Texts & Reviews

By Andy Hughes
Edited by Martina Heintke

Surfboard under arm and walking along the sand dunes back to my car after surfing at Sker Point, South Wales, I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my left hand. I noticed that some sort of splinter had embedded itself into the palm of my hand. While it hadn’t bothered me while out there, concentrating on catching that wave, it was really starting to bother me now. After a long soak in a hot bath I had a go at digging out the offending article with a fine needle. And when the tiny fragment finally made it to the surface I still couldn’t quite make out what it was. As is always the case with splinters, they make you take a really close look, don’t they? You’re only wondering how anything so tiny can cause you so much pain. But much like an alien implant as often discussed in ufology, I found it difficult to determine what the hell this thing was made of. After very close inspection it turned out to be ‘just’ a small shard of plastic.

Isn’t it kind of peculiar, how such a ‘non-event’ – and it really is not worth writing home about in the greater scheme of things – can embed itself into one’s mind. A minor incident stored forever in the personal memory bank, popping back up into conscious thought decades later as the bigger picture emerges: the world’s oceans have become even more littered with man-made plastic waste.

But pollution and floating waste is nothing new or particular to the 21st century. My own experiences as a young surfer in the late 80s surfing at Sker Point, a small rocky outcrop just a few miles from the Port Talbot Steelworks and the local’s surfing location of choice when other, better spots weren’t working, gave me an early awareness of human/consumerist detritus and the problems inherent in it. Sitting astride the board in the brown dirty sea waiting for the right wave, it was not uncommon to see all manner of unpleasant things floating past: the odd panty-liner or condom, even excrement – you just had to block it out of your mind.

Dominica Williamson

Sker Bay, South Wales. Mixed media illustration by Dominica Williamson

Regular surfers would often suffer from a host of different infections – no doubt caused by all sorts of pathogens present in the seawater. This part of the Welsh coastline, and indeed many other parts of the British Isles, was suffering heavily from ocean pollution. The invention of the flush toilet and the sewage system during the later stages of the 19th Century obviously had a lot to answer for. And then in the 1980s and 90s another pollution threat made headlines: many European countries labelled Britain ‘the dirty man of Europe’ for its air pollution, as industrial power plants emitted high levels of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere. Carried away by the wind these emissions would come down on other, mostly Scandinavian countries as acid rain, destroying trees and aquatic life further afield. The arrival of the environmental age and the realisation that pollution knows no boundaries.

Learning to surf as an art student aged just twenty-two certainly opened my eyes to environmental pollution as I witnessed its effects on Sker beach first-hand: large amounts of coal particles washed up from the nearby steelworks interspersed with other debris. The coal tended to render the beach black, which made the usually brightly coloured plastic waste stand out like jewels presented on a black velvet cushion. Having grown up in a blue-collar mining community in Yorkshire I had been accustomed to industrial pollution and how detrimental it can be to human health. My grandfather was a coal miner and died aged 63 of emphysema as a result of breathing and ingesting coal dust. Slag heaps, power station smoke stacks and cooling towers were the backdrop to my youth. The coast on the other hand had always appeared to me to be a place of unadulterated beauty, pristine air and waters, a place to go on holiday, rejuvenate and rejoice. But maybe I had to venture farther still, away from anywhere industrial.

And in 1995 I did just that. I moved to Cornwall, coined the “Cornish Riviera” as it is warmed by the Gulf Stream and boasts a very temperate microclimate where even some palm varieties are able to grow, where the sand on the beaches is white, the seas are clear blue and where millions of holidaymakers flock each summer to enjoy sand, sea and surf. And since the days of Whistler and Turner holidaying and painting in St. Ives at the beginning of the 20th century, followed by artists such as Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, Naum Gabo and Mark Rothko, art practice has been an important aspect in this part of Britain. But once there, I quickly found that all was not as pristine as it seemed. Local surfers had started a campaign called “Surfers against Sewage” as they found themselves contracting viral illnesses. So here I am, living in a place where people pay to come on holiday, and yet, during my daily walks along the beaches near my home I came across the same flotsam and jetsam that I had encountered before. Washed up waste, plastic waste mainly.

