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Art & Culture

Plastic legacy: What will history learn from us?

By June 18, 2020August 27th, 2020One Comment
© Rob Arnold - The Moai sculpture on the cliff overlooking Whitsand Bay from where the plastic used to create the sculpture was collected.

A Cornwall-based artist recreates historic monuments using ocean plastic, reminding us to learn from the past, but also think carefully about the legacy we are leaving behind.

Artist Rob Arnold collects, cleans and sorts plastic litter of all shapes and sizes from local Cornish beaches, using the material to create artworks with a strong environmental message about our plastic waste and its lasting impact. During the pandemic lockdown, he spent his time sifting and sorting through 40 sacks of litter collected from his local beach in Cornwall, which he collected just before the isolation measures were implemented. In this recent load alone, he uncovered countless plastic beads and scraps of unknown origin as well as bits of car tyre, dust caps, and Lego flippers.

Back in 2017 Rob made a shocking discovery as he witnessed one of the local beaches near his home almost completely covered in plastic litter. Realising the impact of our misuse of plastic on the environment and our own health and future too, he wanted to create a powerful piece illustrating the timeless impact of ‘our plastic legacy’. Thus, he embarked on creating a replica of a traditional Maoi sculpture made with polluting plastic fragments collected from the beach.

After much planning and help from volunteers, 35 bags of marine litter were collected and sifted using equipment that Rob had built. To carve the shape of the Moai head, the artist used a large block of polystyrene, possibly part of a pontoon, that was discovered in Whitsand Bay by beach-cleaning volunteers from Rame Peninsula Beach Care.

“I spent most of that summer sieving and sorting the plastic fragments for my art pieces. Interestingly, while sorting the fragments I discovered all manner of plastic detritus from our decades of plastic use, it was like archaeology of our plastic age.”

Rob’s work is inspired by the Moai heads of Easter Island in the south Pacific. These enigmatic, monolithic sculptures stand as a reminder of the aboriginal islanders, the Rapa Nui, that made them before their decline. One popular theory about their demise suggests that the Rapa Nui engaged in excessive tree chopping and habitat exploitation. This resulted in an irreversible resource scarcity, ultimately leading to the population’s collapse. Hence, his work emanating the Easter Island tragedy created a poignant metaphor for the way we are irresponsibly exhausting our planet’s natural resources at a rate far faster than they can be replenished.

A remarkable lesson can also be derived from the discovery of the monuments. While the heads remain the most iconic feature, archaeologists later discovered that they are attached to even larger bodies which have slowly disappeared under the earth. A recent study from the University of Manchester indicated that the vast majority of plastic which ends up in the ocean sinks to the ocean floor, illustrating that what we see floating or washed ashore is only the tip of the iceberg. Researchers and scientists are also currently debating whether plastic could in fact become a stratigraphic indicator of the Anthropocene – leaving a most disappointing legacy for future civilisations to remember us by.

Rob’s recreation of the famous Stonehenge monument communicates a similar idea to his plastic replica of Moai heads. A closer look at ‘Plastic Henge’ reveals how the art piece was created using post consumers plastic lighters found littered across our coastlines. The same eerie message resonates – what will history learn from us? We can only hope that those who come after us, will take better care of their environment.

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