Mandy Barker and Aurora Robson – the creative’s role in tackling climate change: artists must reach out to the wider society and what looks beautiful leads to what is horrific
Since the dawn of our history, we have made sculptures and paintings of our gods and goddesses to honor them. We used the persuasive power of images to strengthen empires and monarchies and crushed political opponents’ legacies by tearing down their statues and obliterating their faces from painting and mosaics as part of the damnatio memoriae. «All my work is based on scientific research and working along with scientists. I either read an article or attend an international marine plastic conference. if I see a particular issue related to plastic pollution that really shocks me and needs representation, I may do a project about it». Said Mandy Barker, whose work shows and illustrates scientists’ work as seen through the eyes of an artist. «For example, my Beyond Drifting series is about a phenomenon happening in the ocean: plankton is ingesting microplastic particles, mistaking them for food. This is something that disturbed me». British photographer Mandy Barker and Canadian-American sculptor Aurora Robson are two artists who use the power of their artistic voices to instigate change.
This Beyond Drifting series, shortlisted for the 2017 Prix Pictet Award Space, is presented like a XIX century science book, inspired by ‘Imperfectly Known Animals’, the 1830 memoir of John Vaughan Thompson. Like the pioneering discoveries of this marine biologist and naturalist, Mandy Barker’s interest in plastic pollution was born on the British Isles coast. «I haven’t started doing photography seriously until I saw plastic washed up the shore. I am normally a graphic designer. I went back to my local beach and saw more and more plastic piling up. I started taking pictures. If the people who don’t live near the coast and don’t get to see these scenes find out about this issue through my photos, maybe they will want to change things». Since then, her work has been published in over 40 different countries, while the artist herself traveled to the four corners of the world accompanying researchers on scientific expeditions.
Several artworks, including her projects Luna sea, Crown 2.5l, and Shelf-life, were created as documentations of the Henderson Island Expedition. «I went there in 2019 as part of a multidisciplinary team. The island is one of the remotest places on Earth, located in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. It took us many days to get there. Henderson Island is uninhabited and one of the world’s best remaining examples of an elevated coral atoll ecosystem. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and hosts many endemic species of flowering plants, land birds, insects, and gastropods». Despite its isolation, Henderson Island’s East Beach has become a symbol of humanity’s negative impact on the environment. «In 2017, it was declared the most densely plastic polluted beach on the planet. I was invited to this expedition by scientists to go along with them and create artworks that would show what’s happening on this island, which is more than 5,000 kilometers (3,100 mi) away from the nearest major landmass. All the plastic that is there washed up on the shore has traveled through the ocean from thousands of miles away». Over 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year. Rivers take the plastic waste from the land to the sea, where at least 8 million tons of plastic end up every year. Once there, these objects are carried by the seas for miles and miles while breaking down into microplastics. Depending on the currents, the tides, the winds, and the season, discarded plastic objects of all sorts can wash up on the coastline, sometimes thousands of kilometers away from where they were made or utilized. «Sometimes, I go to the areas affected by the phenomenon I want to document, and there I collect the plastic. Later, I take photos of it in my studio. In the Henderson Island case, I photographed the objects in a cave on the black background I brought there, as it wasn’t possible to bring much plastic back with me».
With a mastery shown only by those who have mastered their craft, Mandy Barker has given life to an opus that tells a story of elegance and horror. «I try to make my work look beautiful to attract people. They can look at the image, read what it represents, and be shocked by that realization. In a way, beauty is a device to get people’s attention. There are so many images out there in this day and age. That’s why I try to create something interesting and attractive. Of course, it’s a contradiction because I am creating art about a horrific issue: in a way, I am combining opposites». As it is apparent in our everyday lives, plastic pollution is all but hidden in Mandy Barker’s photos too, where it shows through a layer of harmony and splendor. Ready to make us focus on the crisis happening in our oceans and seas. «I make sure that people can clearly identify the different plastic objects present in my pictures. When I have exhibitions, I see that people are surprised when they discover that toothbrushes and lighters have been recovered from birds’ stomachs». The total plastic waste produced since the mid-XX century amounts to about 6300 Mt, of which around 9% has been recycled. Microplastics, tiny plastic particles that result from the breakdown of larger plastics, have not only reached even the remotest corners of our planet but have also made their way into our food chain.
«People of all ages and all walks of life feel powerless around this issue. Most people are becoming aware that plastic is a petroleum-based material. It’s the number one ingredient in all of these types of plastic. There are all of these people trying to be ethical consumers, but it’s almost impossible to spend a day without touching plastic and consuming plastic. It has insidiously made its way into the most intimate aspects of our lives». Aurora Robson, environmental multimedia artist, grew up in Maui, Hawaii, in a turbulent household. Her childhood nightmares from the time have inspired her artworks. Her sculptures are curvilinear, no straight lines, and have an otherworldly and fantastical feel to them, derived from the combination of natural organic forms and the visual representation of her recurring childhood nightmares. «The basis of my work is trying to subjugate the negativity». Over the past decade, Robson has been exploring plastic debris as a viable art material, challenging the arbitrary hierarchy that sees this material as disposable and inferior. «When I was living in New York, I saw this litter, composed of mostly plastic bottles, outside my studio in Brooklyn while I was working on my paintings. I noticed that they had the same complex compound curves I was trying to depict in my paintings. I wasn’t trying to become a sculptor because it’s so much harder from a logistical standpoint, but I thought that I had to play around and explore that material that was right there in front of me. At the time, I didn’t know that plastic pollution was such a big environmental issue, but as soon as I started working with it, it was as if a veil was lifted».
In a scientific, metrological approach to art, Robson isolates variables and tries to understand the properties of different commonly-produced types of plastic. This way, she can understand what applications would be suitable for a certain type of plastic. Earlier in her career, Robson utilized hardware to assemble pieces. Over the past five years, she shifted towards other techniques, such as ultrasonic welding, to eliminate unnecessary material use. Her goal is to make the studio zero waste. «We need to end the hypocrisy in our practices. Many artists are trying to talk about climate change and environmental issues in their artworks. Still, in the meantime, they are using all these toxic chemicals and buying virgin materials. Enough is enough. We know that we can’t keep up with our consumptive practices’ velocity. Artists need to figure out how to work with what’s already here and make their work as environmentally conscious as possible». Art disconnects itself from society when made to cater to the viewer’s aesthetic taste and enjoyment, deprived of meaning and purpose. By choosing to focus their art on the challenges affecting humanity; instead, artists can reach out to the wider society by using their talent to inform, move, and connect people as facilitators of change.
Aurora Robson seeks to find beauty in other people’s litter and turn it into art, merging the horror of her own childhood nightmares and the reality of plastic pollution with nature-inspired shapes in a dialogue between personal and global fears. Robson sculptures open our eyes to her inner world and subvert the hierarchy that sees plastic debris and other repurposed materials as inferior by transforming the remnants of other people’s life into creations that channel grace and horror, while raising awareness about climate change and plastic pollution.
Mandy Barker is an international award-winning photographer whose work involving marine plastic debris over the past 10 years has received global recognition. Working with scientists she aims to raise awareness about plastic pollution in the world’s oceans, highlighting the harmful affect on marine life and ourselves – ultimately leading the viewer to take action.