The “floating world” is a term and concept that began during the Edo era in Japan. It signified hedonistic extravagances or excessive behaviors. Even though the floating world was largely focused on sex, sumo, and samurai this turn of phrase keeps coming to my mind while I consider Altered Ocean, a monograph by the artist Mandy Barker, released in May 2019 by Overlapse. Isn’t our planetary overconsumption of plastic goods also a kind of exorbitant self-indulgence? It would seem that the gigantic floating island of plastic waste in the North Atlantic is evidence aplenty of such behaviors. Everyone has witnessed litter on the shorelines, even in very remote areas. And we have all contributed. Humans are ingesting microplastics without really knowing it.
To make the ends of our plastic consumption chain visible, Mandy Barker began collecting and documenting debris washed up along the coast. She researched the duration associated with decaying plastic items to find that certain objects break down in a few years while others can take many centuries to degrade (if ever). Barker befriended leading scientists from around the world working on this issue. They sent her samples and used social media to assist in her efforts. She later went along on oceanic research vessels, working onsite (or later, in far-flung hotel rooms) to photograph detritus recovered from the swaying ship’s hull.
Not content to simply represent these items in grids, or via some pseudoscientific version of the Bechers’ “objective” works, she began to digitally compose her photos into layered arrangements. The result is a rather too-perfect amalgamation of what we might imagine happening in the depths below where light can reach under an ocean’s surface. In Barker’s deep-sea “floating world” the objects take the shape of shoals of fish, galaxies, a soup or stew, and the like. They are clear and sharp, lit with a touch of contrast, and always abundant in the frame, from larger objects to very small, giving a sensation of dimensionality.
Mandy Barker’s mission is to share the imagery widely as a means of educating the public on the harms caused by single-use plastic items and the microplastics they inject into the ecosystem. To this end she has made some serious headway, expanding out from gallery walls into everyday spaces—such as railway stations, the United Nations embassies, and churches—with both her works and lectures.
Overlapse makes this effort clear as day through an immaculately printed and well-designed presentation, including two essays, the artist’s foreword, and by reproducing Barker’s personal notebooks in a 24-page section, followed by a single spread for further research/statistical info on the issues. For the portfolio section, the paper stock changes from a “bleached” blue, uncoated color to white coated paper. It then goes back to an uncoated “waterlogged” pink. Both of the end sheets, front and back, depict menacing dark waves with no debris visible.
For me the strongest pieces are those in the “Soup” series, wherein the objects form organic, edge-to-edge abstractions, like a star-filled sky seen on a clear and dark night. Though designed, many of these images evoke a greater sense of the undulation or fluidity in undersea motion. At other times—when Barker references a spiral galaxy (31.15N, 155.22E) comprised of trawl-recovered items such as flip flops, worker helmets, gloves, containers, etc., or an asteroid belt of soccer balls (Penalty: Europe)—the images feel more like illustration. In both cases, there is a resonant, even didactic, character to the project.
The last section in the main portfolio includes (sadly) only six images of plastic garbage represented/designed as “plankton.” By comparison to the other sections, this part feels slightly undercooked, but Barker has more plankton on her website, as well as various commissions she’s done for National Geographic, Greenpeace, and IKEA. Her notebooks are online too. Overlapse printed an amazing book of Barker’s plankton creations titled Beyond Drifting in 2017, which is now out-of-print.
Back matter essayist Liz Wells (Professor of Photographic Culture and writer on photography) posits that this project fits under the umbrella of Critical Realism, through its observation, documentation and inference of what is mostly an invisible process, and she importantly implicates the underlying corporate and societal values which allow this to continue.
By the end of the book I found myself going back to the first images where Barker showed the singular objects on dark black backgrounds. After all the fancy photoshopping, these simple works take on a more poignant and resonant abstraction, with slightly recognizable parts of the original item giving way to anthropomorphism. Strange underwater creatures are so much the “other” as to resemble decayed chunks of Styrofoam, nylon, or common plastic bags, and vice versa, with items resembling some of the life forms they are helping to obliterate.
At the end of the day, I believe civilization could still enjoy a lot of hedonism without missing any single-use plastics. The book’s front-matter essayist Richard Thompson, a celebrated marine biologist and early microplastics discoverer, points out that alternatives can have their own challenges too and suggests that a sensible use of recycled plastic is perhaps a good way to go.
It is commendable how Mandy Barker gets in the face of such a large and terrible dilemma through her work. Many of her installations utilize experiential design to make the research component more tangible, displaying various actual objects, infographics and tips on how to change our behavior. The installation at Fotografiska (who usually employs very dramatic lighting to their shows) looks almost like an aquarium, how very ironic indeed.