An artist's primary challenge is to
make the invisible, visible—to give shape to the abstract: our
emotions, our innermost thoughts and fears. Take, for example, the
following sentence: Every nine minutes, 300,000 pounds of plastic is
dumped into the ocean. How would an artist express that information? Not
just the fact of it, but the feeling?
Chances are, for most of us, the
magnitude of those words, once read, drifts away easily, like a plastic
bag in an ocean current. It's up to the artist to anchor it: in our
hearts, in our minds, in our conscience.
San Francisco Bay Area artists Joel
Dean Stockdill and Yustina Salnikova found a way to do that.
Commissioned by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, they used
roughly 5,000 pounds of recycled plastic and steel to create a
life-sized, 82-foot long sculpture of a blue whale
They named the sculpture,
"Ethyl," a nod to polyethylene, the most popular plastic in
the world. The piece was initially installed on the Golden Gate National
Recreation area, flanked by palm trees that shot into the air like
waterspouts. It was then sold to Meow Wolf, a public benefit arts and
entertainment group based in
The shift in context only heightened
its power: The Southern third of
Being as blue whales make their home
in the ocean, Ethyl's metaphorical impact is profound. Water bottles,
yogurt cups, casually discarded plastic-shell casings on new cases of
batteries or dental floss—even our blue recycling bins—will
eventually find its way to the sea. That is the equivalent of nearly 60
of these plastic blue whales dumped into the ocean every nine minutes.
And that number is increasing.
In the same way most Americans
insulate themselves from the daily processes that bring us our food, we
are disconnected from the reality of our trash. We are as likely to
understand the origin stories of each ingredient inside our to-go
sandwiches as we are the destination of the plastic clamshells in which
they are packaged.
We toss the plastic clamshell, perhaps
smeared with dressing, littered with crumbs, into a recycling bin. And
then we do not think about it.
Ethyl asks us to think about it.
"We went on a five month, really
a six-month journey, creating and building this whale," Riley
confides. "Both artists have a huge philosophy around what they do:
if we learn to look at our waste as something we've created, and we
create a relationship with that waste, then we can transform it into
Laundry detergent bottles, old
recycling bins, plastic milk jugs, and discarded toys: all this
"waste" was painstakingly washed, broken down into small
pieces, melted down and shaped into diamond-shaped tiles, each one
resembling a miniature abstract painting itself—plastic meets Pollack.
Pieced together and mounted to a steel
skeleton, these tiles formed the bulk of sculpture. Due to its
staggering size, the majestic blue whale can only be seen in its
entirety from a distance. Up close, it is a puzzle to ponder, a question
echoing through time, waiting, patiently, for our response.