John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Never has deadly marine debris looked so beautiful.
Man-made debris floating through the oceans is ugly. So are its deadly effects on marine animals, strangled by nets and packing bands or starved after eating a buffet of plastic. But take this peacock-colored, oddly shaped garbage into a gallery setting, and you got yourself an exhibit that's as fascinating as it is alarming.
"Gyre: The Plastic Ocean," which opened recently at the Anchorage Museum, presents the surreal creations of artists who find their material washed up in waterways and on coastlines. The works are both impressive in their implications of all the cruddy litter in the oceans – a gyre of refuse that's garnered the misnomer "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" – and also in the amount of labor that went into building them. This 9-by-4-foot photo by John Dahlsen, for instance, includes more than 1,000 sandals; the photographer gathered them himself mostly from the beaches of Australia:
While some of the pieces go big and loud with their message, others are quietly distressing. There's this photo from San Francisco's Susan Middleton depicting a random assortment of junk like cigarette lighters, toys, a shotgun shell, and bottle caps. The oomph factor comes in when you realize it was all extracted from the stomach of a baby albatross. Middleton had observed the chick's parents feed it plastic for two months before it died of an impacted stomach:
A more clinical-looking assemblage of sea trash comes from the U.K.'s Steve McPherson, who makes maddeningly intricate collages from specific categories of junk like produce tags and doll heads. McPherson's "28 Objects that Measured the World" shows all the degraded rulers that can be collected from the British shores:
The exhibit, cosponsored by the Alaska SeaLife Center, is not above going for a little quirk. The four-legged plastic creature shown above began life as abandoned fishing gear collected by the group Ghost Nets, which has removed thousands of such discarded nets from the oceans. Artist Sue Ryan then transformed the waste into a simulacrum of an Australian dog that no longer can fatally entrap sea turtles, sea lions, and dolphins. And here's "Indra's Cloud" from Anne Percoco, who sewed the buoyant sculpture together from more than 1,000 plastic bottles salvaged from India's Yamuna River:
If you're in Anchorage before the show ends on September 6, check it out – it's a real pile of garbage, meant in a good way:
Images courtesy of the Anchorage Museum