Art Works Blog

The Art of Marine Debris?

Visual artist Anne Percoco created a mobile sculpture Indra's Cloud made of more than 1,000 water bottles sewn together with plastic rope. The sculpture was floated down the severely polluted Yamuna River in India and around the town Vrindavan to highlight the profoundly degraded condition of the river as well as to bring to life a local myth about the rain god Indra. Photo by Anne Percoco courtesy of the Anchorage Museum.

How do you explore the problem of marine debris? Turns out you need both science and art, which is why the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, Alaska, is partnering with the Anchorage Museum to have a group of artists accompany a team of scientists aboard the ship R/V Norseman in a research expedition that will explore the impact of marine debris on various ecosystems. The project---which has just received a $39,000 grant from the NEA---also will include GYRE, an exhibition of the artists’ responses to the expedition along with pieces by other artists who incorporate marine debris in their work or who have been active in ocean environment issues. To learn more about the project, we spoke with Howard Ferren, director of conversation at the Alaska SeaLife Center, and Julie Decker, chief curator at the Anchorage Museum.

NEA: Howard, what inspired you to address the problem of marine debris via the arts?

HOWARD FERREN: This inspiration is rooted in decades of watching my wife Dyan collect found objects for her art. Then jumping to the expeditions that we do as part of our work at the Alaska SeaLife Center, these can be powerful experiences, jolting the mind and emotions when one is cast against the majestic, rugged, and raw environment of Alaska. So art is a means to interpret the problem within that landscape.

As a scientist I recognize how critical it is that we address the problem of marine debris. I believe we can reach more people through the arts, beyond those involved with marine debris cleanup, in essence crafting another dialogue.

NEA: Julie, why would people in your museum be interested in an exhibition about marine debris?

JULIE DECKER: One of the things that’s unique about our museum is that we are dealing with all disciplines under one roof. We have science and history, anthropology, culture, art, all as part of our mission. For us it was natural to consider an exhibition opportunity with the SeaLife Center.

Our favorite exhibitions are those that don’t have dividing lines between disciplines. Artists are curious passionate people who betray boundaries all the time. Artists can speak to the science issues very articulately and have become scientists through their artistic investigations.

Marine debris is more than an Alaska story. People have this impression of a pristine Alaskan wilderness but yet we in Alaska are still consumed by human consumption and trash, even trash that we haven’t generated ourselves but that’s coming from all over the world. We’re starting the story here but then through the work of artists from around the world, we’ll be look at the bigger picture.

NEA: Is there any typical trash? I think immediately of water bottles, or does it vary?

DECKER: It really is a mix. It all boils down to plastics because they float and don’t degrade.

FERREN: I have hanging on my wall next to my computer a lei that was given to me by an artist, Andrew McNaughton, who is from Kenya. The lei is composed of little, artful, colorful pieces cut from flip flops that wash up on the coast of Africa.

Also, I have been in contact with a program in northern Australia on the Gulf of Carpentaria. Some of the coastal communities there, many of these Aboriginal, are reliant on their historical fishing grounds. They have been heavily impacted by fishing gear that originates in Southeast Asia and Indonesia that happens to end up in their water as ghost nets that are still functioning after years and years at sea resulting in the death of fish, birds, and animals due to entanglement.

DECKER: And there there’s the tsunami trash from Japan. About the time of our exhibition in 2014 we’ll be seeing the peak of that hitting our coastline.

NEA: How did you choose artists for this project?

DECKER: We are looking for artists who have been embedded in ocean environment issues. We’re interested in artists who can create large-scale works and who can be spokespeople for the issue. We’re limited to 16 people in the boat for the expedition and are still investigating additional artists for the exhibition who already use marine debris as part of their work. We’re also interested in artists who have been a voice for the environment and who could look at the issue and create work based on it.

FERREN: We wanted a team of accomplished artists for the expedition, a team that would offer synergy under difficult expedition conditions, a team versed in different techniques and tools. We also wanted the voice of a native Alaskan artist to tap into the local, indigenous, spiritual connection so we selected Sonya Kelliher-Combs.

NEA: Can you talk more about the relationship of art and science in general?

FERREN: I mentioned at a conference once that we have “the art of brilliant scientists or the science of brilliant artists.” We scientists often fail to translate science to a broader public, and we often inadequately use art as an interpretive tool to inform and open the heart and mind to new viewpoints.

DECKER: You can’t express an artist’s vision without talking about the science. Artists have become embedded in these issues. Art provides a narrative for the science that’s much more tangible to people. Artists articulate in a visual way so that you understand the issue immediately. Chris Jordan’s photographs are a great example of communicating a vast issue in an instant.

NEA: Any additional comments?

FERREN: I have a wall of art in my office, art that reflects different scientific, conservation, and policy issues. Each issue might be boring given a stack of papers to read. But weekly, someone will step into my office to ask about the art. The inquisitive mind sparked, the science discussion can begin. Conversely, each piece of art was crafted by someone knowledgeable of the topic interpreted.

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