Portrait in Plastic

Story by Jessica Hough

This story appears in the Winter 2013/2014 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below.

Somewhere, swirling in the North Pacific Ocean is a massive stew of garbage as large as the size of Texas. Ka Lae, the southern-most point of Hawaii — and all of the U.S. for that matter — would be a tropical paradise, were it not for the mountains of plastic debris that wash ashore. It is here, in 2006, that Pam Longobardi, installation artist, environmental activist and winner of the 2013 Hudgens Prize, was first inspired to clean these garbage-strewn beaches and create art with her findings.

Although Longobardi’s work includes painting, photography, film and video, as well as works on paper and large-scale installations, what links all of her projects is a focus on environmental issues and an interest in exploring the relationship between humans and nature. The Drifters Project, which is perhaps the apotheosis of this lifelong fascination with environmental processes, is an ongoing series of art installations in which Longobardi collects debris washed up on the beach and transforms it into aesthetically stunning, beautifully composed and disturbingly sinister portraits of human consumption and environmental destruction.

When I visited her Virginia Highlands studio to discuss the project, I was greeted with a beaming smile, warm with southern hospitality. A long line of tiny plastic objects stretched across a wall, from a thumbnail-sized Hello Kitty head on one end to a bizarre plastic bear on the other — each pinned to the wall in order of ascending size, floating against the white backdrop. “It’s a timeline,” she tells me. Part of the Drifters Project, the piece speaks to a larger cultural anthropology that Longobardi showcases in her collection.

She is interested in systems of valuation and devaluation — the way that an object is created, and then consumed and transformed into waste, all within global economies of exchange that run tangent to the economy of the environment. Plastic, she tells me, is the byproduct of this interaction. “This is the cultural archaeology of our time. This is how our time in history will be marked,” she says. And it’s true. Currently, ecologists are considering officially designating an “Anthropocene Epoch” to account for the damage to the natural environment that humans have caused — a sobering and disquieting fact.

Prior to being selected as the winner of the prestigious Hudgens Award, several of Longobardi’s pieces were on view at the Hudgens Center. Encountering the installations is like returning to Ka Lae, where Longobardi conceived the collection. Finding heaps of plastic debris on the beach, she tells us that she was first struck by the beauty of its form and color — “It was almost like finding a sleeping giant” — and then horrified by the realization that it was all trash. Longobardi’s work is characterized by harmony of form and muted tones that render the once familiar abstract. Approaching the piece, one realizes in a moment fraught with fascination and guilt, that each of its sculptural elements is a bit of garbage — plastic, to be specific, morphed and softened by the ocean’s currents. Interacting with Longobardi’s pieces is a visceral and emotional experience. As a viewer, it is impossible not to feel implicated in the destruction of our environment and simultaneously torn between the undeniable beauty of the objects’ color and form, and the sickening message that her installations articulate.

Longobardi intends her work to expose the interaction between humans and their environment, and to force us to look closely at the products of our consumption. Central to the Drifters Project is the concept of the Conscious Ocean. This Conscious Ocean philosophy operates on the assumption that the ocean is an active and reactive entity that is in the process of communicating its decline, from shrinking fish stocks to pollution. “Just like the rainforests are the world’s respiratory system, the ocean is its cardiovascular system. The ocean consciously communicates with me. I literally feel like things are laid out in messages,” Longobardi says. Each small piece in her installations carries meaning, like the life ring she found in one of her first outings for the project or the tiny plastic baby that she found deep within a crumbling cave. I ask her about the objects’ coloration and mutation and Longobardi tells me that she does not alter the pieces at all. Rather, they come from the ocean as almost ready-made art objects capable of articulating their own histories and somber significance. As the ocean tries to expel the waste, it is transformed: “Plastic has this garish attractiveness anyway because it’s trying to sell itself to us, and then nature softens that and speaks through it.” Her work goes beyond visualizing society’s disregard for its world: on a much larger scale it em- bodies systems of valuation and economies of scale and is an archaeology and anthropology of both modern and ancient values, offering a blaring critique of quotidian apathy.

It was difficult to leave Longobardi’s studio without feeling a bit hopeless and more than a bit heartbroken, but I think the key to Longobardi’s work — and what she herself feels is critically important — is that there is hope. With reassuring confidence she tells me, “We don’t have time to be depressed about this. And as soon as you start doing something, you aren’t depressed.” It’s all about giving the ocean a voice, and Longobardi’s installations do this in a particularly powerful way. “For me, beauty is my greatest weapon, because the horror of this material and what it really does is lurking right behind that. You can’t go straight into that because people will turn away,” she adds. Each object goes through phases of valuation and devaluation, familiarity and abstraction, utility, irrelevance and, for Longobardi, substantive beauty, where we can find the perfect intersection of art and activism. As I left, she told me, “This whole thing is really about love. When you love something, you take care of it, and we’ve somehow forgotten our love for nature along the way. But people are finding it again.”