Dr Mandy Bloomfield
Associate Professor of Modern and Contemporary Literature, University of Plymouth.
Plastic Scoop continues and extends the trajectory of Andy Hughes’s work over the past three decades. Hughes is a gleaner. His work wanders the wrack zones of contemporary consumer society, recovering and reframing waste objects that have - until very recently - accumlated off the radar of cultural attention. In a current moment in which we are finally waking up to the pressing urgencies of plastic, chemical and carbon pollution, his lifelong project to reorient our attention to trash becomes newly significant. Hughes’s photography series of the ninetees manipulates scale and perspective to put the discarded remnants of throwaway society in the spotlight. In so doing, this work also treads the strandlines of abjection and aesthetic beauty, consumption and waste, instantaneity and posterity.
Hughes’s new work in Plastic Scoop takes this endeavour into the space of the virtual. He was first attracted to the game of Grand Theft Auto, he says, because of its visual qualities: its vibrant landscapes and attention to detail. But he became even more interested in the possibilities of the game as artistic medium when he observed the increasing presence of trash, other forms of visible pollution and traces of climate change discourse (and its denial) with the release of each new version of GTA. Most players of the game would be oblivious of these details as they follow the narratives of violence and acquisitive theft that the game dictates. While developing the film, Hughes collaborated with a small focus group of University of Plymouth students and staff, to find out how acts of noticing vary across different players. Informed partly by this process, and partly by Hughes’s longer trajectory of working, Plastic Scoop plays the game against the grain.
Shifting the usual frenetic temporalities of gaming, the film meanders through its virtual landscapes, hovering contemplatively over a roiling sea or dwelling upon a sunset in a beautifully-composed industrial landscape or street scene. These visual scenarios are accompanied by a soundtrack composed of archival material which intersects – sometimes jarringly, sometimes felicitously – with the visuals. One voice celebrates the innovations of plastics with increasing levels of absurdity as the film drifts among ocean and industrial scenes, lit up by a lurid but compelling virtual sunset. Elsewhere, the voice of T.S. Eliot intones a section from his poem The Dry Salvages against footage of a storm-tossed sea, upon which floats unidentified wreckage and a diver. The sea in this poem has often been read as metaphorical for universal human travails, but its redeployment here suggests a different perspective on the poem, which now offers prescient visions of the ocean as a non-human multispecies habitat, but one that also ‘tosses up our losses’ in the form of a variety of human waste.
As with collage work more generally, then, the juxtaposed materials transform one another through strange forms of connection and disjunction. Through such transformations, Plastic Scoop forges links between industrial and post-consumer pollution, production and waste, and, perhaps most importantly, acts of violence and the logics of capitalist production and consumption. In strange and uncanny ways, the film reveals violence in all its multifarious forms as endemic to a capitalist system reliant upon unequal relations of power, the ruthless exploitation of the natural world and human labour, and the transformation of physical and mental spaces into arenas of domination and individualist competition.
A bizarre set of characters roam this virtual world; an aeronaut emerges from the sea, a diver roams a highway shooting at signs promoting climate change denial, and a clown writhes in mid air, accompanied by whale song. These are alienated figures, struggling to function meaningfully in the environments in which theyfind themselves. The film often takes their perspective, sometimes situating itself literally inside their cranial cavities. Through these characters, the strange but frighteningly familiar landscapes they move through, and the competing discourses that surround them, the film raises a host of questions, such as: How have we come to normalise the environmental mess that we now find ourselves in? How
might we perceive our world differently than we currently do? How can we thread a meaningful path through the tangle of environmental discourses of our times, without succumbing to either apocalyptic fatalism, escapism or unrealistic optimism? It is not the task of art, of course, to offer solutions to such dilemmas. But if Plastic Scoop leaves its viewers with an disorientating image, an unsettling question, or even just a needling sense of disquiet, so much the better.
© Mandy Bloomfield 2019
By Elizabeth Perrotte, Program Director, Christies Education, London.
‘Time and space dilate; a mysterious avatar free-falls, slowly, hypnotically, out of a clear sky,’ haloed as he gently spirals away from the dazzling sun. For an occult moment the boundless air becomes a deep ocean for his fall; a whale’s soundscape of low groaning vibrates through the visuals. Thoughts of Icarus accelerate the vertigo. Fragments of his mythic flight and plight; fragrant wax wings melting in the sun’s heat, fast flicker into view. This Icarus plunges from the blinding sun into rich technicolour dressed as Pierrot, the androgynous, melancholic clown from Commedia dell’arte. Suspended here in limbo between states: powerless yet vagrant, symbol of free will, escape, jouissance, hubris, collapse, catastrophic failure, so much waste matter. No ground in sight, impact deferred, there is always the hope of ‘clinamen’ the chance atomic swerve and generative energy celebrated by Roman poet/philosopher Lucretius in De Rerum Natura (The Nature of Things).
