The Art of Plastic

Midway: Message from the Gyre

Photograph by Chris Jordan

The albatrosses on Midway Island swallow plastic debris in terrifying amounts, possibly contributing to the early death of many birds. Jordan’s photographs of the dead albatrosses capture the tragedy of plastic debris but also its permanence. As the bird rots away, the plastic is left behind.  

“There is no away” is a popular tagline used by anti-waste advocates to remind us that our trash doesn’t just disappear. It can last for hundreds of years and travel thousands of miles after we forget about it. The permanence of plastic particularly concerns activists. Plastic trash litters roadways, beaches, and oceans, and, because plastic doesn’t biodegrade, it never really goes away.

Art has proven a valuable medium for some activists to express their concerns about waste and consumption and their environmental impact. Through the universal language of art, these activists offer stark representations of the far-reaching consequences of the trash that’s thrown “away.”

Chris Jordan uses art to explore the horror and seduction of American mass consumption. His images reveal the enormous volume of products consumed in the United States, helping viewers conceptualize the amount of waste and the impact of their decisions.

Cell Phone Chargers, Atlanta, 2004, in Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption (2003–2005). Image by Chris Jordan.

These cell-phone chargers reveal the enormity of American consumption, not just of plastics but of consumer goods more generally. Through this and other images in the Intolerable Beauty series, Jordan attempts to capture both the horror and the seduction he finds in mass consumption.

Caps Seurat, 2011, in Running the Numbers. Image by Chris Jordan.

This re-creation of Georges Seurat’s famous painting depicts 400,000 plastic bottle caps, equal to the number of plastic bottles consumed in the United States each minute. Through his Running the Numbers series Jordan again confronts the startling realities of American mass consumption.

Another artist-activist, Aurora Robson, creates startlingly beautiful sculptures from plastic debris. By using waste as her primary medium Robson forces her viewers to recognize the permanence and prevalence of plastic trash. She is the founder of Project Vortex, a group of artists and designers who interrupt the waste stream, repurpose materials that would otherwise become trash, and donate proceeds from their works to clean-up efforts. 

Kamilo, 2011. Sculpture by Aurora Robson, photograph by Marshall Coles.

One of the first sculptures created for Project Vortex, Kamilo is built entirely of plastic debris recovered on Hawaii. Pieces like this reveal the damage plastic trash can do to oceans and beaches thousands of miles from its point of origin.

Bug, 2010. Sculpture by Aurora Robson, photograph by Marshall Coles.

Created from PET debris, this sculpture shows Robson’s skilled use of plastic to create entrancing sculptures that reveal the permanence and danger of plastic trash.



Posted In: Waste

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