stream of consciousness.’ What do statistics like, “it takes 10-20 years for a plastic grocery bags to breakdown” or “450 years for a disposable diaper to vanish” mean to anyone trying to juggle family and a job into limited hours?
Does it mean anything to museum-goers out for an afternoon of fun and relaxation? Is 20 tons of trash yearly washing up on a Hawaiian beach a lot? From the vantage point of sitting on a beach smothered in coconut sun lotion, the Pacific Ocean looks mighty and infinite. Will these somber numbers stop vacationers from ordering mai-tais in plastic cups complete with an umbrella floating in their ice when they’ve religiously saved, slaving away at some monotonous job, for a few days of heaven? Does knowing that third world countries have no recycling programs but ironically provide an occupation for some of their poorest, who survive by scavenging and selling scrap, justify polluting? Many of these poor make use of their trash in ways we would think gross and unsanitary.
As Averyl pointed out, what is the use of a scolding by those who present no real solution, just a lot of empty whining and finger pointing? This exhibition doesn’t propose a solution because maybe there is no present solution. The job of artists can be to provide visualization for what scientists calculate.
Artist Joan Wadleigh Curran’s Gouache on paper “Snarl” resembles a 17th century Dutch still life where abundance and decay were juxtaposed compositionally. The Dutch used the genre of still life to boast about their wealth acquired through trade and land acquisitioning. But they recognized the inevitable too. Here Curran uses a similar positioning of objects to speak to our modern version of abundance and decay. This piece entraps us in its beauty just as innocent sea life is lured into death traps.
Susan Middleton gives us a digital print snapped off Midway Island. This bird, a Plover, died of starvation because it couldn’t rid itself of a plastic ring. Not much needs to be said of this piece including the original, perhaps needed, purpose of the plastic ring. The black background of the print picked up the shadowy images of the other art found in the exhibition as well as the bodies of museum goers who are looking at the pitiful creature. The accidental mirroring activates the dead bird so its body seems to reverberate off the paper adding to the surreal of the larger problem.
John Dahlsen’s digital print on canvas, “Thongs,” is a knock-off of a Jackson Pollock painting. While Pollock’s reason for dripping paint is continually debated, here flip-flops, abstractly arranged, resemble a tangled rope abstract. Perhaps we are all globally connected, tied together by cheap plastic foot wear, much like a shoe display found in many Holocaust museums which speaks to the trace of humanity. Hell, this painting isn’t even a real painting—it’s manufactured like the flip-flops!
Pam Longobardi’s conceptual art piece, “Bounty Pilfered,” was made from found ocean debris. Yes, plastic products do represent modernism’s bounty. The irony is we can’t survive with or without plastics.
All good grandparents like to indulge. So we all headed for the museum’s café for afternoon tea. Averyl chose yogurt with granola smothered in some cherry goop, washed down by a root beer. Dave and I ordered tea and a couple of brownies. We pulled up some chairs and talked about plastic consumption. How can a hospital run cleanly and efficiently without disposable plastics? We reminded Averyl that our childhood inoculations were done with reusable and often dull needles and were probably unsanitary. Our plastic office computers and copiers allow Dave and me to run a multi-man office by ourselves. Plastic parts save on fuel by lightening cars and airplanes. And yes, we noticed everything we had bought as a snack, from the yogurt container, the plastic stirring spoons for our tea, to the plastic wrap on the brownies, was destined for the trash bin.
The Exhibition Gyre–The Plastic Ocean not only provided contemplation, so did granddaughter Averyl; perhaps that’s a start. The catalogue, Gyre–The Plastic Ocean, is available on Amazon. Anchorage Museum family memberships include grandchildren.