2.10 / Review

Profile: One Plastic Beach

By Tess Thackara January 25, 2011

One Plastic Beach (2011) is a short documentary film that explores the work of artists Judith Selby Lang and Richard Lang.

The couple might be better known as the force behind San Francisco’s Electric Works, but as collaborative artists, they have also been producing a steady stream of sculptures, prints, installations, and jewelry from the washed-up plastic debris they’ve collected for the past ten years at Kehoe Beach in Point Reyes, California.

Their work offers a response to a looming environmental crisis: the plastic pollution that fills our seas. However, Richard and Judith don’t embody a prevailing stereotype of environmental crusaders as negative doomsayers, nor does their work paint the depressing picture one might expect. One Plastic Beach reveals the artists’ passion for collecting detritus while showcasing the beauty, color, texture, and meticulously considered compositions of their work.

Wreath Soldiers, 2008; archival pigment print; 21.5 x 21.5 in. Courtesy of the Artists and Electric Works, San Francisco.

One Plastic Beach by Eric Slatkin and Tess Thackara.

Rifling through their vast treasure troves of sorted and catalogued plastic objects, Richard and Judith pull out a worn cereal-box toy at random and talk about it with great fondness, or recount the history behind a particular piece that they have dated back to the 1960s. Their blog reads like an archaeological record of plastic waste, telling the stories behind favorite finds.

If their implicit message is to produce less plastic waste, is it counterproductive to present such items in a positive light? When asked, Richard and Judith note that their work offers them entry into a conversation about the problem of plastic pollution. They are very outspoken about the issues their art raise and can recite a dizzying list of facts and statistics on the condition of our oceans.

In One Plastic Beach, Richard and Judith also introduce one-half of an installation currently on view in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art garage windows. Block Party (2010–11) comprises 4,600 fragments of plastic strung together with wire, offering a sample of the staggering 46,000 pieces of plastic that scientists claim can be found in every square mile of ocean. The child’s bucket and spade, Frisbees, and dismembered torso of a Barbie doll included in the installation might recall the lost items of a family day at the beach, but the film reminds us that these childhood toys rapidly turn into killers in the sea, winding up in the stomachs of fish and birds, and ensnaring turtles. In the end, viewers are left to grapple with a familiar conundrum: the dangers concealed behind the allure of cheap consumables.

For the Langs, their story is inseparable from their work; One Plastic Beach offers an introduction to both, as well as the opportunity to consider their fascinating artistic process and whether or not art has a role to play in driving social change.  

Comments ShowHide