My own ‘journeying’ across the dunes and beaches at low tide all follow a certain pattern: short walks, long walks, walking the dogs, and so on. Land and sea appear like a curtain in continuous motion. During these walks it is not the organic forms, or shells, nor seaweed or other organic matter that stands out for me, it is the abject matter of humanity that punctuates the experience of the walk for me, leaving a lasting impression. The object – first made, then desired, and finally rejected by man/woman – within its natural setting, the place where it finally came to rest by sheer happenstance. In my photographs rubbish is rendered as part of the contemporary sublime. The use of scale and saturated colours help to draw the eye to the subject (or object/abject). The viewer’s response is one of ambiguity: in the first instance the mind is seduced by a beautiful aestheticism absolved from contextual meaning (i.e. “This is a beach and this rubbish should not be here.”), followed by the secondary reaction of repulsion, when the mind realises and computes the contextual meaning as “This is a beach and this rubbish should not be here”.

Wherever we go in the world – waste is all around. But as waste is transported on large container ships away from one nation or continent to another to be treated, utilised, and ultimately manufactured into new waste, the oceans’ currents do their bit to transport all other ‘unorganised’ waste streams around our planet to wash up where it will. There isn’t a place on this globe where traces of plastic cannot be found. No longer a mere local problem, but a huge global problem. Plastic waste seems to me to be the ultimate Kristevian abject matter – once desired, then discarded and reviled. What we can’t see may not bother us, but just imagine the ultimate effect of plastic flotsam for a minute: with nature exerting its abrasive forces plastic items will break into smaller pieces over time – as my splinter story so aptly demonstrates. Personally, I fear that the toxic elements of plastic will enter the food chain, climbing all the way up to the top, where ultimately it’ll be ending inside my body. Embedded once again.

Convergence Zone: The Aesthetics and Politics of the Ocean in Contemporary Art and Photography
By Abigail Susik

Published in Drain
Drain is a refereed on-line journal published biannually. The journal seeks to promote lively and well-informed debate around theory and praxis. Each issue of Drain will have a specific concept that it explores. We are especially keen to publish pieces that connect the conceptual framework of each issue to themes such as globalization, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and new technologies, as well as ethical and aesthetic concerns. 

Full Text Here

One artist working in this vein is the British photographer Andy Hughes, who photographs beach trash at his home of West Cornwall as well as at beaches internationally. In Hughes’s hands, the familiar beached flotsam takes on a strangely monumental identity, not entirely unlike its precursor in Haacke’s monument to beach trash (Fig. 8). Looming large in the frame, and exquisitely lit, these cast-off commodities become ironic monoliths of this age of humanity, the plastic era. As if seen from the distant future, Hughes depicts them as melancholy relics of a lost culture that consigned itself to doom through overproduction. 

Book Review of Dominant Wave Theory
By Tim Smit (co-founder and CEO of The Eden Project)
When you run a place like the Eden Project you have the privilege of receiving presentations and meeting literally hundreds of artists who either want to get involved on the ground or who simply want a space in which to exhibit their work. After a while you become blasé because in truth most of what you see is good but derivative of something else. Andy Hughes is something else entirely. I first came across his work on a calendar for Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), the campaigning organisation to clean up our seas and beaches. The pictures were startling because they forced you to look at familiar things through a different lens.The commonplace, the unwanted detritus of everyday life was here given its moment in the spotlight, a dignity returned. In an elegant way the camera caused a transformation from trash to art and, in so doing, stimulated the imagination to consider the nature of waste and even consumption itself. In Andy Hughes’ hands a discarded water bottle can have the visual impact of a Dale Chihuly glasswork. In a sense, the knowledge that these pieces have been abandoned lends them a mystique and melancholy that objects of desire could only dream of having. Andy Hughes is a singular voice showing us something uncomfortable yet sweetened by the beauty of the image. This is something most great artists aspire to and Andy is, in my view, well on the way to carving an important place for himself in the top rank of photographers. Enjoy this book – I guarantee that many of the images will linger long in the imagination.