If atoms never swerve and make beginning
Of motions that can break the bonds of fate,
And foil the infinite chain of cause and effect,
What is the origin of this free will
Possessed by living creatures throughout the earth?
Whence comes, I say, this will-power wrested from the fates Whereby we
each proceed where pleasure leads,
Swerving our course at no fixed time or place
But where the bidding of our hearts directs?
For beyond doubt the power of will
Originates these things and gives them birth...
Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe, Bk ll:253-62, trans. Ronald Melville. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
© Elizabeth Perrotte 2019
By Andy Hughes
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.
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.
© Andy Hughes
Gyre The Plastic Ocean
By Dr Abigail Susik
Gradually over the last century, the ancient symbolic rapport between humanity and the sea has changed and contemporary culture at large is taking notice. The formerly awe-inspiring sublimity of the ocean as a cultural symbol has now given way to a new kind of disturbing awareness: humanity can no longer fully escape itself through exploration of alien marine reaches. To be sure, many of the literal and metaphoric associations of the ocean remain firmly ensconced in place as they have for centuries. The ocean’s tidal force still threatens human life on a terrifying scale, just as its depths continue to harbor myriad scientific mysteries. Yet it is also apparent that the ocean has submitted in diverse ways to the persistent shaping forces of the human hand, and this in turn has shifted our conception of its semantic identity.
"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".
Read Full Text Here:
'The New Landscape', Royal Cornwall Museum | 2008
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.
© Dr Harriet Hawkins, University of Exeter
By Andy Hughes
History, background and development
In 1997, Captain Charles Moore was sailing across the Pacific Ocean, when he and his crew caught sight of plastic waste floating on the sea surface.[i] The significance of spotting this debris, in one of the most remote regions of the ocean, was a major environmental discovery. Plastic and other forms of human waste have been floating at sea and washing ashore long before 1997 but this specific discovery drew attention to the issue, and since then oceanographers, marine biologists, scientific research teams, clean ocean and wildlife advocacy groups across the globe have discussed and researched the topic in greater detail. There are various research projects looking at the distribution of this garbage, its effects on sea life, and in turn on the various ecosystems by which all life on earth depends. Plastic waste on land and sea now attracts significant attention in the media and continues to be the focus of a growing group of concerned artists as well as designers, scientists, writers, explorers and environmentalists. More recently researchers at UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis calculated that at least 4.8 million metric tons of plastic material enters the ocean each year. However, it should be noted that this is a low calculation and the team has suggested the amount could be 12.7 million metric tons.[ii]
In 2011 a team of curators and marine science experts at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center and the Alaska Sea Life Centre met to discuss the topic of plastic, waste and its increasing visibility in the ocean across the world. Over a period of two years, the team developed a project with the intention to explore complex relationships between humans and the ocean. The project was created to specifically facilitate cross pollination between various discourses; art, science and advocacy. The participants were convened to look at mass consumption of material goods and the resulting proliferation of plastic waste in the marine environment. The results of these meetings and activities were shared amongst peer groups and were integral to the creation of a survey exhibition. [iii] An international team of scientists, artists and educators were approached, all of these were identified as having made some significant contribution to the discourse surrounding plastic waste and the Ocean. [iv] The team titled the project Gyre: The Plastic Ocean. This references the term Ocean Gyre. There are five ocean gyres, each gyre shifts vast volumes of water in a circulatory motion across the earth. The world’s oceans are dominated by these gyres. They can be hundreds to thousands of miles in diameter. Along with other ocean current systems, they re-distribute and aggregate all kinds of debris in our oceans with plastic waste an ever-increasing ingredient.
1.1 The expedition
In the summer of 2013 the team was assembled in Anchorage, Alaska. They joined a crew aboard the research vessel RSV Norseman and journeyed along the Alaskan coastline with Hallo Bay being the final destination. The boat travelled over 500 nautical miles stopping and landing at various remote beach locations.
