Review by: Skye Sherwin, 2012
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 Gwyllog, 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, with its scratched body conjuring the cracked paint of an old modernist canvas. The vestiges of a delicately deteriorating black bin-bag, 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. Look at it another way and it’s a map of the world, those grungy markings, archipelagos in a sea of lapis lazuli blue.
What journeys these objects have been on, is a question that 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 mold and mass-produce. 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 unknown effects on zooplankton, the basis of the marine food pyramid, which are now chowing down on micro-particles of polymer, while seabirds regularly starve to death after plastic they’ve eaten blocks up their digestive systems.
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. 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 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, 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. What people, millennia from now, will make of a flip-flop decorated with a giant flower, should they chance upon it in the sand, 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.