Pam Longobardi Turns Trash into Art with a Message
From the shores of Hawaii to Alaska and the Greek isles, Pam Longobardi has witnessed the same upsetting scene countless times — huge fishing nets, plastic bottles, broken toys and unrecognizable remains of plastic objects fouling an otherwise beautiful landscape.
“It is the symbol of wanton and thoughtless production and consumption, a lazy and greedy sucking up of energy and resources at the cost of all other life on the planet.”
For the past seven years, Longobardi has crisscrossed the globe to document sea pollution, often collecting bags full of trash and using the items she finds to create works of art designed to raise awareness of the problem.
She recently trekked to Alaska, where she joined scientists and other artists on the “Gyre” expedition to document and collect marine debris. Their work will be featured in an exhibit at the Anchorage Museum through fall 2014. The Smithsonian plans to take the exhibit on a tour of U.S. museums after that.
Longobardi made preparatory trips to Alaska in 2010 and 2011 and was shocked by the blight on the shores.
“It’s very far away from the rest of the United States, and much of the globe, and yet is getting pounded with plastic day after day, year after year,” she says. “Sake bottles from Japan, Chinese distilled water jugs, face cream jars from Costa Rica, buoys, flip flops and Nestle lids, which are everywhere. That was before the [2011 Japanese] tsunami debris, which is here now.”
Experts say plastic debris can be lethal for sea birds, marine mammals and other creatures that eat the trash or become entangled in it.
The Ocean Conservancy and other groups that have studied the issue say ocean pollution has many sources. Ocean currents carry waterborne garbage across the globe, dumping it on far-away shores. Swirling currents known as gyres can trap masses of plastic bits in the open ocean. But most of the rubbish comes from items discarded on land.
Longobardi first discovered the problem on a trip to Hawaii. She hiked to the island’s South Point, passing lush rainforests, dramatic lava fields and pristine black sand beaches.
And there, at the literal edge of the United States, where the cliffs plunge into the churning ocean, she saw garbage everywhere. She was devastated. And she resolved to use her artistic talents to try to do something about it.
“Artists bear witness and that’s what I am doing,” she says. “Artists also act as a kind of antennae, to see changes coming before the general population, and to show these changes to others. I started this work in 2006, before it was visible to most people.”
Longobardi’s work has received accolades around the world.
One of her works is being exhibited at the world-renowned Venice Biennale art show through August. She has also been named a finalist for the Hudgens prize, an award reserved for Georgia artists that comes with $50,000 cash. The Alaska “Gyre” project will be featured by National Geographic this fall.
And she is working to forge a partnership with Greek art and naval officials to clean up port towns on the island of Kefalonia. During an expedition to the island last year, she led a group that swam out to a sea cave and collected more than 3,000 pieces of plastic.
“This is what every artist dreams about happening and it is happening to me,” Longobardi says. “It’s exciting and overwhelming. It comes with a lot of pressure, but I feel like I’m ready for it.”
The art installation in Venice, called “Reflecting Web of the Anthropocene (An Apology to San Francesco),” combined hundreds of bottoms of water bottles, glass crystals and mirrors to create an effect that demonstrates how drinking water has been turned into a commodity, usually packaged in plastic, that harms the environment.
Longobardi’s work gave some Georgia State students the rare opportunity to help create a high-profile piece of art.
Lauren Peterson, who is getting her master of fine arts degree in printmaking, helped Longobardi in Atlanta as a studio assistant and says the experience has helped her to develop as an artist.
“Something that I have definitely learned from her is that art can be flexible,” Peterson says. “For me, sometimes I get a specific idea in mind, that a piece needs to be a certain way, or can only operate in a single way or is constrained by ‘art’ rules or sellability.”
Longobardi says she is happy her art is drawing attention to the growing issue of sea trash.
“I am interested in the collision between nature and global consumer culture. Ocean plastic is a material that can unleash unpredictable dynamics,” she says.
“We have created this catastrophic problem that’s hurting oceans worldwide just so we can have a bottle of water glued to our sides all the time.”