Various research activities took place on board ship and on shore. Each artist and scientist developed discreet activities, for example: Oli Maden carried out Spectroscopy with various sample of plastic collected from the beach; Nicholas Mallos continued his research work on the global distribution and origins of plastic bottle tops; Mark Dion carried out various systematic collecting activities. Throughout the expedition conversations were recorded and film interviews took place, and there were a number of presentations made to the group by onboard team members. These presentations ranged from work being carried out to identify fishing nets to explanations about the processes by which marine waste is distributed at sea. The team also met with wildlife experts and undertook a beach clean-up operation with Katmai Park Rangers. And at Hallo Bay they experienced the thrill of a close encounter with a female grizzly bear and her three cubs. These unique experiences, the presented texts and diaries, and the films and artwork, considered and highlighted plastic as a very particular ecological problem. All of these outcomes and discussions were organised and curated to form the final project event.
1.2 The touring exhibition
The exhibition Gyre: The Plastic Ocean opened in February 2014. It displayed some of the resulting scientific discoveries made on the journey and included the art created from each invited artist. The exhibition also incorporated content from the Burke Museum’s “Plastics Unwrapped” exhibition, offering a scientific and cultural history of how plastics are used in our daily lives. In addition to the featured artists, the curator selected works from other international artists from around the world. The presented visual works were complemented by a collection of essays from eminent scientists and writers who were linked through the common thread of the Gyre project. Each element discusses ideas connected to plastic waste, covering eco-artistic-activism through to scientific theory and marine biology; their contributions extend and put into context ideas initiated by the organisers. The exhibition ran for six months in Anchorage (2014) before travelling to the Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta (2015), Fisher Museum in Los Angeles, (2015) and University of Southern California Santa Cruz University, (2016).
1.3 The book
The accompanying book Gyre: The Plastic Ocean explores and examines the relationship of plastic waste as both an object of visual, creative and artistic enquiry alongside scientific reports and info-graphical presentations of current scientific data sets. This book resides as a key reference text; a text which can be seen as an additional source of knowledge within current the global environmental discourse. It visually presents its ideas, questions and conclusion through the interplay of nature and consumer culture.
1.4 The film and symposia
In support of the project two filmmakers were on board to document the expedition, commissioned by National Geographic, this film was shown at each exhibition venue. It was submitted to various film festivals since its completion, and was shortlisted for a number of oceanic film awards. It is available to buy or can be watched online on various websites. A one day symposia event took place at the Anchorage Museum during the opening week. And in an effort to raise awareness and discourse on the global crisis of plastic pollution, the Welch Foundation at Georgia State University (GSU), David J. Sencer Museum of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Plastic Pollution Coalition (PPC) jointly hosted another Gyre focused symposium. The Anchorage Museum continues to host an archived site dedicated to the project.
Data from Anchorage Museum showed that in May 2014 the Gyre Project was has the subject of 80 news media stories, including in the New York Times, Wired and Slate. These featured reviews and stories had a circulation of more than 50 million. It is difficult to aggregate data in terms of calculating the response to this project, there have been a number of similar projects since. Other organisations such as the Cape Farewell project all continue to develop and create cooperative projects where artists and scientist work together. Museums, arts organisations, designers, NGO’s and others continue to explore plastic as both creative material and as a destructive and problematic substance. Plastic is becoming even more visible, this project and others like it will continue to add to and create further debate and discourse.
2.1 References and further reading
Decker, J. (2014) Gyre: The Plastic Ocean. London, Booth Clibborn Editions.
Anchorage Museum Mini Site https://www.anchoragemuseum.org/exhibits/gyre-the-plastic-ocean/exhibit-overview
Georgia State University Symposia Mini Site http://artdesign.gsu.edu/plastic-gyre-artists-scientists-activists-respond/
National Geographic Film
Burke Museum Plastics Exhibition http://www.burkemuseum.org/exhibits/past
[i] Moore, C., Phillips, C. Plastic Ocean (2011). How a Sea Captain’s Chance Discovery Launched a Determined Quest to Save the Oceans.
USA, Avery Publishing.
[ii] Julie Cohen. (2015) An Ocean of Plastic. Available from http://www.news.ucsb.edu/2015/014985/ocean-plastic [Accessed 19th February 2016]
[iii] A survey exhibition or group exhibition are usually collective and often focus on a specific theme or topic (“survey shows”).
[iv] Expedition Leader Howard Ferren, former director of the Alaska SeaLife Center. Lead Scientist, Carl Safina, Blue Ocean Institute.
