Artificial flowers CREDIT: STUART HAYGARTH
It would be great if we didn't have beach trash that polluted our coastline and waters, but until that day arrives, we need to pick up what careless people dumped and perhaps recycle some of it into beautiful art!
Stuart Haygarth photographed objects he found during an epic hike along Britain’s coast. The results are strange and beautiful, says Robert Macfarlane
On first seeing Stuart Haygarth’s remarkable series of photographs, Strand, I was reminded of Roland Barthes’s line in a catalogue essay from 1976: “The essence of an object has something to do with the way it turns into trash.” Barthes meant, I think, that once an object has been discarded – and thus absolved of its function – its form becomes brightly visible. Freed from its status as commodity, and no longer treated in terms of its use-value, the thingness of an item intensifies as it “turns into trash”.
Certainly, one of the achievements of Haygarth’s works is to make strange again the mass-produced objects that fill our lives to the degree that we scarcely perceive them. In the past the Lancashire-born sculptor and designer has created works of art from used party poppers, spectacle lenses, and items confiscated from British Airways passengers. He is fascinated with recycling materials, and for Strand set out on a 450-mile walk along the British coast from Gravesend in Kent to Land’s End in Cornwall picking up man-made objects washed up on the shore along the way.
He categorised his finds by colour or by purpose, then photographed them, before turning them into an extraordinary permanent installation that hangs, like a multicoloured chandelier, in University College Hospital’s Macmillan cancer care centre in London. Toothbrushes, cigarette lighters, combs, shoe soles, babies’ dummies, Duplo bricks and bath toys are all drastically defamiliarised in these photographs. Mute and numerous, they appear as the ritual artefacts of an outlandish tribe – with Haygarth their archaeologist or ethnographer. An intricately pimpled swimming hat, photographed in isolation, gleams like a Sutton Hoo helmet. Limbless dolls with outsize eyes stare in fixed amazement.
Plastic, in particular, is made peculiar. What is this hyper-coloured substance that infiltrates our existence, that is so versatile in its forms and various in its textures, and so durable in the face of distress? We are insensitive to its qualities exactly because it performs so many tasks for us so well. If we do respond to it aesthetically, it is usually to disdain it for not being wood, steel, wool or stone – rather than to appreciate it for its adaptability. We are embarrassed by its synthetic nature, instead of astonished by what it has made possible.
Again and again in Haygarth’s photographs, what plastic imitates best is nature. Shards of plastic are arranged as flowers. Combs crawl across the page like woodlice or centipedes. Fishing floats mimic squid and sprats. A metre of hose lies coiled like a snake. Babies’ bath toys caricature crabs, sea horses and dolphins. Near the middle of the sequence is a photograph of two shoes, left and right, both with their tongues hanging out, neatly placed next to one another. “A pair!”, you think at first glance, before your brain has spotted the differences: one is a brogue, the other a winkle-picker; one is soaked and sandy, the other has been in the water so long it is home to a colony of barnacles.
Both have been worn out not by miles on land but by miles at sea: they might make a suitably disparate pair for one of Beckett’s tramps in Waiting for Godot. Inevitably, the viewer’s mind finds itself drawn into the dream-life of such debris, speculating as to how the shoes came to be lost, who might have worn them, what journeys they might have taken… Almost every page of Strand provokes brief, futile conjecture of this kind.
Though the visual assembly of the photographs nods to 19th-century zoological specimen drawers, there is no key provided to explain the exhibits. The result is that you begin viewing the work with an expectation of order – and end it drowning in chaos. Efforts to discriminate between different kinds of object come to seem pointless: they are all plastic, and all junk. Barthes again: in the age of plastic “the hierarchy of substances is abolished: a single one replaces them all: the whole world can be plasticised”.
In the 60 years since Barthes wrote his “mythology” of plastic, it feels as if the whole world has been plasticised. About 100 million tons of plastic are produced globally each year now, of which 10 million tons end up in the sea – with appalling consequences for the marine environment. The North Atlantic and the North Pacific have each developed a “garbage patch” or “trash vortex”: a vast gyre of plastic particles suspended in the upper water column of an area of ocean, and prevented from dispersing by prevailing currents and winds.
Estimates of the area of the Pacific Trash Vortex range from 270,000 sq miles (around the area of the state of Texas) to more than 6 million sq miles (twice the area of the Continental United States). Plastic degrades slowly and resiliently, reduced by sunlight into smaller fragments rather than into simpler compounds. These fragments are known as “mermaid’s tears” or “nurdles”, and have the grim property of absorbing and concentrating toxins that are otherwise widely diffused within seawater. Poisoned nurdles can enter and threaten the entire food chain; shopping bags and water bottles become the insidious pollutants of whole ecologies.
Haygarth’s work is keenly aware of this problem. Implicitly – unhectoringly – he asks us to foresee futures for our objects after they have ceased to be useful to us, and once they have passed from our possession. His images may be compared to those of the Mexican artist Alejandro Durán, who documented the plastic waste from more than 50 nations that had washed up on the coastline of the Sian Ka’an “biosphere” reserve in eastern Mexico. They also recall Chris Jordan’s influential film and photographs from Midway Islands in the Pacific, showing the corpses of juvenile Laysan albatrosses, decayed to reveal the plastic waste that has filled their bellies and killed them.
Haygarth’s “strand” – with its wrack line of gaudy refuse – is very far from the “strand” of desert-island imagination. “What will survive of us is love,” wrote Philip Larkin, famously. Larkin was wrong: what will survive of us is plastic.
Strand by Stuart Haygarth and Robert Macfarlane is published by Art/Books (£28). To order your copy for £24 with free p&p call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk