Môr Plastig – Essay by Skye Sherwin

The object, a black glossy misshapen lump the size of a child’s fist, looks, for all the world, like a piece of coal. Yet, it’s been recorded by the artist Mike Perry, as if it were a rare specimen or important evidence: carefully positioned against a white ground, and photographed in the soft light of a cloudy day on a 1:1 scale so that its every hairline crack might be examined. Gaze long enough and you realise there’s something not quite right about this little rock, like the dull flecks of mustard yellow within its dark sheen.

No natural phenomenon as we would normally understand it, the ‘coal’ is in fact a plastic something, mutated from whatever its original shape was by the abrasive force of the sea. This is but one of thousands of samples that Perry has found combing the beach in the little Welsh bay, Cwm Gwylog, and selected for his alternative natural history series, Môr Plastig (sea of plastic). Where European explorers once documented the strange flora and fauna of tropical lands in meticulously realised drawings and watercolours, Perry finds wonders closer to home. In place of ‘olifants’ and orchids, he gives us forgotten detritus, washed up in a little-known corner of Britain. His gem-like shards in scarlet, hot orange or turquoise, a bottle encrusted with barnacles or a half-melted scrap of blue, corrugated plastic, apparently metamorphosing into a shell, are no less marvellous however.

Perry’s highly detailed images invite us to see these cast-offs with fresh eyes. Surfaces intrigue and deceive: is this mottled peachy morass a hunk of solid marble, eviscerated skin or the barely-there remnant of a plastic sheet? What might once have been a bottle of bleach, becomes something close to abstract art. So too the scored bellies of barrels of oil – plastic’s most common ingredient – which are photographed up close and fill the frame (Black Container Abstract 1, 2015), conjuring the cracked paint of an old modernist canvas. The vestiges of a delicately deteriorating black bin-bag, Bin Liner 2013, become a beguiling Rorschach blot. A square neatly divided into sections of blue and white and embossed with the green grime of the sea has the formal precision of geometric abstraction and painting’s organic human quality (Blue Container Lid, 2013). Look at it another way and it’s a map of the world, those grungy markings, archipelagos in a sea of lapis lazuli blue.

There are many stones, many unrecognisable. These multiple findings stack up in grids of photos, (Plastic Stones Grid x 28, 2017) catalogued with the precision of a geologist or archaeologist. The grid has become increasingly important for Perry both as an ordering device and a form in itself, in works that both play into and upend its loaded associations in 20th century art history and urban life. In Grids, Rosalind Krauss’s landmark essay of 1979, the art historian posits the grid as the ultimate ‘emblem of modernity’. Stating that it was unknown in Western art preceding the 20th century, her claim that it uniquely announces modern art’s autonomy is bolstered by its following qualities: ‘Flattened, geometricized, ordered, it is anti-natural, unreal.’

Perry certainly addresses the grid as a symbol of human-imposed artificial order, unique in its proliferation in the 20th and 21st centuries. From urban planning to computer pixels, the grid is everywhere, while to live ‘off-grid’ is to attempt to extricate oneself both from modern energy dependencies and societal networks. The variety of plastic grids, be they soft black nets (Black Grid with Circles, 2016), dusty pink mesh (Pink Grid, 2016) or sky blue fragments (Crate Fragment, Pale Blue, 2016), which the artist has found and photographed, speak to this ubiquity and the grid’s rich metaphoric potential.

These images directly recall the interests of minimalist artists of the 1960s. Sol LeWitt’s grids of photographs for instance, often pictured repeating and gridded forms like aerial shots of cities, the glass fronts of skyscrapers or a brick wall. However, Perry’s photography also departs from the notion of the grid either as a tool for regulating existence, or Krauss’s self-sufficient motif in art. In Perry’s photos the found plastic grids in particular, have much to say about the chaotic world beyond their ordered cells.

Perhaps, it is less LeWitt’s fascination with the potential of serials and essential forms that is relevant here. What Perry’s plastic grids most strongly call to mind is LeWitt’s peer Agnes Martin’s abstract painting. The grids that fill her canvasses are realised by hand, their gently wavering lines evidence of a unique life that wielded brush or pencil. That their painted weft and warp was created, not in the city, but the shimmering open New Mexico desert is surely also relevant to Perry’s project.

Though they clearly have industrial roots with forms dictated by mathematical rules, the plastic grids Perry gleans have been digested and spat back by the sea. Their colours are as muted as the Welsh landscape, their edges softened, frayed or furred by mineral deposits. Indeed, removed from their original context, their intended purpose, be it packaging or machine part, is now obscure. What we are left with is an object in a process of evolution, its symmetry set upon by unpredictable forces. This is not just art that channels nature, but evidence of nature staging a takeover on one of modernist art’s defining, manmade forms.