Art Now Cornwall
Susan Daniel-McElroy

The images in this exhibition come from Dominant Wave Theory, a recently published book of photographs made on various beaches around West Cornwall, Scotland and the USA over the last six years. An active member of Surfers Against Sewage, his photographs consider the epic and the everyday in the detritus washed up on the region’s shorelines. These are not ordinary photographs but express the latest twenty – first century developments in mass market colour photography – plastic on plastic you might say. In terms of subject matter and approach, some of these images recall the work of Keith Arnatt and his exhibition Rubbish and Recollections 1989. Originally a conceptual sculptor in the 1970′s, Arnatt placed his photographic work firmly in the British Landscape tradition with his Polythene Palmers 1987, photographs which ironically depicted Arcadia as described by Samuel Palmer in his utopian visions of landscape. Whilst Hughes’ images of plastic depicted in heroic scale may give us some concern about waste material and its impact upon a sensitive maritime environment, there is another side to these intelligent images. Hughes presents us with not only an ecological message but a knowing heady rush through artistic strategies using the power of photography’s saturated colour to highlight, frame, and play with scale, in an irreverent awareness of art historical practices. Using technical aspects of the medium to portray a tiny object as something of heroic scale is a favorite trick of photography as is is the careful crop and use of the rectangle to suggest something beyond the the picture plane [ for example, an extensive landscape]. In the context of the St Ives school, the artist knowledge has influenced a number of these images. But it is the distinctive nature of the medium that has been exploited all too often; photography has the capacity to picture the world in a most mysterious manner. It is as if the technology had a direct connection with the artist’s Id, where the collective experiences of his physical and cultural landscape have soaked into his mind reside. Perhaps this is why some of the objects portrayed here remind us of other things, suggesting a transformation has been made by the processes that govern photography. Why is it that a shard of plastic looks like a crashed UFO ? How can it be that that piece of foam looks like a bit of Robbie the Robet circa 1951 or a monster ( depending on which way you look at it) ? And how stunning is that landscape which jas the look of granite and stitching at the same time as it shocks you into realizing that it is the chain-mail gloved hand of a resting Saracen Knight ?

© TateGallery 2007 / Susan Daniel-McElroy

The New Landscape, Dr Harriet Hawkins
The more normal ‘rubbish aesthetic’ is to understand it as a symptom of a hysterical, histrionic reaction to an over consuming world. This is not the aesthetic of disposal that we find here. Rubbish has a rich, if not well studied, art history, both as art’s subject and its material. For many cultural theoreticians rubbish owes its criticality to the fragmentary aesthetic of Walter Benjamin and the modernist theorisations of Theodore Adorno and the Frankfurt School. For Adorno rubbish was base failure, the low point of civilisation to be set against ‘art’. For Benjamin, the fragment’s break down was the site of a critique of consumption. Contemporary critic Julian Stallabrass extends this to understand trash as the betrayal of the ‘capitalist’ wish symbol.
However, these understandings are of limited help in understanding Hughes’, or [Shanahan’s] work. In Hughes’ powerful images, rubbish is much more than the out of place detritus of daily life. Rather, the close-ups give us a monumental beauty in the texture and colour of these forms. In Hughes’ images, rubbish becomes part of the contemporary sublime, playing on the tensions of high and low that sit at the heart of this aesthetic. Hughes’ striking images offer a poetics of seaside trash; a detritus of a throwaway society amidst the detritus of nature. Across the suite of his images, our attention is drawn, through the large scale and saturated colours, both to the surprising beauty in these different rubbish forms, but also different sand grains upon which this man-made detritus sits. Sand that is after all the by product of the ocean’s own destructive tendencies.
If Hughes’ images form part of a contemporary sublime, then Shanahan’s work forms more of a contemporary picturesque. Tailing’s Dam, Goongumpas, 2008 (picture below) depicts a common scene of the post-industrial landscapes of Cornwall. The abandoned site becomes a place of calm beauty where the ruins of past productive landscapes become sites of aesthetic appeal. Shanahan’s image deploys the picturesque’s romantic reframings of ruination and decay in the post-industrial landscapes of Cornwall. The poignant reflection of the mine engine room reflected in the still water (a reminder of the absences of function and utility that would once have animated these sites), together with colours of mineral wash and the strewn debris of industrial activity, are here enrolled in a image of peaceable beauty. A rather different aesthetic informs the second of Shanhan’s images, Child’s grave, United Downs (2008). Here, reclaimed material (old chairs and plastic toys) come to form an impromptu, but not less emotive, memorial. In a powerful re-fetishisation, once discarded commodities form unlikely talismans and grave objects. Rather than meaningless, these objects hang heavy with absent presences; of the personal meanings these objects are imbued with and of the child.
The New Landscape, Royal Cornwall Museum
© Dr Harriet Hawkins, University of Exeter

