Museum Admission: “Gyre: The Plastic Ocean” at the Anchorage Museum

Plastic and its lasting after-effects have been a recurring topic of conversation over the past decade. News about the accumulation of microplastics, the drastic effect of human consumption and waste, and the seemingly permanent lifespan of this man-made material fill our newsfeeds, social media, and minds. I think many of us have been aware with the problem of plastic for a long time (artists too), but it wasn't until I saw Gyre: The Plastic Ocean, curated by Julie Decker, that I really considered the extensive, massive, and exhaustive issues at hand in a more poetic and profound way. – Ellen C. Caldwell, Los Angeles Contributor

“Gyre: The Plastic Ocean,” installation view of
Mark Dion’s “Cabinet of Marine Debris” and Andy Hughes’ UFO Plastic Gyre Series Circularity Series at the Anchorage Museum. Photos Courtesy of Ellen C. Caldwell.

In 2013, the Anchorage Museum and the Alaska SeaLife Center partnered to bring a team of scientists, artists, and educators together to journey along the Alaskan coastline, much as the loads of tourists do every year. Only on this trip, the team was specifically there to collect, document, and reflect upon the marine debris they found, most of which was plastic, scattered from international locations and landing in remote and should-be pristine Alaskan harbors.

What resulted from this trip and from the museum's call to artists is an exemplary exhibit that does what both museums and art should – it educates, it informs, it problematizes, and it shares wonderfully aesthetic and moving art and video installations. I walked around the museum with sporadic onsets of goose bumps, reading chilling facts, seeing equally chilling images, and being totally in awe of the ways in which the artists were able to visually transform the emotionality of their experience in Alaska onto and into a canvas, photograph, or sculptural installation.

Gyre: The Plastic Ocean, exhibit entrance
at the Anchorage Museum. Photo Courtesy of Ellen C. Caldwell.

The scope of the project was huge. Viewers walk in to find a large, bright, three-dimensional, neon plastic GYRE sign welcoming them and signaling, like a caution sign, that the visit will be an experience to be reckoned with. Following this, there are wonderfully made infographics and informative wall labels that situate Alaska and this project, while also defining gyres and introducing some of the information that will unfold throughout the journey in the viewing process.

“WHAT IS A GYRE? A gyre is a swirling vortex. The surface circulation of our oceans is dominated by gyres that may be hundreds to thousands of miles in diameter. It is these gyres that re-distribute and aggregate debris in our oceans. Alaska's shores are the northern fringe of the North Pacific Gyre.” – Gyre: The Plastic Ocean

With such wall explanations, Decker and her team have done a thorough and wonderful job of offering basic introductions to larger and very complex ecological problems. Throughout the exhibit, there were a number of videos, paintings, drawings, photography, sculptures, and installations made from found ocean debris. 

“Gyre: The Plastic Ocean,” installation view of
Alexis Rockman’s “Flotsam” and Karen Larsen’s “Preservation” at the Anchorage Museum. Photos Courtesy of Ellen C. Caldwell.

Karen Larsen
| Preservation, microplastics, antique jars, water, driftwood. Photo Courtesy of Chris Arend and the Anchorage Museum.

Some of my favorite highlights included Mark Dion’s Cabinet of Marine Debris; Karen Larsen’s Preservation; Steve McPherson’s Object Series including 28 Objects that Measured the World; Fran Crowe’s Souvenir Packs; Andy Hughes’ UFO Plastic Gyre Series Circularity Series; Alexis Rockman’s Flotsam; Elizabeth Leader’s Tires Underwater; and Pam Longobardi’s Endless: Economies of Scale.

With Dion and Larsen’s works, both include a three-dimensional cabinet or shelf filled with found marine debris and jarred ocean specimens that mix scientific study and taxonomy with early-museum-predecessors like the curio cabinet. In a blunt and matter-of-fact manner, they show us the building blocks of our oceans today – part alien debris and part organic.

Steve McPherson | 28 Objects that Measured the World, plastic objects, entomology pins, and text on card. Photo Courtesy of the Artist and the Anchorage Museum.

Fran Crowe | Souvenir Packs, found objects. Photo Courtesy of the Artist and the Anchorage Museum.

In McPherson and Crowe’s works, both of these artists also take a very scientific approach, collecting tiny plastic, found specimens. McPherson collects plastic toys, tools, and scraps and then sorts and catalogues the debris into like-objects. Next, he displays these categorized items in his Object Series, presenting the number of objects he found next to those remnants—often with humorous labels as well. It is scientific and cataclysmic in feel. Crowe’s Souvenir Packs start with a similar beginning – she collects plastic toys and riffraff on the beach. But then she repackages these items as merchandise for sale, complete with a label that reads, “A Present from the Pacific: 100% unique, custom-made in the world’s oceans, hand-picked especially for you.” Her work made me laugh at the absurdity, but cringe at the reality. One can picture a Bradbury-esque world that would actually sell these found toys alongside starched starfish and bleached sand dollars in a tourist seashell shop.

