One brightly colored sand shovel. One plastic ring from a packaged drink. One foam flip-flop. One discarded water bottle.
Each object seems so small in comparison to the boundless ocean, no individual bit of our garbage a threat to the sea and the creatures that live within it. It's easy to ignore that billions of humans are contributing their own bits of trash to a waste problem that threatens the stability of ocean life.
In a traveling exhibit, "Gyre: The Plastic Ocean," organized by Anchorage Museum and now on display at the USC Fisher Museum of Art in Los Angeles, artists take the seemingly petty individual sin of littering and shine a light on the collective cost: mountains of abandoned flip-flops, handfuls of plastic rings, structures built of bottles found washed ashore.
"These artworks are testaments to the negative impact of our consumptive practices and reminders of the ongoing damage we subject our natural environment to," USC Fisher Museum curator Ariadni Liokatis told The Huffington Post via email.
The pieces stand on their own and work powerfully together as art, but Liokatis also pointed out that "as a university museum, we bring arts, sciences and other disciplines together." The strength of the art hopefully serves to "raise awareness to a very important and increasingly critical subject matter, that is plastic pollution in our oceans," she said.
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The striking beauty of these pieces, which mostly feature cleaned, artfully arranged waste, can be unsettling at times, like realizing you're eagerly enjoying a thriller novel about real, horrific murders. What are the implications of using the sanitizing effect of aesthetic appeal to draw attention to a problem that should horrify us?
Liokatis countered this question with an uncomfortable reality: "The visually pleasing aspect of these artworks [...] effectively and creatively captures the public’s attention, and hopefully will elicit the public’s engagement." We're far less likely to stare in awe at a sludgy, repulsive piece of art, but the bait of a mesmerizing image constructed solely of ocean trash lures us in.
In conjunction with the exhibit, Fisher is also displaying Cynthia Minet's "Beasts of Burden," an ecologically minded installation drawn from her series "Unsustainable Creatures." Minet's "Pack Dogs" is on show as part of "Gyre."
"Gyre: The Plastic Ocean" is on display at the USC Fisher Museum of Art from Sept. 2 to Nov. 21, 2015.
CORRECTION: This post has been updated to clarify that Ariadni Liokatis is curator at the USC Fisher Museum of Art.
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