The birds do it. The fish do it. The clams and oysters do it. You do it, too.
It’s estimated that humans could be ingesting up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic each year. The health implications are not yet known, but it’s safe to say the problem is cause for concern.
The source of the problem is an economic system that relies on the mass production and consumption of cheap plastic products and the vast quantities of plastic waste that accumulate as a result. A portion of that waste ends up in the oceans, then breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. Eventually, the pieces get to be the size of a grain of sand, or smaller.
Much of these “microplastics,” or nanoparticles as the scientists call them, consist of microscopic fibers from clothing made with petroleum-based synthetic materials, such as Gortex and Spandex and other polyesters. Do a load of laundry and some fibers will be rinsed away, eventually ending up in the oceans.
The plastic problem recently has gained the attention of researchers who are beginning to study the effects of microplastics in the natural environment. Artists, too, have taken an interest in the subject. Two of them will be in Charleston this weekend for the opening of a new exhibition at the Halsey Institute for Contemporary Art. The show, called “Sea Change,” features the work of sculptor Aurora Robson and of photographer-filmmaker Chris Jordan.
“These are two of the most sought-after artists at the intersection of art and environmental activism in the world,” said Halsey director Mark Sloan.
He noted that the exhibition aligns perfectly with the College of Charleston's Quality Enhancement Plan, whose current theme is “sustainability literacy," as well as the school's College Read’s book selection this semester, which is "The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water" by Charles Fishman.
The Halsey's "Sea Change" exhibition raises awareness of an acute environmental problem:
- Albatrosses feed bits of plastic to their chicks, many of whom then die.
- Plastic nanoparticles reduce survival of aquatic zooplankton, the essential bottom of the food chain, and penetrate the blood-to-brain barrier in fish.
- The frequency of marine debris found in the stomachs of penguins subject to a study doubled from 2000 to 2008, and flexible plastics were the main culprit (70 percent).
- Small amounts of polypropylene and polyethylene terephthalate have been discovered in certain brands of canned sardines and sprats.
- Clams and oysters along the Vancouver shoreline have ingested significant amounts of nanoparticles, most of which were plastic microfibers.
- Microplastics have impacted commercial fisheries, and also have been detected in milk, beer and honey.
Designed to last
All of this disturbs Robson and Jordan, who have spent years trying to raise awareness of the dangers of consumerism.
Robson said she’s spent about eight months collecting the materials — Tide detergent bottles and orange transportation safety barrels — she needs to make the art for the Charleston exhibition.
“I work a lot with various communities, schools and laundromats to try to intercept toxic waste streams,” she said.
She washes the plastic and cuts them into pieces large and small that she uses to assemble her constructions. Robson noted that most artists, and others, dismiss plastic as a viable material for reuse, yet in many ways it’s perfect.
“Plastic is designed to bend to our whims,” she said. “As a sculptor, it’s new material that hardly anyone uses. We think of it as disposable, but it’s the antithesis of disposable. We think of it as without value, but it has petroleum in it” — enough, in total, to power every car in Los Angeles for a year. “It’s designed to last much longer than it’s needed to last, which is why it’s great for art,” Robson said. “It has archival integrity.”
Robson has created an intricate wreath, which was purchased by the S.C. Aquarium, an exhibition partner. She also has made individual works that will be mounted on the walls of the large Halsey gallery, as well as a giant installation commissioned by the Halsey — a sort of abstracted, tenticular, partially illuminated sea monster — that will hang from the ceiling.
Robson will deliver a lecture about plastic pollution and plastic art at the aquarium, 6:30 p.m. Oct. 23.
She got her start as an artist making paintings and works on paper, abstract landscapes that were her way of working through traumatic nightmares she endured as a child.
“I was taking these nightmares and mapping them out visually,” she said. Later, she realized she could do the same thing but in three dimensions.
She settled in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the mid-1990s, before the neighborhood became hip and spent years there honing her approach. Today she lives in the Hudson River Valley about an hour north of New York City.
Her environmental art is immersed in ideas drawn from the science of plastics and the crisis of environmental pollution, but she strives to strike a balance between the politics of her art and its aesthetic value. The ultimate goal is to making beautiful objects that viewers can appreciate on different levels.
“If I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t be able to continue,” she said. “It would just be too depressing.”
Jarod Charzewski, a professor of sculpture at the College of Charleston, has adopted one of Robson’s short-term school projects and engaged his students to follow the curriculum this semester. On Sept. 26, the group of 14 students, provided burlap bags and gloves, visited Sullivan’s Island in search of plastic refuse and other objects that might be converted into art.
