Plastic pollution is such a ubiquitous fact of modern life that geologists use it as one of the criteria to define the Anthropocene, the geologic epoch during which human activity has become the dominant influence on the planet. Our addiction to disposable plastic products reflects badly on all of us, to put it mildly, and Dutch artist Thijs Biersteker encourages audiences to confront that reflection head-on.
His traveling exhibition, Plastic Reflectic, is an interactive reflecting pool that viewers can step up to and peer into. Instead of their watery likeness peering back up at them, they see a silhouette composed of small pieces of plastic mirroring their every move.
The artist, who specializes in eco-art installations that harness technology to create awareness of the world’s most pressing environmental issues, feels a personal connection to the problem of ocean plastic. “I have surfed around the world,” Biersteker says, and everywhere he’s visited he’s encountered plastic trash on the beach and swirling in the surf. But when discussing this with friends, the artist says, “they did not feel the urgency that I felt.”
Plastic Reflectic is Biersteker’s effort to get viewers to viscerally experience their own implication in the global plastic pollution crisis. The figurative reflecting pool works by combining motion sensors and 601 submerged waterproof engines, which operate in concert to scan the viewer’s outline and rearrange the plastic bits as needed to achieve the person-as-plastic effect.
Rather than shame and blame, Biersteker hopes Plastic Reflectic will bring about positive change. As the artist’s website describes it, “The interaction with the installation empowers the spectator with the thought that their movement at this moment can influence the ever growing plastic problem later.”
The Amsterdam-based Plastic Soup Foundation (PSF), a nonprofit focused on tackling ocean plastic pollution at its sources, commissioned Biersteker to create the piece in collaboration with DPG Media. PSF collected the ocean plastic that emerges from the eerie black bioliquid that fills Plastic Reflectic’s pool from all over the world. But when a gallery near a coastline features the exhibit, the group stocks it with plastic pollution from local sources.
There’s certainly no shortage of material. An estimated 8 million metric tons of plastics enter the oceans each year, on top of the 150 million metric tons that are already swirling through marine environments. Scientists have found plastic in the guts of all species of sea turtles and 60 percent of seabird species. And when plastics degrade, they can break down into nanoplastics, particles so tiny they are capable of passing through cell walls.
Biersteker first displayed Plastic Reflectic in 2016, and he’s noticed a shift in public awareness of ocean plastic in the years since. “I’m excited to see this trend,” he says. “But I think we need way more awareness for all the influences of plastic pollution.”
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