2.38. Plastic Coral Reef Idea

As the final exhibition deadline gets closer, I am beginning to develop ideas for my final piece. One of these is to create a coral reef entirely of waste plastic.

This is inspired by my earlier project involving making jellyfish out of plastic bags. It involves the same idea of depicting how much plastic there is in the ocean, but in a more complex and detailed way.

The piece is based on the disturbing statistic that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean, by weight. This statistic really disturbs me because the ocean is where fish are meant to be; it’s where they live; it is not a dumping ground for our poisonous material. That there will soon be more plastic than fish represents, I think, a huge transgression against the world we live in.

I’m trying to communicate this message through the irony of the piece – it is a representation of a beautiful, complex hive of life, made from grossly unnatural material. Then again, it could be seen as completely unironic because it actually depicts the horrible truth – that plastic will be more a part of the ocean than ocean life.

The purpose of this piece is to make audiences realise just how much plastic there is predicted to be in the ocean in the near future, and to depict a kind of worst-case-scenario. The key word here is predicted – it is not meant to be pessimistic, if anything it is aimed to tell audiences that there is still time to reduce plastic pollution so that the statistic doesn’t ring true.  

One consideration I had was to put in a small model of something like a clownfish, which would stand out amongst the terrifying blacks and blues of the plastic. This would act as a terrified, outnumbered ambassador of the natural world, dwarfed by the plastic surrounding it. A clownfish would remind audiences of the Disney Pixar film Finding Nemo, and therefore evoke an emotional response.

It would be made entirely of found pieces of plastic, including plastic bags, bottles, food packaging, and so on. It would be built upon a solid base (like real coral reefs are) such as a shelf, and it would be fastened together using either superglue or scotch tape. The pieces of plastic would be meticulously cut and shaped to look like coral formations, to reflect the enormous variety of life in a coral reef.

The main motivation behind this artwork is my love of the natural world and my resentment for the damage human activity is doing to it, however I was inspired by many of the artists I have been researching this term. The execution of this idea was inspired in part by the artwork of Khalil Chishtee, who uses found plastic to create vivid, realistic, emotive sculptures. Chishtee’s work inspired the idea of making large, complex structures out of plastic, after which this idea came about. I was also inspired by Mariele Neudecker, who creates little microcosms of nature and displays them in water tanks, creating eerie, atmospheric artworks. Her work actually gave me the idea to create this plastic coral reef and display it underwater, for example in a large fish tank, which would definitely convey the ‘ocean’ setting more effectively – but I quickly disregarded this idea because fish tanks are often very expensive and fastening together the plastic may not work underwater. In part, I was inspired by Christian Boltanski’s huge, industrial-themed artwork because it shows how sheer size and presence alone can make an artwork exciting. It leads me to believe that I could achieve great impact if I constructed a plastic coral reef that was huge.

This was an idea that I experimented with, but never brought to a conclusion. Although I believe this idea had potential, I discontinued it (for now) for quite a few reasons. In theory, a sprawling, complex, colourful coral reef made entirely out of plastic might have stood out in an art gallery, due to its size, presence, and complexity, and it could have communicated an anti-plastic message very effectively. However, soon after beginning physical experiments, I realised the reality was much more difficult. Coral reefs are immensely complex, large, and beautiful, and to replicate this in plastic form would have taken a long time and a vast amount of materials, which I simply did not have. It would also have been extremely flimsy and difficult to set up. Plus, a few of my other ideas were gaining traction at the time and I soon began to favour others over the coral reef idea.

This artwork, then, will not be realised this year. However, this is not to say I will not take what I’ve learned into my other artwork. I believe the message has potential; the irony of plastic being more a part of nature than nature is I think very persuasive and memorable, so I will try to incorporate this in my future practice.

Shown here is the beginnings of a plastic sea anemone, made out of food packaging and rolled up pieces of plastic bag.
Shown here is a strip of cardboard, which would have formed the base of the coral reef
Shown here is a fish made of an old plastic bottle, which is a stark representation of the ‘more plastic than fish’ statistic



Published by William Fowler

I'm studying Art and English Literature at the University of Reading. My work includes painting, drawing, installation, film, performance, writing, and music. My main influences are surrealism, psychedelia, philosophy, literature, op art, and Arte Povera.

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