Curator, Julie Decker, Anchorage Museum. Scientists: Odile Madden, Smithsonian Institution, research scientist. Dave Gaudet, Alaska Marine Stewardship Foundation, director. Nicholas Mallos, Ocean Conservancy, conservation biologist. Peter Murphy, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. John Maniscalco, Alaska SeaLife Center. Artists: Mark Dion, New York. Andrew Hughes, England. Sonya Kelliher-Combs, Anchorage. Karen Larsen, Anchorage. Pam Longobardi, Atlanta. Biology Teacher, Harker School, Katherine Schafer. Photographer, Kip Evans, Mountain and Sea Productions. Filmographers,J.J. Kelley and Josh Thomas, Dudes on Media for National Geographic.
ART NOW CORNWALL
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
ISBN - 978-1-85437-7
Essay from the book 'Dominant Wave Theory'
By Dr Chris Short
Across the body of photographs contained in the present volume, we may identify three dominant issues, each of particular importance to Hughes’s encounter with West Cornwall in general and St Ives – Hughes’s home for nearly a decade – in particular. The first is the formal, aesthetic engagement of the land and sea that was so important to leading British modern artists in and around St Ives from about 1930. Hughes describes his relationship to this tradition as ambivalent, at one moment developing in relation to it, at the next seeking to avoid it. The second is the remarkable increase in tourism in the area in recent years, fuelled not only by the beauty of the land and sea but by the extraordinary success of Tate St Ives in bringing tourists – cultural and recreational – with money to the area. This has impacted most importantly (in the present context) on the quantity and quality of art produced in and around the town, for sale in the town’s innumerable galleries. As a contemporary artist living and working in the area, it is inevitable that Hughes has developed a critical relation to such practice. The third is the beach itself which, for both “local” and visitor alike, serves as a site of escape from the pressures of commercial life and, at the same time, as a site of contamination, as the place where the excesses of that commercial life – food wrappers, drink containers, sewage – get washed-up. As a surfer and frequent walker of the shorelines in and around St Ives, the beach forms an important focus for Hughes’s recreational as well as professional activities. The following will attend to each of these issues in turn, exploring the ways in which it impacts upon the photographs.
The story of art’s importance to St Ives begins at least as early as 1811 when Turner visited, but it was in 1877 that the Great Western Railway arrived in the town, facilitating development of tourism and bringing with it an influx of artists. In 1883-4, Whistler and Sickert visited the town and about this time, the Newlyn School was founded eight miles south of St Ives. The town’s first full-time studios were established in 1885 and in 1888, the St Ives Art Club was founded. As the town’s fishing industry fell into decline, then, a new economy began to develop, one based in tourism and which brought with it an art community that would, in time, become increasingly important as an object of tourism itself.
The permanent collection of Tate St Ives gives a clear indication of the kind of art which came to be produced from the late 1920s, the beginning of St Ives modernism. While a variety of styles is evident, much of the painting and sculpture tends toward the abstract while remaining rooted in nature. Popular accounts of such art describe the use of colour and form as direct products of the particular quality of light that is apparent in and around the town, the extraordinary colours of the sea, the forms of the granite outcrops and cliffs, and so on.
Those accounts that highlight the importance of such natural forces of the country and seaside are, in part, accurate. For the artists, the move from city to country was a kind of return to nature, a recovery of a more authentic existence that would be embodied in their art. This was accompanied by an interest in the primitive, the quest for which led to the painters Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood “discovering” and learning from the naive paintings of the retired seaman, Alfred Wallis. Place and art, then, configured as a retreat from the decadent forms of the city and corrupt civilisation, as a primitivism shared with much of modern art. Throughout Europe and North America, such artists’ colonies arose as alternatives to perceived social and cultural decay. But set against this quest for the primitive and the jettisoning of convention, stands evidence of considerable learning, the antithesis of the primitive as it was conceived. Without a knowledge of Cubism, there could be no Nicholson; without a serious engagement with international constructivism, there could be no Barbara Hepworth; without the precedents of European and American Expressionism, no Patrick Heron. St Ives modernism is important not merely as an escape from the horrors of modernity, but as a radical and important part of the history of the development of British and international modern art.
In conformity with much international constructivist art, Hepworth described how the formal concerns of such abstract art could assume social and political significance:
A clear social solution can be achieved only when there is a full consciousness in the realm of thought [… The artist’s] conscious life is bent on discovering a solution to human difficulties by solving his own thought permanently […] formal relationships have become our thought, our faith, waking or sleeping – they can be the solution to life and to living. This is no escapism, no ivory tower, no isolated pleasure in proportion and space – it is an unconscious manner of expressing our belief in a possible life.
