Artful in both her intention and aesthetic, Mandy Barker makes something hauntingly clear; the ocean is drowning in plastic. Redrawing relationships between object and origin, Mandy reminds us that the heaving waste seen across the world’s oceans, and now within living creatures, is an extension of our own material lives. Once struck by seeing the same inkjet cartridge in the stomach of a bird that was used in her own printer, Mandy creates meticulous, contemplative works that connect us back to the choices we make and the things we leave behind.
FCLTY: Can you tell us about yourself, your background, and the paths that led to what you’re doing now?
MB: Well I’ve always had an art background and previously was a graphic designer. I’ve taken photographs throughout my life and probably should have taken photography but I was sort of guided towards graphic design in my art foundation course. Later on, I got the opportunity to study a part-time photography course, then a masters, and it all sort of led from there.
FCTLY: How did you start focusing on ocean plastic as a both a message and a medium?
MB: It was in one of my photography courses, at that time I was specializing in portraits using natural light and film. They asked us to do something out of our comfort zone, something totally different and for me that was doing something still life, in the studio. Since I was brought up near the sea and regularly walked the same beaches and locations, I noticed over the last 20 years that the natural objects I used to collect were being replaced by man made ones. I think the defining moment was when I saw a car, partially submerged on a nature reserve beach.
Miles away from the city, it just made me wonder how it got there. I realized I wanted to let other people know what was happening, especially for people who didn’t visit the beach and find these things themselves.
FCTLY: There’s this quote from your notebook ‘Objects as carriers of emotion; objects stranded, dislocated, treasured though cheap’. It kind of adds this other level of meaning in the objects themselves where they have marks from wear or from animals trying to eat them—they have this distinct past. They’re garbage but they’re also documented with this, almost, preciousness and that they’re their own little lifeforms. In a way, do you remedy this disposable notion with the feeling that these have this other kind of value or sentimentality?
MB: Yes, in a way. I always think about the journey, where they’ve come from, what’s happened to them en route—they’re all kind of individual pieces. There are some pieces of plastic that I feel a greater connection to than others because of this reason. They might have markings or have become melted or degraded by the sun. I think about how long they’ve been there. All these kinds of things mixed together can create an amazing sort of object and something that can inspire a future project. It conjures all different sort of ideas or relationships to where it was found, what it was found with or next to.
All these things come together in the ocean where they would never be together on land. This interrelated kind of mass is very interesting to me.
FCTLY: This seems like an emotional process as well—you’re looking at the leftovers of million different lives. What have been your most interesting or stirring finds?
MB: I think recently, they have been finds that are clearly from a long time ago. Some things I’ve been finding have been from the 1950’s and before. It’s just the fact that these pieces of plastic aren’t particularly damaged and haven’t decomposed in any way. To think that that’s 60 or 70 years ago and they’re early plastics that are still there as if new. It’s not just finding the odd one where you think, ‘oh, something just threw that in the sea last week and they’ve kept it in a drawer on land,’ I’ve found several of them as well. At the same time they’re little old charms, but obviously, that kind of alarms me.
FCTLY: Can you tell us a bit about your new series debuting at Unseen Amsterdam, “Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals”?
MB: This was a project that came about from a residency I did in Ireland in 2014 and focuses on debris that I’ve collected in Cork harbour. Basically, inspiration came from a marine biologist and naturalist called John Vaughan Thompson who collected and identified several new species of plankton in the 1800s when plankton were not ingesting plastic. I wanted to go back and collect plastic samples from the same places and use these pieces of plastic to create images that look like the original plankton specimens. Basically, this is to inform people that plankton, who are the bottom of the aquatic food chain, are now ingesting plastic particles.
The title ‘Imperfectly Known Animals’ is taken from John Vaughan Thompson’s memoirs, ‘Zoological Researches, and Illustrations Or Natural History Nondescript Or Imperfectly Known Animals: in a Series of Memoirs, 1830’. I thought it was quite ironic as he called them Imperfectly Known Animals because he didn’t know what the animals were at the time but I now call them imperfect because they’ve got plastic in them.
FCTLY: Does the notion of imperfection factor in in any other ways?
Throughout the whole project, I’ve used imperfection as a way of working—I used faulty cameras and out of date film because I wanted imperfection to run not just through the idea stage but through the research, final outcome, and technical processes as well. It just feels really thorough. When you look through, you think it’s an old science book. But when you get to the index, it shows you the plastic objects recovered from Cork Harbour that I’ve used to create those microscopic specimens. You find that reality at the end of the book.
FCTLY: It’s almost like fieldwork where you gather specimens, carefully document them, and classify and categorize everything into these really stirring visual reports. Can you tell me what spawned the meticulously accurate, almost quantitative style that’s used in a lot of your work?
MB: When I first started documenting plastic debris, I didn’t remove it from its context—I left it on the beach. But nobody was interested, people kind of looked at them and it was a very short lived experience. People have seen pollution, they’ve seen litter in the streets, it doesn’t really do anything for them.
I realized that I had to kind of create something that held the viewer for longer and had a more lasting awareness so that when they walked away something, they might have retained something from the experience.
For me to remove the items from context and place them on a black background, I’m able to make an aesthetically pleasing image so the viewer is initially attracted to the image, then they get this stab in the back when they realize what it represents.
FCLTY: I was listening to this BBC podcast about the looting of cultural objects in the Middle East and this archaeologist was talking about how removing an object from its context basically rendered it meaningless—that it couldn’t be traced to a specific location or associate with other objects. Obviously plastic is a bit different but it reminded me of how your work re-contextualizes and asserts meaning in its use of symbolism and careful curation—it really makes that lost connection with a person or place apparent. Could you tell me about how conscious that is and how it developed?
MB: I agree with the archaeologist from the Middle East in that situation, but for marine debris it is different. The thing about plastic is that whether in the sea or on the shoreline, the objects or particles are not in their original context. It is very difficult to know exactly where they came from, entering the sea at a certain point, they could have travelled halfway around the world to get onto a particular beach. There’s no kind of connection in terms of original place, only in relation to the point of recovery which is transient.
So it’s all to do with connecting people with their responsibility and making them think that they had a toothbrush like that and that toothbrush has ended in the stomach of an albatross chick.
It’s that shocking realization. It happened for me. I took some images of the plastic contents from an albatross chick’s stomach and there was an HP ink jet cartridge. That just completely stopped me in my tracks. Because that ink jet cartridge was the same one I use in my printer at home. I was looking at and just couldn’t believe that it was found in the stomach of a bird. I’ve just had those moments where I think, oh god—people have got to know about this.
FCTLY: Definitely. Like in the Hong Kong series, you use a lot of strong Asian symbolism—the panda, the lotus, and the dragon. It’s like putting a mirror back towards the ownership and accountability of waste.
MB: Exactly, the purpose of that series was to connect the people of Hong Kong to their daily use of plastic and to the beaches where it ends up. Hong Kong is a very difficult place to change habits in terms of usage of plastic. People are very set in their ways and use an awful lot of plastic. It all goes into landfills and nobody appears to care. But the younger generation really do want to do something about it. So I’ve tried to connect with them by showing toys on the beach and sweet wrappers etc. I think that’s had more of an impression on them.
Like ‘really? Do all those toys really end up in the sea? Where did my last Transformer or Action Man go?’
Represented by East Wing Gallery (Dubai), Mandy Barker is debuting her series “Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals” at Unseen Photo Fair 2016 in Amsterdam as a part of ‘Anthroposceneries’—September 23-25, Booth 50.