Aurora Robson grew up amid the natural coastal beauty of Hawaii, but ended up in a dense, concrete-laden block in Bushwick, where she and her husband share Lumenhouse, their live-work studio and gallery. "At night, when I'm lying in bed," Robson says, "I can hear the sound of a plastic bottle blowing down my block and I think, I know what that is, it's a two-liter. It's a very specific sound, and it kills me."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration won't confirm the size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—save to say that it's large—but some oceanographers have estimated that it's about twice the size of Texas. Which means that a massive amount of plastic resides in the ocean, waiting to be consumed by aquatic and avian life, and conceivably later by us.
The latest exhibition at Robson's gallery, Convergence (through December 12), attempts to tackle this issue by bringing seven different environmentally conscious artists together; all use plastic debris in their work, a process known as "upcycling," which keeps the synthetic material out of the ocean while also challenging artists to create something from garbage. Half of the proceeds from the sales will go to Project Vortex, Robson's nonprofit that provides artists with plastic debris rescued from shorelines, and Project Kaisei, a wing of the Ocean Voyages Institute conducting marine debris research off the California coast.
Though the aim of the exhibition is noble, the results are mixed. The strongest pieces display fine craftsmanship, belief in the transformative abilities of an object, and an interest in morphology.
Miwa Koizumi's remarkable mobile "Marrus Orthocanna" (above) is made of light blue plastic bottles and mimics the shape of a bioluminescent siphonophore, an elongated jellyfish that unravels before the viewer. Koizumi made bubble-like pinpricks at the tops of the bottles, while the bottoms are flayed to reveal thin, cerulean tendrils that cast great shadows. Robson's mobile, "Everything, All at Once, Forever," in an iridescent periwinkle, is the perfect floating counterpart to Koizumi's work; it's made of discarded bottles and joined by small rivets, which give the piece tensile strength despite its delicate form.
Portia Munson's "Pink Project: Table" and Anne Percoco's "Indra's Cloud" are both featured as photographs, which lessens their impact. In Munson's piece, small plastic items are crammed on top of a seemingly endless table where pink hairbrush tops lie next to pink pacifiers, dolls, and dildos. Even though you can't smell the plastic clogging the room in Munson's installation, you can imagine the noxious odor that pervaded the gallery when it was first shown 16 years ago.
During the interview Robson told me, "Irritation creates mutation." In a biological sense, "irritation" means that something instigates an active response in something else; for her, this happens every morning when she and her husband pick up trash along their street. This action provides Robson with some of the material for her sculptures, and gives her the sense that she's doing her part in the war on plastic. For the artists included in this exhibition, urban refuse offers a way to transform an annoyance into a work of art.
(images courtesy Lumenhouse, Aurora Robson, Miwa Koizumi)