Hepworth goes on to write of the emancipation of people from all social classes in attainment of freedom. It is clear that such concerns are thoroughly embedded within the formal ambitions of her abstract art. In contrast, the commitment of a number of other important St Ives moderns, such as Heron, was purely to the formal and compositional development of abstract art. Thus, Heron wrote of the importance of art’s autonomy precisely from such socio-political concerns, and in favour of a radical, purely artistic programme.
At first glance, the realism of Hughes’s photographs is quite remote from the economy of Hepworth’s constructivism or the colourism of Heron. What could be further removed from such formalism than a crumpled plastic bottle lying on a beach? Yet it is also clear that, for example, the photograph entitled Bluebird converts a lowly bit of detritus into a monumental, sculptural form, one in certain respects reminiscent of precisely the sculpture of Hepworth. The photograph undermines the object’s status as a bottle: the extraordinary angle from which it is photographed which suggests the enormous scale of the object; the intense light and thus tonal values; the deep saturation of colour. All combine to remove from the object its previous function and attribute the piece of detritus a purely formal status. It becomes abstract art.
The same is true for very many of the photographs contained in the present volume. For example, the formal beauty of 14. A perfectly articulated yellow line cuts through the sand-coloured foreground, and the tonally graded blue sea and sky. A straw, the line is nonetheless first and foremost an element of formal beauty, its shadow merely an index of the source of such intense colours. Contradicting the rectilinear form of the yellow line in 14 is the caprice of the blue line – actually, discarded wrapping tape – in 25. The energy of the line is quite different from that which dominates 14, but it is a line that configures in relation to its environment no less beautifully than the yellow straw. Repeatedly, we are presented with images which call attention to themselves as primarily arrangements of form and colour.
Repeatedly, though, the previous identity of the objects depicted threatens to return, to destroy the purely formal quality of the work. Unlike Hepworth’s social message that remains buried within the form of the work of art, Hughes’s photographs speak with two, apparently contradictory voices. The aesthetic dimension of the photographs is challenged the moment that each object, as waste, speaks. The voice with which it speaks is social and political: it speaks of responsibility, of economic excess, even of destruction. This conflict between “pure form” and political content, though, is not a relationship of “either-or”; the tension between the two is precisely what is at stake. In these photographs, pure form couples uneasily with the pollutants of an industrial society.
More troubling is what happens when the “escapism [… and] isolated pleasure in proportion and space”, against which Hepworth warned, is isolated from St Ives modernism’s radical artistic (sometimes social and political) ambitions and serves a merely economic one. This is precisely what has happened in recent years, as art has become a leading commodity within the tourist trade of St Ives. Thus, we arrive at our second issue of importance to understanding Hughes’s photographs.
As one walks along Fore Street, St Ives and explores the alleys leading to and from it, one is presented, apart from the pasty and surf (clothing) shops, with a series of “galleries” and art shops selling images and constructions, most of which relate to the town and its surrounding country and seaside. From postcards depicting views and fishermen made of shells, to reproductions of paintings, original paintings by unknown artists and paintings by known artists, the variety of stuff – with prices to match every pocket – is extraordinary. Within these latter artistic forms, we identify the development of a kind of “house-style” of “original” painting, one which depicts the land and sea but deploys a near abstract manner. In such works, the radical ambitions of St Ives modernism, which had probably run its course by the early 1960s, are reduced to a completely formulaic enterprise. Thus, the only value attached to the objects is one of exchange, the imagery is reduced to pure surface that simulates art, that generates nothing other than profit. It is what one of modernism’s foremost critics called “kitsch,” ersatz culture to placate the masses and to ensure that their meagre incomes are returned to the privileged minority.
Such art feeds off the tourist trade and, at the same time, becomes a tourist attraction. The broader effects of tourism are still more profound. Those who travel to St Ives bring much needed money to the region; the bi-products of that spending are far less desirable. Through the summer months, vast quantities of food are consumed and converted into effluent which finds its way into the sea and, sometimes, the guts of swimmers and surfers. Other stomach-churning waste also finds its way to the sea via underground sewage pipes; thus the ubiquitous condoms and panty-liners that grace the shore. Like the beautifully described yet amorphous patches of white, cream and bright orange within the central orb of 91 – forms simultaneously reminiscent of bacterial growth and vomit – such waste suggests putrifaction and provokes a sense of abjection. Arriving more directly on the beach are fast-food and drink wrappers left after days in the (occasional) sunshine; plastic bottles, cardboard packages, tin cans and crisp packets. Residues of the residual fishing industry – broken nets, ropes, floats – contest this space; at least they have a rustic charm and seem to “belong”.
