Walking into the current exhibition at USC Fisher Museum of Art we are met with a symbol of abundance – a cornucopia. This is not your average depiction of bounty. The cornucopia is a massive black menacing visual with a variety of colorful objects spewing from its mouth. The installation more closely resembles a monster from a sci-fi flick belching up the innards of an unsuspecting victim. The work is by Pam Longobardi, and is titled Bounty, Pilfered. It is created from nearly 2,500 pieces of ocean plastic removed from beaches in Alaska, Greece, Hawaii, Costa Rica and the Gulf of Mexico. She, along with 24 other artists, is part of a traveling group exhibition Gyre: The Plastic Ocean organized by Alaska’s Anchorage Museum.
The exhibition is a display of both art and science. A gyre is a system of revolving currents that are shaped by the rotation of the earth and wind. Worldwide there are five major gyres and many minor ones that collect marine debris amassing giant islands of trash. The major gyres are located in the North Pacific, South Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. The largest, the North Pacific Gyre, also known as the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ has an affected area estimated to be twice the size of the United States. The gyres circulate the world’s trash, distributing debris throughout the globe.
In 2013, Longobardi, along with a cohort of artists, scientists and educators were invited by the Anchorage Museum to travel to the Alaska coastline to collect plastics that washed up on the shores of some of the most desolate land on earth. All were stunned by the beauty of the terrain contrasted by the contamination of the coastal region. The exhibition is the result of this expedition. A film by National Geographic documents the journey and can be viewed on a monitor in the gallery.
Each object within the show has a powerful message. A Golden Plover Found and Photographed on Midway Atoll, photographed by Susan Middleton, is sobering image of a bird that starved to death trying to free itself from a plastic ring caught around its beak and neck.
Marine life, large and small, is ingesting plastic with deadly results. The Entire Stomach Contents of ‘Shed Bird’, also photographed by Middleton, illustrates a sample of the trash mistaken for food. Lighters, bottle caps and plastic fragments sealed the fate of this unsuspecting creature. The photographs are disturbing yet artfully executed. Large in scale, they confront the viewer with the gruesome reality of man’s detrimental effect on our ecosystem.
Plastic is a relatively recent invention. The first fully synthetic plastic was patented in 1909 by Leo Baekeland. By World War II production of plastics intensified and slowly became common. Up until this point, people would reuse items until they wore out. By the 1970s plastics were widely promoted and a throw away culture of convenience was born. The problem of their disposal has been an issue ever since.
Included in the exhibition is a sculpture from Los Angeles based artist Cynthia Minet’s “Unsustainable Creature Series.” Pack Dogs is made from a variety of plastic containers, toys, even contact lens containers shaped to create anatomically accurate animals. Illuminated from within, each dog includes colorful LED lights representing Alaska’s northern lights. The dogs are tied together with coaxial cable symbolizing human dependence on electricity and technology. The artwork draws people in, appealing to the viewer on an emotional and intellectual level.
Raising awareness is the first step for change. The Gyre exhibition is beautifully enticing yet deeply disturbing. This contradictory theme runs throughout the galleries and is the exhibitions’ greatest strength.
Impactful visual narratives coupled with statistics, maps and scientific data give museum goers a global perspective of our consumer culture. The attentive viewer comes away with a profound understanding of how plastics are creating an environmental catastrophe that needs to be addressed.
Gyre: The Plastic Ocean continues at USC Fisher Museum of Art, Los Angeles, through November 21, 2015
For more information visit: fisher.usc.edu
Written and photographed by Donna Granata