For the past six years I have been working with scrap materials and low tech methods of reproduction, as a response to mass production and a wasteful culture. Working with the crudest and earliest form of camera-less photography, I document ambiguous forms made out of plastic removed from the environment. I didn’t consciously set out to make art that had an environmental message, but it seems to me that art comes from what is around you, what is in your environment; right now it would be hard to make art that didn’t include this concern.
I am interested in playing around with transparency and the ephemeral quality of light. The documenting of something left behind is unique to this kind of camera-less photography and becomes quite addictive, it’s almost like fossil hunting.
My use of plastic waste began as expediency, a combination of what was freely available and what worked well with the technique I was experimenting with. My material was found in urban tumbleweeds of plastic floating in street gutters, or caught in trees: ideal for creating the xray effect and the milky outlines of photograms.
The ‘truth’ of photography as documentary is a subject of much debate, but on one level we see it as a scientific recording of reality – the presence of light reflected from forms that existed in real time. And yet despite the drive towards refinement, to enable more and more detail and accuracy, its earliest form, the cyanotype photogram seems to me the most direct and perhaps the more accurate record of what matter really is. A photogram is always true to scale and at the same time, reveals not the form but the formlessness. A photogram is always a unique photographic image; it cannot ever be replicated. Using the cyanotype process means I can abandon all the formality and accuracy that I dislike in photography and instead experiment spontaneously. As I’m relying on things out of my control – the sun and wind to make the images – there’s a lot of frustration to overcome, but the results are more exciting, surprising and unpredictable, and you need that excitement to make art!
But back to the plastic bags which have now become harbingers (think Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds) and almost animate despite being inanimate, their out of context appearance and proliferation creating a sinister species-like presence. I think a bag caught in a tree is now clearly a 21st century motif and hard to ignore; the wind and the trees flagging up our consumerist stupidity. But so often our singular efforts to rid our environment of this new species seem futile; so what if I’ve removed one bag from a tree today in the name of art?! They are still being produced at a rate of five billion a year.
It was heartening, then, to read an article the other day by bag snagger inventor Ian Frazier in the New Yorker magazine: The Bag Bill.
I’ve been following the debate about how to tackle the swamp of plastic that is currently swirling around in the oceans gyres. It is estimated to be between 4 million and 12 million metric tons a year, and set to double within a year. The two most common types of plastic in the ocean are polyethylene (PE – plastic bags and plastic bottles) and polypropylene (PP – bottle caps, fishing gear). I despair! Our disgusting waste is even more insidious for being out of sight, but as far as direct action is concerned, apart from boycotting plastic altogether some people believe it would be more effective for us to remove plastic from trees rather than invest in ocean harvesting, i.e, dredging the waste mechanically. Maybe it is worth removing that bag after all.
As I photogrammed more and more plastic bags, they began to take on their own forms, which took me more towards my interest in mimesis in nature; how one species takes on the shape of another to trick it’s predator or victim and ultimately to survive. In one series, Nureonna, the bags are watery deceivers, Japanese snake/human mythological entities that steal and devour babies who are being washed by their mothers in the rivers.
In another series, Market Sundries, the bags have morphed into airborne drone-like buds, grafting themselves onto limulus crab carapaces, their spikes designed to take root and profligate.
Plastic bags mimic medusae forms and trick sea turtles, fish, whales, etc., into ingesting them, resulting in death. I hope these images have that slight double-take effect on viewers.
Four images from Invasive Species are currently included in ‘Of the Sea’ at No.1 Smithery Gallery, The Historic Dockyard Chatham, from 6th May – 24 July. In this show, 28 international artists explore the controversial ‘freedom of the seas’ principle with lens based media, sculpture and performance art. The work covers powerful topics such as conflict, ecology, territory, migration, piracy, border disputes, and the ebb and flow of oceans. I was particularly affected by Jessica Sarah Rinland’s The Blind Labourer a film that examines the similarities and contrasts within the whaling and lumber industry using archival footage.
Rachel Thomson trained in photography and print at Central St Martins School of Art and is an artist based at Space Studios, Hackney, London. Her work is drawing- and photography-based and includes etching, monotype, cyanotype and silkscreen. Supported by The Arts Council England Grants to Individual Artists she has curated shows at Five Hundred Dollars Gallery, designed and led participatory art projects and produced the independent art magazine Imbroglio. She exhibits regularly and will be teaching a summer course ‘Cyanotype Impressions’ at the Mary Ward Centre London.