All appear in Hughes’s photographs. They are, as it were, the visual culture of contamination, a culture that recurs in less visible form in the water and air as the pollutants of an advanced capitalist economy. Such culture would appear to be the complete antithesis of that which the town and country around St Ives is known for: man living and working in harmony with nature. Like the spectrum of light created by oil on water, as we touch that which seems most beautiful, we destroy it. In their sinister beautification of the visual culture of contamination, Hughes’s photographs constitute a critique of the pollutant outcomes of our commodity culture. As representations of beach, sea and landscape, the natural beauty they offer is a spoilt one and thus, the photographs also constitute a critique of the purely aestheticising house-style of St Ives which contributes to the commodification (and thus destruction) of the landscape.
The beach as a site simultaneously of escape and of contamination, our third issue of importance to understanding Hughes’s photographs, is clearly to be seen in relation to the second, and the first. People go to the beach to escape the pressures of the urban lifestyle. The beach at Gwithian, at which many of the photographs were shot, round the corner from St Ives, is massive compared to those adjoining the town. It is a place for romantic escape and return to nature and natural forces. Few clues to these forces are offered explicitly in the photographs. No crashing waves, no vegetation bending in driving winds, the sort of weather common to such open beaches. Rather, nature’s forces make themselves felt more covertly.
Hughes ensures, through composition, scale and lighting, that each of the items photographed is the principal focus of the viewer’s attention. But that attention is always informed by the ground – beach, sea, sky – against which each item stands. From the tiniest of grains of sand in the greatest of detail to the greatest of celestial bodies in the most uncertain of detail, the vastness of nature is always present to these photographs, and it is against this that each object, as figure, appears. Consider 84. A plastic ball stands on the beach, set against a deep, dark sky. The apparently infinite regression of space from fore to background brings with it a sense of awe, and of the awful. Such space completely exceeds our understanding, and is beyond anything we can fully picture. Thus, the ground in 84 creates in the viewer not only the feeling that something much greater than ourselves is “out there”, but that that something threatens to overwhelm us. In the photograph, the infinite becomes a dark, sinister presence which speaks of the invisible force of nature, the natura naturans, that can only make itself felt as a mysterious absence. Set against and in complete contrast with this, the sphere, as figure, is quite finite. It nestles into the landscape, yet conflicts with it fundamentally. Paradoxically, it dwarfs the infinite; its size and position dominate nature and confront the viewer. Its finite form enters into conflict with the infinite force of nature. Thus, space (nature) and scale (culture) combine to provoke awe and threat.
In these photographs, the object of detritus appears like a lone wanderer, a solitary figure set against the vastness of nature. In this, the photographs are oddly reminiscent of certain of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings in which man’s encounter with nature is couched in terms of the sublime: threatened by the vastness of nature, instilled with a sense of terror and awe before its infinite magnitude, man nonetheless, through the reassertion of reason, gains pleasure from this encounter. The pleasure born of pain. In Hughes’s photographs, waste displaces man. Yet each item becomes curiously animate as the now dead commodities are resurrected and, set against nature, they are not merely that which nature threatens to overwhelm, but also that which threatens to overwhelm nature. Beneath the beauty of the photographs, then, lurks something sinister, something threatening. The pain born of pleasure.
The three issues raised as of importance to the photographs in the present volume have been related to three concepts. From the universal harmony that underwrites a Hepworth sculpture to the formal unity of grains of sand, some discarded tape and the horizon; from indices of vile taste on Fore Street to the putrified residues on the base of a drink container; and from the awesome forces exercised between land and sea at Gwithian to the infinite regression of space in a photograph: abstract art, the effects of tourism, and the beach can be aligned with the beautiful, the abject and the sublime. The truth of St Ives, of course, is that art, tourism and the beach are inextricably linked; that beauty, the abject and the sublime will stray across these fields.
In relation to this truth, what makes the photographs in the present volume so important, is the ways in which responses described by these concepts coincide variously within individual photographs. Thus, an image of great beauty is simultaneously threatening; a dramatic, exciting formal arrangement is curiously disturbing, even sickening. Such aesthetic responses combine to reinforce the politics of the photographs; they are the secret messages of that which has become so familiar as to be, so often, overlooked.
© 2006 Dr Chris Short
Interview by Steve England, Editor, Carve Magazine.
This is an edited version, full article published in Carve Magazine, Issue 186 Apr 5, 2018 https://www.carvemag.com/
When did you first notice beach debris?
Probably around 1987, but it was in 1989 when I focused my attention very specifically towards plastic in the sea and washed up on the beach whilst I was an art student in Cardiff. At that time I’d learned to surf, my nearest break was at Porthcawl, I often remember bobbing up and down in the sea, sitting astride on a blue Tris Twin fin 5’ 8”, looking out across the bay towards Port-Talbot steelworks.
In 1989 I moved to London to study Photography at the Royal College of Art, often returning to go surfing at weekends. On one occasion, after surfing I spotted a very brightly colored plastic object. Like a magpie I was attracted to it, it was a detergent bottle with a visually striking graphic emblazoned on its upturned surface ‘Radion’. My neural networks made a connection between the word and the lurid, supersaturated colours. At this time my mum was receiving treatment for a brain tumor, I made a connection between the typography, the subject and its colour. I noticed visual similarities. Radiation used on a human brain to kill tumor cells and the wasted plastic bottle containing a seemingly simple product, detergent to wash away dirt, appeared connected. Of course, nothing is ever washed away, there is no away. There is no over there, away from here, everything goes somewhere. Maybe not in the same form, but everything that exists is connected. From this moment, this picture was the start of a series of works that visualized surfing, surfers, and waste.
And how did your first book come about?
In the early 90’s I had a telephone call from the Tate Gallery, regarding the new museum that was due to open in St Ives. The result of this gave me the opportunity to live and work in Cornwall. I moved to St Ives in 1993, where I took up the first artist residency. A year or so later I took a job teaching photography and stayed in Cornwall. Between 1996 and 2004 I specifically set about photographing washed up beached plastic. I made trips to the very far north of Scotland, up to Thurso and along the far northern British coastal fringes and across to Los Angeles in California. One particular standout memory includes sneaking through a fence at Palos Verdes and then running across Donald Trump’s Golf course in order to find a particular trashy spot down on a nearby beach.
In 2004 Edward-Booth Clibborn agreed to publish a book of photographs with texts from various scientists, environmental advocates, and writers. David Carson designed the book which was published in 2006 with a USA co-edition published with Abrams in New York. How was it accepted?
That’s a great question! had I titled the book something less esoteric I believe the book might have surfaced earlier in the debate about the ocean, plastic waste, and other associated topics. Originally I’d thought about a title such as ‘Average Wave Period’ or ‘Dominant Wave Period’, my thinking was to connect the title with the mathematical systems we use to measure swell and wave heights. It is a well-referenced book, and I often receive emails asking me about it. It’s a decade since I made that book and much has now changed. Plastic has now risen to the top of the political agenda. It has resulted in many invitations to speak in public, appear in the media, create and exhibit the work in galleries and take part in many great conversations. Whether making work at the Glastonbury festival, traveling to the remote Alaskan wilderness and connecting with a Grizzly bear or talking to kids at a climate change conference, it’s because of that book. It has had a rhizomatic effect on my current work and that of others too.
What was the debate about waste, the ocean and plastic like in the 90’s
Interestingly in the late 90’s and early 2000s, there were various people and organisations discussing plastic and also other waste pollutants. In the 1980’s in Australia, there was a group called POOO which stood for People Opposed to Ocean Outfalls, this small activist group probably included surfers, they campaigned for a change in the way effluents were being discharged into the sea near Bondi beach. Recently I had a message from a well-known campaigner who called me the ‘Godfather’ of plastic rubbish imagery. It made me chuckle, if my memory serves me right, and I have a good memory, I think many just thought I was a rather eccentric all those years ago.
Was anyone doing this type of work before you?
In terms of art there is a long history of trash and the discarded being central to contemporary art. Robert Rauschenberg in the early 1950s explored the boundaries and the definition of art, following from the radical modernist precedent set by Marcel Duchamp. Marcel Duchamp took a urinal and displaced it, then titled it Fountain. It is one of my favorite works of art. Many artists have explored the relationships between painting, sculpture, and photography through the assemblages of traditional materials and the detritus of everyday life. Hans Haackes work titled Monument to Beach Pollution in 1970 was sited and photographed at Carboneras in Spain.
Many artists have picked over the detritus of capitalist circulation, I see myself as one of a continuing stream that becomes fuller and faster flowing as each decade unfolds. Of course over the last few years, the visible nature of plastic has increased, in conjunction with social media apps such as Instagram, it has become easier to point a lens to such material and comment about it. I’m not sure that it’s art though, there’s a distinction to be made between art, advocacy and work which is purely didactic.
What have you been doing since then? Projects etc.