What journeys such objects have been on, is a question that always looms large. “I often wonder how long it took for a bottle to find its way from Russia to Wales,” Perry has said. Unsurprisingly perhaps, many of his images document plastic bottles. Now bent and misshapen, with their clear green or brown bowls turned opaque by salt and sand, they multiply in grids of photos. Astonishingly many still retain identifying tags: barcodes or even logos transferred from long lost labels. These humble items hold an epic story, that of globalised consumer culture and its lesser-known afterlife: what happens to all the disposable goods capitalism runs on.

Plastic seems the archetypal material of our times. Unlike wood or stone, it has no set form. It might become a chair, a dustpan, a lighter, a shoe or any other object we desire. Just create the mould and mass-produce. It’s perhaps no surprise that flip-flops are among Perry’s most frequent beach finds. There’s more to this humble shoe than traditional seaside attire however. It’s the most worn footwear in the world, both affordable for those in countries with the world’s lowest GDP like Ethiopia – one of its biggest markets – and desirable for Western holidaymakers. The production base is China, with flip-flops turned out both in huge factories and people’s homes where enterprising families have bought machines. In the story of 21st century globalisation the shoe most Europeans consign to the bottom of a suitcase, is a frontrunner.

The photographer’s grids of photos of lone rubber soles capture a sense of chugging, unrelenting mass production as well as consumer culture’s illusion of limitless choice. The original foam base never varies its shape and yet they come in almost every conceivable hue and pattern. Here is an emerald green sole (Flip Flop 31, 2016), half chewed by the ocean. Here, another is covered in tiny shells (Flip Flop 29, 2015), a temporary home to sea encrustations. And on another, what might have once been a print of tree branches has faded to thin grey lines (Flip Flop 13, 2012) like delicate pencil marks or tributaries snaking across its desert of salt-bleached cream.

Frayed, scored and contorted by the sea, Perry’s finds have to some extent escaped their factory line, standardised existence. Considering a barnacle-encrusted fragment that might as well be a shell, it’s tempting to think of our rubbish as simply being absorbed by nature’s all conquering ebb and flow.

It’s well to remember though that the effects of plastic joining the marine eco-system are far-reaching. To name a few of the consequences, plastics exposed to seawater concentrate toxic compounds like DDT, with what have recently been confirmed as far-reaching and potentially catastrophic effects, beginning with zooplankton. This basis of the marine food pyramid are now chowing down on micro-particles of polymer, which works its way up the food chain to us: a third of fish caught in the UK contain plastic. Meanwhile seabirds regularly starve to death after plastic they’ve eaten blocks up their digestive systems. In one image (Pecked Foam, 2016) what could be a scored hunk of chalk cut from a cave or cliff is, in reality, a degraded foam block. A bird’s claws have created the scratches that cover its surface: a fusion of animal marks and traces of human settlement that makes for an uncomfortable echo of the ancient marks left by bears in caves, alongside prehistoric paintings.

Perry’s photography however is not concerned with the campaigning rhetoric of straight environmental documentary. Rather it poetically alludes to what we might be leaving for future generations, the footprints in the sand suggested by the castaway flip-flops. A sense of looking back across the ages pervades many of the images, cataloguing decaying debris as if it were relics from a fallen civilisation. Lone rubber gloves, for example Glove 1 Front/Back 2012) are shot from both back and front with unflinching detail, as if being subjected to a forensic examination, in one grid of photos. With just their fingers in tact, the palms in tatters and their orange hues darkened to a charred purplish black, they seem less like protective gear than skin itself: a mummified hand perhaps, unearthed in the ocean bed. Elsewhere flecks of seaweed caught in a bottle, (Bottle 6, 2012) suggest prehistoric insects trapped in amber. Ragged, yellowing sheets of plastic resemble ancient parchment: pirate’s maps that lead to a strange kind of buried treasure. Some of the most captivating images in Môr Plastig are the most abstract: a fragment of smooth, buttery white (Beige Rectangular Fragment, 2013) or neon-orange fibreglass (Orange Rectangular Fragment, 2012) that fades to a scratched cream interior. Even a flattened flowerpot, (Flowerpot, 2013) its squashed and bumpy terracotta plastic, has its charms, recalling, somewhat ironically, the clay antiquities of fallen civilisations. What people, millennia from now, will make of a flip-flop decorated with a giant flower, should they chance upon it on the shore, is anyone’s guess.

While Perry’s photography alerts us to changes taking place, his approach remains resolutely open and ambiguous. The intricate detail his photos capture is utterly arresting, the plastic’s formal beauty striking. Meanwhile these manmade objects redefined by the ocean, consistently challenge our ideas about what’s natural and what artificial. Considering that shiny piece of plastic coal, we find ourselves one moment staring at the contemporary and humdrum, the next contemplating evolution and the origins of the world. This malleable material born of recent technology, has after all been created from oil, which like coal, is a fossil fuel, extracted from deposits in the earth millennia old.

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