Drowned in plastic

OLGA SUREDA II From the 1960s to the present day, the instrumentalization of nature has generated an industrialized and patriarchal capitalist society, which has led us to the current situation of global crisis that can only be approached from a deep awareness. Thus, faced with the challenges posed by the socio-environmental changes that are on their way, various artistic practices are reflecting on the capacity of artistic work as a tool for awareness and social transformation.

Without a doubt, one of these challenges, perhaps the most important in the long term, is climate change. Artists from around the world are raising their voices against growing environmental degradation by challenging pre-existing ideas of what art means, as well as the way it is produced and presented, seeking to promote a broad and active reflection on the responsibility of human beings for environmental deterioration.

An example of this is Nathalie Rey’s work, which reminds us how easily and quickly human beings can destroy our planet and at the same time create bonds that bring together the world of nature and the poetic universe. In this context, we could mention some of the artists who, like Rey, awaken awareness and capture urgency, such as the British photographer Mandy Barker, whose aim is to create a reflection on plastic pollution in the world’s oceans and highlight its harmful effect on marine life and on ourselves. A similar intent can be seen in the installations and photographs of Mexican visual artist Alejandro Durán, which transmit to the viewer the damage caused by the human impact on the planet and invite reflection on the daily over-consumption of plastic and the consequent excess of waste generated by today’s society. And the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, who, since the beginning of his career in the nineties, has worked with large-scale installations in which viewers themselves are immersed in order to provoke a direct reaction and a critical awareness of the use of natural resources and climate change.

Nathalie Rey uses her imaginary to denounce environmental catastrophes and represents her own vision of contemporary consumer society in her project Naufragio (Shipwreck, 2012-2019), which was born after she read the news about twelve shipping containers that left Hong Kong in January 1992 en route to Washington and fell into the water during a storm in the north Pacific Ocean. One of the containers contained 29,000 children’s bath toys in various shapes: red beavers, green frogs, blue turtles and yellow ducks. Unlike many bath toys, they had no holes in them – so being watertight they did not fill with water, which allowed them to float in the ocean. The ducklings and other plastic animals sailed through the ocean currents until they were “shipwrecked”, were preyed upon by marine animals or ended up stranded on unexplored beaches, demonstrating over the years their navigability and durability.

This story, which had a strong social and environmental impact, awakened Rey’s awareness. The artist, wishing to reflect on the overflowing consumption of plastic, decided to recreate part of the adventure with an installation of rubber ducks on a beach in the Maresme (Naufragio I, 2012). A few years later, Rey recreated the same scenario but this time representing the shipwreck of thousands of Kinder Surprise eggs of various colors that invaded the island of Langeeog, on the Baltic Sea coast, giving rise to Naufragio II (2017), an installation composed of metallic sandbanks filled with pink sand and hundreds of chicken eggs. In this case, the artist wanted to emphasize the contrast between the natural and the artificial, the real and the false, by replacing beach sand with pink artificial sand and using biodegradable chicken eggs in place of the plastic eggs.

With Naufragio III (2018-2019) Nathalie Rey began another active process of transformation in nature, this time not based on events such as the shipwreck of rubber ducks or Kinder eggs, but creating her own narrative. The artist, aware of the seriousness of the problem of plastic waste, symbolically “contaminates” different rural landscapes with the very material that she denounces: plastic. Nathalie Rey therefore intervenes voluntarily in the different scenarios, scattering hundreds of colored plastic jars and creating a “beautiful” landscape that visually attracts the spectator’s eye but which, in the end, denounces the harshness of reality.

The interventions of Naufragio III were carried out in the framework of various artistic residences that the artist held during 2018-2019 in different points of Spain, some of which were documented in video, such as the action that took place in Vilanova de Sau (Nectar, Catalonia) and in the Segura Valley (AADK, Murcia). This action consisted not only of dispersing plastic but also of collecting it later, to set an example.

Nathalie Rey is currently working on another branch of Naufragio III, this time intervening in the photographic medium and not directly in the landscape. By nailing colored pins that refer to the plastic bottles in the black and white photographs, Rey also reinforces the contrast between the natural and the artificial. Both the photographs (whether subject to intervention or not) and the video pieces resulting from the Naufragio project thus show spectators the irreversible effects of climate change and the consequences of the human footprint on the environment through the consumption of plastic.

 Plastic, which did not begin to be produced on a large scale until the middle of the twentieth century, has changed our lives like few other inventions, sometimes apparently for the better and deep down for the worse. It has facilitated space travel, revolutionized medicine and saved lives every day simply by bringing drinking water to poor populations in those disposable bottles that we demonize today. Production has increased at such a vertiginous rate that almost half of all the plastic in history has been made in the last fifteen years. From all the billions of tons of this material produced in the world, a very high percentage is not recycled, ending up in the sea, the final dumping ground of the planet’s garbage.

Nathalie Rey also echoes the danger faced by our current culture of using and throwing away and our uncontrolled production of waste in the Plastic Sea (2019) series, making visible through her inverted maps what is invisible to our eyes: the massive amount of waste that ends up in the oceans. Composed of fifteen aesthetically clean circular canvases representing fifteen inverted maps, Nathalie Rey has hand-stitched thousands of colorful plastic pearls that symbolize the enormous garbage dump in oceans, seas and lakes. A meditative action that requires patience and precision and through which Rey denounces a global problem.

In this case, the technique of sewing detaches itself from its functional character and becomes an artistic form capable of installing an alternative aesthetic discourse from the sphere of everyday life. The artist, through the action of sewing, rescues this handcrafted technique as a critical and communicational device, turning technique into artistic practice, and succeeding in rediscovering the aesthetic and political potential of everyday life.

Art can be considered both a mirror and a catalyst for human, individual and social problems. However, art can be the device that helps us to establish a balance in our relationship with nature, capable of proposing multiple strategies that awaken consciousness in order to create awareness and generate creative solutions to environmental problems.

The Naufragio project proposes creative ways of facing the scenarios and situations of the ecological-social crisis. Ways of doing that make us reflect and propose new ways of transformation towards sustainability and which invite us to understand the world from empathy and conscience.

Text published for the “Naufragio” catalogue, 2019