“Gyre: The Plastic Ocean,” alternate installation view of
Mark Dion’s “Cabinet of Marine Debris” and Andy Hughes’ UFO Plastic Gyre Series Circularity Series at the Anchorage Museum. Photos Courtesy of Ellen C. Caldwell.

Andrew Hughes | Circularity Series 1-6, digital prints. Photo Courtesy of Ellen C. Caldwell.

And finally, some of the more traditional artistic mediums like photography, painting, and drawing were also represented in Gyre. In Hughes’ Circularity Series, he captures and manipulates out-of-this-world, jarring photographs of plastic in its now-native beach environment. The installation and framing of his large circular photographs was an example of placement perfection, as the beautiful, circular, dark, wooden frames of the photos lined the opening wall, guiding viewers into the beginning of the exhibit as if walking through a ship galley lined with round portholes. The world Hughes shows us out these windows, though, is one of complex intrigue, rather than that a cruise ship might offer.

Alexis Rockman | Flotsam, oil and alkyd on wood. Photo Courtesy of Chris Arend and the Anchorage Museum.

Elizabeth Leader | Tires Underwater, pencil drawing. Photo Courtesy of the Artist and the Anchorage Museum.

Rockman’s oil and alkyd painting Flotsam, also a round shape does something similar as he imagines and documents a potential future landscape, based on environmental degradation, genetic engineering, and human impact. Similarly, Leader’s pencil drawing shows the current landscape, juxtaposing a child’s playful swim in the ocean with the man-made tires at the bottom. Though a seemingly obvious emotional manipulation of sorts, combining the innocence of the little boy with the ocean junkyard he swims amidst, the message only mimics the overall moral of the exhibit at large – this is our legacy willed to the future, a grim inheritance at best.

National Graphic, Gyre: Creating Art From a Plastic Ocean, 2013.

Lastly, National Geographic’s video Gyre: Creating Art From a Plastic Ocean, was on display at the museum and it is a must-watch (there or here online). It documents one of the expeditions taken to help shape and inspire this exhibit. And it is so wonderful and special to see the artists and scientists interacting and playing off of one another. One of the artists, Pam Longobardi, was especially charismatic and it felt so personal to see her work at the gallery, after having watched her on the journey. In her installation, Endless: Economies of Scale, she places 72 “specimens” in size order beginning with a single grain of microplastic. These pieces come from international beaches including those of Alaska, Greece, Hawaii, Costa Rica, Italy, and the Gulf of Mexico. Like the previous artists I’ve discussed, her work is at once humorous and haunting, as it seems ludicrous that these items are becoming stand-ins for the beach relics we will leave behind.

Pam Longobardi | Endless: Economies of Scale, detail 1, microplastic, plastic, hydrocarbons, steel. Photo Courtesy of Ellen C. Caldwell.

Pam Longobardi | Endless: Economies of Scale, detail 2, microplastic, plastic, hydrocarbons, steel. Photo Courtesy of Ellen C. Caldwell.

In the video, lead scientist Carl Safina, discusses the mass accumulation of marine debris, saying, "a generation ago, this problem didn't exist and it has never existed before in the history of the planet." Gyre packed harsh and hard facts like this throughout – both verbally and visually, making the exhibit jarring even though the information presented was not entirely new.

Trying to put my finger on exactly what touched me so deeply, I realized that it was partly the rally call to do more, but equally so it was the sci-fi feeling of foreboding I mentioned earlier. Seeing the aged and eerily beautiful warped and worn plastic, displayed and tagged as if in a scientific study or a museum archive, was like seeing a view of our present world displayed in a natural history museum 100 years in the future. Walking through, viewers are surrounded by the plastic relics we have already left behind, the ones we continue to leave behind now, and the ones we will engineer, invent, and discard in the future – and all of this will undoubtedly outlive us all.


Gyre: The Plastic Ocean will be traveling to the David J. Sencer CDC Museum (Atlanta, GA), opening in January and running through June 2015. If you want to learn more or use content from the exhibit as an instructional tool, their educator's page created by the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies contains a wealth of resources, lesson plans, and activities. The exhibition book is also rich in content and well worth the small price.

To get involved and learn more about what you can do, visit Gyre’s partner and support page to find out more about supporting and joining organizations like The Alaska SeaLife Center, Blue Ocean Institute, and The Ocean Conservancy

Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer.