In her photographic series Plastic Ocean, Dutch artist Thirza Schaap addresses the global plight of plastic waste in the world’s oceans. Positioned along the Davisville subway platform, her images of carefully composed sculptures appear beautiful and delicate. A closer inspection reveals that they are constructed from bits of scavenged plastic the artist has found along the seashore.
When Schaap began to spend winters in Cape Town, she started walking her dog every morning at a nearby beach. She watched the choppy, cold waves push debris from the ocean’s depths, scattering the sands at her feet with plastic remnants, the shallow grave of consumer products such as bottles, bags, and straws. These fragments of once-functional wares were, like sea glass, pleasingly rounded and faded, making them strangely delicate in shape and colour—beautiful shards of human consumption.
Schaap began collecting the debris, in part as a cleanup effort in tandem with her own commitment to living plastic-free, and in part as creative recycling. At first, she rearranged elements quickly and instinctively at the beach; eventually, she started to bring her finds home, creating more elaborate tabletop sculptures in her backyard, constructions that played on the candy colours and fanciful feel of the materials. Over time, Schaap’s sculptures have become increasingly abstract, and sometimes darker, though they remain whimsical.
Schaap’s photographs draw on the contemporary aesthetic of commercial still-life advertising imagery to make carefully framed views of each constructed display, full of graphic allure. In the installation at Davisville station, Schaap’s images take the place of traditional advertisements, usurping space usually reserved for traffic in consumer culture, sometimes flogging the same things seen washed up in her photographs. Her works offer a twist on the images normally seen in these spaces, serving as reminders of the endless life of plastic objects cycling through our lives, and eventually, the earth’s waterways, and of the detrimental effects of convenience and consumption. If advertising plays on desire—for beauty, status, and satisfaction—Schaap’s images gently ask viewers to reconsider material wants in the wake of climate disaster.
The earth’s floating “garbage patches” are growing in size and number, pulling debris into their orbit like giant oceanic planets. The largest to date is off the coast of Hawaii, and holds about 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic weighing close to 80,000 metric tons. Schaap thinks about Plastic Ocean as a way to raise consciousness of these facts, and offers the images as part of the growing global community working, in big and small ways, to address the plight of plastic waste.
Curated by Sara Knelman
Supported by Pattison Outdoor Advertising and the Mondriaan Fund