I have published other books and zines and been invited to show work at many surf related events such as the San Sebastian Surf Film festival. I've also been co-curating a series of photo exhibitions in Cornwall and participating in many other international and regional exhbitions. I continue to support Surfers Against Sewage and have over the last ten years supplied a great many images for various campaigns such as the Marine Litter Report and various campaigns about helping to reduce plastic usage. I’m also an affiliated artist with the Plastic Pollution Coalition alongside other noted artists such as Chris Jordan who also works with Plastic within the context of mass consumption.
In 2013 I was invited with two other artists Mark Dion and Pam Longobardi and a group of scientists on an expedition to the remote Alaskan coast. A book, film, and exhibition took place and toured the USA. It was an amazing adventure and started me exploring new ideas about the subject.
I’d also say over the last few years I've taken to reading much more, this in turn has fostered a deeper kind of thinking about the subject. I'm very interested in looking at how philosophers and political thinkers might change my own perception about the subject and in turn the work I produce. In particular, I’m drawn to the ideas of Timothy Morton’s ecological theories such as Dark Ecology as well as texts by Gilles Deleuze, the French philosopher, and Félix Guattari, the French psychiatrist, and political activist.
Where is the worst place you have been?
Another good question, in terms of waste and plastic I’d say going to a supermarket. I realize you're thinking somewhere more exotic? Last year I was in Mauritius with fishers on a boat floating above a coral reef, amazing people and a great privilege to be there, but when I saw the state of the reef it almost brought me to tears. In 2013 I traveled to Alaska and as I wandered in bright sunshine along a remote beach I found a large plastic 5-gallon container that had been chewed by bears. Later that same day I stood just a few meters away from a female grizzly bear and her three cubs. For over 40 minutes I was transfixed and terrified at the same time, beauty and terror together, a sublime moment. It was the one of the 'worst' places for finding waste but also one of the 'best' places I've had the privilage to visit. Both the bear and the plastic combined into one singular moment: beyond description.
How do you feel now the Attenborough effect has pushed the issue worldwide mainstream? and given the widespread nature of the pollution, and that it is in the food chain, do you think we can still save ourselves and the planet, or is it too late?
In 2004 I wrote to Attenborough asking him to write for my book, I had nice letter returned but with a polite refusal. I thought it was a good gesture to reply and explain his reasons. Fifteen years later I was pleased to see the focus shift and the way in which the subject of human waste including plastic is center stage. A few months ago I sent him a copy of my book and had a great letter back. I think the Blue Planet has made a terrific difference to the debate .
I’m curious about the changes we can make, given ‘deeptime’ we have no choice but to change. We often see in the media and on social media calls to ‘save the ocean’ and ‘save the planet’. It’s the human race that we need to save without destroying our one home and the home of all other life upon it. Perhaps the ocean and the planet will be fine after the human race has left the stage? Does this seem too depressing, it's not meant to be - the world is very, very beautiful and as many surfers will know there's nothing better than riding a wave in the ocean, a clean ocean would be even better.
What are the most innovative solutions you have seen over the years?
In 2004 Greg Garrard wrote a book titled ‘Ecocriticism’ it explored the ways in which we imagine and portray the relationship between humans and the environment in all areas of cultural production. In it, he describes four positions with which people often align themselves. One is the Cornucopian, this type of thinking ascribes that capitalism can mobilize us to solve pressing problems through problem-solving, the market and technological advances. Nature is valued in the sense that it is valuable to us, to us as human beings. Your question proposes that there is a solution, from a huge floating plastic collecting machines at sea to bottle deposit schemes. I think the simplest solution is the best, let's stop using it wherever possible. It’s worth noting that technology can help us or hinder us. If one watches some of the early films made in the 40’s and 50’s promoting plastic as a wonder material it will make you laugh, or perhaps cry. My favored solution come from the Plastic Pollution Coalition, simply ‘refuse’ plastic. I think moves forward in behavior can generate the best results the quickest, rather than retro or reverse engineering the planet.
What is next? anything else interesting you want to chat about?
For myself and for others I think that taking the time to explore the subject and read and consider how others are talking and making progress is key. Each new day brings new discoveries and ways of approaching plastic and waste. These questions have made me think some more about personal histories, experiences, and futurology. Twenty-five years ago I sat floating in a brown turgid sea full of poo and plastic, looking back its seems a bit crazy to dunk yourself in such an environment. But perhaps this is one key experience that shaped and formed my artistic and creative life. In Britain today we have less poo in the sea, the question now is can we can have less plastic, less toxicity and not just in the sea but everywhere, for all life and all over planet earth?
© Andy Hughes /2018