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Pretty Pollutants at Plastic Ocean Art Exhibit

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On any given day, we open countless packages, wrappers, bottles, boxes. Everything we eat, drink or open comes in disposable packaging that we throw away without second thought.

Trash becomes art in Bonnie Monteleone’s Plastic Ocean traveling exhibition called “What Goes Around Comes Around.” Monteleone, curious about where our trash goes when it leaves our homes, began researching this issue in 2009 and later started her own nonprofit to address the eight million tons of plastic that end up in the ocean each year.
The sheer number is enormous, but fairly abstract to imagine in our day-to-day lives. To bring the reality of the situation ashore, Monteleone carried home some of the plastic she gathered during her research journeys at sea. Monteleone began studying ocean pollution for her thesis at University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and despite her lack of scientific background, she boarded a ship to see the North Pacific gyre — an area of calm waters that creates perfect conditions for accumulating debris, forming garbage patches in the middle of the ocean.

After her thesis review meeting, her colleagues and professors asked her what she was going to do with all these plastic samples she had collected, and she jokingly told them she would make them into art.

“This has done so much for people to get it. At first, it’s beautiful, it’s bright-colored, ooh it’s shiny things, right? And then all of the sudden you start recognizing this is a serious problem,” said Monteleone.

The Plastic Ocean Art Exhibition hosted its opening reception at UCI on Thursday, January 12 in the Viewpoint Gallery in the Student Center, one of UCI’s few and oddly-placed gallery spaces. Her artwork morphs the iconic Japanese woodblock print, “The Great Wave of Kanagawa” by Katsushika Hokusai from 1830, with photos of plastic found from the five gyres of the world. The images decreasingly resemble the “Great Wave” so that the viewer gets a sense of how much our oceans have changed since Hokusai’s vision of it, nearly 200 years ago. Next to each canvas is a bin with some of the objects depicted in the artwork that visitors can pick up and tangibly interact with.
Monteleone also constructed a sculptural wave out of the trash she collected: hundreds of bottle caps, tarps, bottles, boxes, surfboard bits, netting, and other unrecognizable scraps of slowly-decomposing plastic assembled in a menacing, claw-like wave.

The art’s mission is bleak and crystal clear: Despite these aestheticized visions of trash, this is not what the ocean should look like.

Monteleone’s Plastic Ocean Project, Inc. is dedicated to education and outreach through less conventional methods, like art. With a multifaceted approach, her nonprofit sponsors innovative research and eclectic projects that plan to reduce, reuse or recycle plastic waste and her art exhibition travels around the country to educate as well as inspire people to think about their impact on the environment.

As part of the reception’s activities, Earth Systems Science Professor Francois Primeau discussed the easterlies and westerlies that cause gyres to occur, baffling nearly everyone in the room with his 10-minute graduate-level lecture, and art professor Simon Penny discussed his Micronesian boat-building projects and the history of artists engaging with science.

“When you develop a project in an institution … you essentially have to have done the research before you start. It can’t be open-ended, really. Or, if you’re working within a commercial realm, it’s got to turn a profit within a short amount of time,” said Penny. “But artists don’t work in that environment. Artists have the open possibility to just do interesting things because they seem interesting at the time.”

With these two brilliant UCI professors as a case study, the mutually beneficial relationship between art and science is elucidated; while scientists do incredible research and factual work that contributes to our body of knowledge, artists are able to interpret it and share it with the world in unique and accessible ways that make us care and make us change.

Plastic Ocean Art Exhibition will be on display January 12 through February 13 in the Student Center Viewpoint Gallery.