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The Green Life: Stunning Art Made from Trash

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November 07, 2013

Stunning Art Made from Trash

Sandles trash art and photo by John Dahlsen
"Thongs" by John Dahlsen

An ad for a new line of footwear at Old Navy? Nope, these brightly colored sandals are part of an art piece for a new show at the Anchorage Museum. The exhibition if part of the Gyre Project, a collaboration between scientists, artists, museums, and filmmakers. The art they've produced will inspire, and just maybe shock you (see photos below). 

Art has helped build awareness with other global environmental issues that are hard to see. In 2010, artists "flooded" dry arroyos in New Mexico with blue art visible from space. “The world’s best scientists have tried to wake up politicians to the climate crisis,” said Bill McKibben, a spokesperson for 350.org. “Now we’re counting on artists to help.” Other provocative eco art has included giant polar bear sculptures and melting portraits

The Gyre Project builds the eco-awareness for a different crisis: non-biodegradable plastic trash, which collects in the world oceans and washes ashore in pristine places like southwestern Alaska. The "gyres" are gyrating systems of currents that keep trash circulating in loops. Trash collected for the exhibition come from the northern Pacific gyre.

Artist Mark Dion sorts plastic found on the beach photo by Kip EvansThis past summer, the Gyre Project team traveled to that very coastline, photographed debris, and collected trash washed up on the beach. Then, artists went to work interpreting the diffuse global littering crisis into tangible works of art. 

Looking at artist John Dahlsen's "Thongs," (an Australian term for sandals) you can see both beauty and horror, both mindless production and human ingenuity. Mass production. Efficiency. Design. The sandals also show signs of wear. Have they been degraded by the ocean or worn or by human feet? Used or not, they've made it into the sea and invaded habitats of wild creatures. 

Marine debris is a global tragedy," says an off-camera voice in a video trailer of the Anchorage exhibition. "You have to touch a person's soul in order to change a person's behavior."

So many of these pieces subtly ask "Do we need all of this stuff?"


Tires underwater art and photo by Elizabeth Leader
"Tires Underwater" by Elizabeth Leader







With Elizabeth Leader's "Tires Underwater," the question might be "What kind of future do we want?" Many of the artists in this exhibition tease out human emotion. (Who doesn't have a joyous childhood swimming memory?) Then, they draw a contrast with the scientific realities of pollution. 



Stomach contents of a shed bird art and photo by Susan Middleton
"Shed Bird Stomach Contents" by Susan Middleton







Susan Middleton takes advantage of our natural curiosity. What could these objects all have in common? But she punishes us with the heartbreaking answer. These specters of our consumption made it into the stomach of a bird. Each piece was small enough to enter its gullet, and too artificial to escape. 

"I particularly hate these," says one artist, holding a disposable Bic lighter in his hand. "Because I've seen albatrosses dead and packed with them."

However the Gyre Project isn't a depression-fest. The exhibition in itself is a beacon of hope, showing that we can understand our relationship with nature. The artists also attest to the transformative effects of picking up trash and helping save wildlife.

"The action of cleaning a beach changes you," says Pam Longobardi, another artist from the trip. "It puts you in the position of care, and understanding something about our connection to the natural world." You can learn more about the Gyre Project and the artist's trip in the video below. 


Cedar Attanasio Sierra MagazineCedar Attanasio is an editorial intern at Sierra. He has blogged for The National Geographic Daily NewsPeter Greenberg Worldwide, and others. A graduate of Middlebury College and a 2012 K. Davis Language Fellow, Cedar is a perpetual student of Brazilian Portuguese, Spanish, and all things Latin America. You can follow him on twitter @cedarattanasio.


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