When Dutch artist Thirza Schaap began to spend winters in Cape Town, she would walk her dog every morning at a nearby beach. As she took in her new surroundings, she watched the choppy, cold waves push debris from the ocean’s depths. The sands at her feet were scattered with plastic remnants, the shallow grave of consumer products such as bottles, bags, and straws. These fragments of once-functional wares were often, like sea glass, pleasingly rounded and faded over time, 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, and took quick snapshots for Instagram; 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 even when melancholy. Schaap photographs each sun-touched composition, drawing on the contemporary aesthetic of commercial still-life advertising imagery to make an idealized, carefully framed, glossy view of a constructed display, full of graphic allure.

In the installation at Dupont 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. Like James Sutherland’s monumental glass mosaics of flowers in cross section, made for the station’s opening in 1978, Schaap’s images bring elements of reconstructed nature to the underground. In this setting, her works appear uncanny, at once familiar and jarring, enticing and appalling. They offer a twist on the images normally seen in these spaces, serving as reminders of the endless life of plastic objects cycling through 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 want 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.

Supported by Pattison Outdoor Advertising and the Mondriaan Fund