Book Review by Stephen Brigdale

This forward thinking photography book features over 150 photographs by the artist Andy Hughes made on different beach locations from California to Western Cornwall. The book explores and examines the relationship of beach waste as both an object of visual enquiry and as a reference to the global environmental crisis. “Dominant wave theory”, we are told, ” is loosley based on a scientific term used in the prediction and observation of wave models”. The book sets out to parallel this idea visually through the observation of the beach as a local site for the interplay of nature and consumer culture.Through extraordinarily focused colour photographs of found waste objects, the reader is offered tangible stilled moments of reflection on the nature of these objects and left to ponder their place in the world now that their original purpose has been washed (eroded) away. This extensive archive of images forms the core of the project with the design and development of the book by David Carson working to heighten the visual scope and pace of the work. This is apparent in the scale, ordering and pairing of the images, creating thoughtful and revealing relationships throughout the book.The photographs are complemented by a collection of essays by five eminent writers, who are here linked through the common thread of the project but coming from a wide range of perspectives. They discuss ideas connected with the beach from eco-activism through to cultural theory and marine biology; their contribution extends and puts into context ideas initiated within the photographs.

The essays open with a discussion by Dr Christopher Short, of the visual context of Hughes’s work as a contemporary art practice. The wider implications of these photographs, in terms of art history through formalism and the development of modernism in St Ives (Hughes is based in West Cornwall), are speculated upon together with tourism in this locale to draw anthropological perspectives. The political dimensions of environmental activism; the tackling of waste and changing our relationship to waste generation, are developed in writings by Chris Hines and environmental advocate Joshua Karliner. The latter in his essay, discusses ecological and industrial development and counters with alternative futures. In contrast, the existence of the beach as a physical and metaphorical site are explored and linked with histories and archaeologies in the essay “The Beach as Ruin”. Here Lena Lencek makes wide ranging connections that play histories into the present and focus Andy Hughes’s work inhen time: as both representative of the present while simultaneously prophetic of possible dread futures. No less prophetic is the discussion, by Dr Richard Thompson, of scientific marine data, gathered about the effects of plastic debris in the world’s oceans; the scale and persistence of which makes shocking reading.The photographic work produced in this book creates references that allow a wide cross comparison between the images; this is carried through into the page design of the appendix which acts as both a catalogue of all the images and locations as well as an accumulating visual glossary of beach waste. The structure of this book is striking visually, defined by the everydayness of the objects and the uniqueness of their depiction.The breadth of ambition of this book is wide and the issues that are addressed of contemporary significance. Visually it deals with these in a thought provoking and seductive way; the essays extending these images into far reaching debates, the whole work culminating in an important contribution to the ecological paradigm. 

© Stephen Brigdale 2006
Stephen Brigdale is Senior lecturer in Photography and Visual Arts at Southampton Solent University. He is an artist and teacher working in the fields of photographic and moving image production.

Dominant Wave Theory – Extract From Book Essay by Lena Leneck
Andrew Hughes’ photographs of rubbish at the beach speak to this dread. His monumental photographs of the banal relics of our evermore super-sized and disposable lifestyles intimate the hidden depths that lurk beyond the superficial disgust with which beach junk fills us. We are dismayed by the desperate irony that the very beaches we seek out as physically and psychically restorative refuges are as irretrievably polluted as our toxic hinterlands’.

Library Journal Review |Deborah Miller – USA library Review

Hughes has been doggedly photographing human society’s flotsam on beaches for ten years. As a surfer, his relationship to the coastline is intimate, and his view is close and dramatic. He creates confounding magic from washed-up trash, plastic bottles, disposable beverage tops, tangled fishing wire, and deflated beach toys-just some of the objects he has captured in England, Scotland, and the United States. The statuary images he finesses from them are at once majestic and insidious. Starkly positioned where found, the human-manufactured items look dangerous, lonely, and strangely monumental, their presence a distress against such lovely backdrops as sand, sea, and sky. Blending artistic beauty with environmental exposé, Hughes is successful in making the viewer wonder how garbage affects our oceans and beaches. Five essays contextualize the work in artistic and environmental terms and call attention to the immense ecological problem these objects present. Finely designed (by David Carson) and printed, this is an excellent first book for the photographer. Recommended for large public and academic photography collections.