Our Plastic Ocean: Exhibition Review

‘Our Plastic Ocean’ by Mandy Barker at Waterside Arts, Sale

Photography by Richard Kelly

Everyone knows about the the crisis we are in at the moment with our use of plastic. It is actually disgusting how much we use and how much we waste. Artist and Photographer Mandy Barker explores in her work how much of our plastic ends up in our oceans. It’s gritty, thought-provoking, and yet beautiful all at the same time.

Have you heard about The Great Pacific Garbage Patch? Basically, it is an accumulation of plastics that have formed together to create a floating plastic island. Taken from The Ocean Clean Up website, they say ‘The GPGP covers an estimated surface area of 1.6 million square kilometers, an area twice the size of Texas or three times the size of France.’ Jesus.

The plastic collected from our oceans and on display here in ‘Our Plastic Ocean’ is only a tiny tiny, tiny tiny snippet of what is out there, floating in the sea and on our shores. Barker’s aim is to draw our attention to the severity of the situation, to make us re-think and change the way we live, to start a conversation about what we can do and how we can change. She does that by creating amazing photography and sculptures too.

I first notice, in a series of photographs of singular plastic items named ‘Indefinite’, how crisp the images are. They seem to blend science and art together, as though we are looking at a study through a microscope. Yet, some of these items seem to be floating, like they are still in the sea. The pitch-black background colour of these images really makes the plastic items stand out and give a sense of the deep depths of the ocean. Some of these tangled pieces of plastic (wires, sheets, robes and gloves) could be paintings. The colours, the textures and details – these images are beautiful, but the meaning behind them, not so much.

Side note – Why aren’t bottle tops recycle-able? I don’t get it. We can make new limbs that sync with the mind and move as a real limb would. We can build huge flying aircrafts that stay in the sky, carry loads of people and move at thousands of miles per hour – yet we haven’t invited bottle caps that we can recycle?!

In Barker’s series named ‘Soup’ she has collected items of the same ‘ingredients’ and gathered them together. ‘Lighter’ soup was one of my favourite pieces. Hundreds of plastic, different coloured lighters seem to be swimming together in the photograph. The way they are positioned reminds me of all sorts of natural things, like they are caught in a tornado, swirling around and dropping debris everywhere. Then I bring it back to the ocean and realise that they remind me of shoal of fish, all gathering together, safety in numbers type-of-thing. They look like little tropical fish, all colourful like a rainbow, shiny, small and swimming along. I have no idea how Barker does it. I assume it is all on Photoshop, but it must take so long – I am very impressed.

I wasn’t expecting to see sculptures at this exhibition, but there, hanging in the centre of the room, was a sculpture made up of lost and lonely footballs. This piece looks like something you’d see in the Tate, it’s very contemporary and would slot in nicely the work you’d expect to see there. I look at these hanging balls, tied up in their net, and wonder where they have all come from, what countries? They look eerily similar to how they started ‘their life’ – all bundled together, tied up in a net, ready to be purchased and ready to be played with. I wondered how many children have cried over balls that they have lost to the sea. And I have to say it – WILSON!!!!!

This sculpture links with a photograph named ‘Penalty’. The description of the piece explains the double meaning of the name. A penalty, obviously in football terms is a result of a punishment, an action taken after a player has ‘ballsed’ up. It also is a fine, a warning, we are being told off for our actions. This piece, and this exhibition as a whole, is a warning to us, what is going to happen to our planet and our oceans if we continue to live how we are. The idea behind ‘Penalty’ came from the 2014 World Cup, and Barker did a call out asking for balls that people have found in the ocean and on our shores. 992 balls were collected following that call. Wowsers.

There is an interaction element to the exhibition, a little library of books about our plastic use, with paper where you can leave suggestions and your thoughts about what we are doing to our planet. On the wall is a sign of 7 ways we can help, and I am proud to say I do most of these:

  • Carry a reusable water bottle
  • Bring your own shopping bag
  • Say no to plastic cutlery and straws
  • Pack you lunch in a reusable container
  • Swap bathroom bottles for soap bars
  • Use a bamboo toothbrush
  • Take part in a beach clean or litter pick up in your area

I feel like there is so much we could do, but that we aren’t doing to help combat our plastic crisis. After visiting ‘Our Plastic Ocean’ I have not only found a new artist whose work I admire, but I have had a think about things I could change, and I am pretty sure that was the artists intention. Her work is beautiful, you can truly see the talent in the images and the sculptures are fascinating. And at the same time, I feel guilty, sad, and I wonder how and if things are going to change. Is it too little too late? I hope not.

Our Plastic Ocean‘ by Mandy Barker is on at Waterside Arts, Sale from 7th January – 10th March.


Our guest photographer is Richard Kelly, a fine art & advertising photographer normally specialising in music and portraiture. You can his work via www.rkellyphoto.com


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