Charzewski didn’t think Sullivan’s Island would offer up large amounts of trash.
“Surprisingly, we found a lot of stuff,” he said. “I wasn’t very optimistic about finding things, but we didn’t have any problem.” Lots of litter. Lots of objects washed up on the beach or tangled in the dunes. Lots of plastic.
On Oct. 17, Robson will attend the final critique of the student project, he said. Then there could be an exhibition and auction to raise money for the Surfrider Foundation, whose goal is to protect the oceans and beaches of the world.
Jordan’s show “Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait” was mounted at the Halsey seven years ago. It consisted of large images, rendered on a computer, each featuring a single component used as a building block: Paper bags, plastic cups, bottle caps, light bulbs, cell phones.
The artist was making a statement about consumerism. Each image included a caption that drove home the point. For example: “Oil Barrels” from 2008 “depicts 28,000 42-gallon barrels, the amount of oil consumed in the United States every two minutes (equal to the flow of a medium-sized river).” Another image “depicts 1 million plastic cups, the number used on airline flights in the US every six hours.” You get the idea.
A recent addition to Jordan’s “Running the Numbers” series will be on display at the Halsey this time around. It’s a rendering of Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” made with 240,000 individual pictures of plastic bags, the amount consumed worldwide every 10 seconds.
Other images to hang in the Halsey gallery are part of a different project Jordan has been working on for several years, called “Midway.” These include still photographs of albatross killed by consuming pieces of plastic, as well as dramatic, high-resolution representations of the ocean itself. These pictures are spinoffs of the project’s main work, a documentary film called “Albatross.”
“The film sort of grew out of the ‘Running the Numbers’ project in a way, because there was something about ‘Running the Numbers’ that felt a little unsatisfying to me,” Jordan said. It was an abstraction of a major global threat. “I was seeking a way to confront and comprehend these global issues on a more personal level.”
In 2008, he learned about plastic pollution, which was beginning to capture the attention of researchers. He resolved to photograph the infamous Pacific Garbage Patch, a quasi-mythical swirling vortex of debris in the middle of the ocean.
It turns out the patch is not quite concentrated enough to photograph. Much of the waste floats beneath the surface, much of it is diffuse, much is carried long distances by the currents, some washes up on remote islands. It breaks down into smaller and smaller bits. So Jordan needed to find another way to illustrate the dangers of modern consumerism.
“If you really want to photograph ocean plastic,” an environmental intern he met at a conference told him, “go to Midway Island and photograph the stomachs of dead baby albatrosses.”
He and a film crew went multiple times. He encountered a million of the birds, which have no natural enemies and were unafraid of the man with the cameras. What Jordan saw was astounding. He captured it all with his high-resolution cameras. The resulting film will be screened at the Charleston Music Hall at 7 p.m. Oct. 25. Admission is free.
Jordan noted that the impacts of plastic on the natural world are profound — literally a matter of life and death — but that plastics don’t represent (at least not yet) an existential threat to the albatross. Since his first visit to Midway, the bird population actually increased to 1.5 million, he said.
“Plastic is not making the birds go extinct, so a conversation around it doesn’t have to be about ‘saving the birds,’ ” Jordan said. “The individual deaths are tragic, but we can look at what’s happening there as a message to ourselves.”
That message is dire.
Huge amounts of the chemicals and material waste we produce end up in the oceans, where is it dispersed, often measurable in parts per billion or trillion. But plastic molecules act as magnets that attract toxins. Their structure allows for such compounds to adhere, Jordan noted.
So when scientists analyze bits of plastic, they are discovering toxins in parts per thousand — much higher concentrations. And nanoparticles are now part of the food chain.
“Ocean plastic might be the way that all the nasty stuff gets back from the ocean and into our bodies,” Jordan said.
“Up until I went back to Midway Island for the second time, I had been in a (frame of mind) that a lot of environmentalists are in these days, a feeling that the world’s in really bad shape,” he said. “But being on that island is like being inside a poem: Everything there is like a metaphor, everything there is a symbol for something else,” he said. “The name of the island, for example. It could be Coconut Island or something like that, but it’s Midway.”
And that struck him as appropriate.
“We are midway to our own destruction, and caught between the horror and beauty,” he said.
His film “Albatross” is meant to show how necessary it is to find balance with the natural world.
“Yes, there’s a lot of bad news, but that’s not the whole story,” Jordan said. “The world is still a miracle, and each one of us has received this amazing incomprehensible gift of life.”
The question is, what are we going to do now?