The Water

How often do we think about how our daily actions contaminate the bodies of water around us as a result of our activities? From the plastic bags that we use every day to industrial pollution from clothing factories, much of this waste ends up in our water system.

In this theme, we analyze the impacts that plastics are having on Earth’s oceans, and ultimately the well-being of human and sea-life. We encourage viewers to recognize how our casual, everyday use of plastic contributes to the pollution of the ocean and how this is ultimately life-threatening to marine life, ourselves, and our planet. By rethinking about the many careless ways we use plastics every day and the impact this has on our oceans we can also reclaim the ways that water provided a multitude of precious, life-giving resources.

The use of plastic bags has become ever so common in our everyday lives. From grocery shopping, retail purchases, and receptacles for carry-out containers, plastic bags have become one of the most “convenient” inventions within our society. Everyone has a drawer that is shoved full of these bags, that we casually re-use as garbage liners or to protect items for transport. Though many stores encourage the use of recyclable bags, how many of us forget to bring these with us, or just want the ease and conveniences of that plastic bag?

The Water_02
Image of ocean/beach plastic pollution

Each year, 2.4 million tons of plastic enter the earth’s oceans through river systems. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) is the largest of the five offshore plastic accumulation zones in the world’s oceans. Located halfway between Hawaii and California, debris found in any region of the ocean can easily be ingested by marine species causing choking, starvation, and other impairments.

According to Scott Snowden (2019), “The stronger, more buoyant plastics show resilience in the marine environment, allowing them to be transported over extended distances. They persist at the sea surface as they make their way offshore, transported by converging currents and finally accumulating in the patch” (para. 3). With this, ocean debris is constantly stirred up by the wind and wave action, which continues to disperse this waste over huge areas. Non-profit organizations like Ocean Clean Up aim to remove 90 % of floating ocean plastic and work towards a future where plastic no longer pollutes our oceans.

This artwork by Analia Saban allows us to reflect on the ways that we use the ubiquitous plastic bag. Using the medium of art, viewers can creatively rethink about their own excessive use of plastic bags and the ways that it impacts society as a whole and the negative impacts that it has on the livelihood of our planet.

This artwork by Analia Saban can be viewed here on the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art website.

Saban’s series of plastic bags furthers the artist’s career-long exploration into the physical qualities of common materials. Each bag conveys different designs and slogans, which have become ubiquitous emblems of the standardized bodega bag. Tinged with humor and irony, this series of “plastic” bags, printed in high relief on handmade cotton paper, continues to play upon Saban’s manipulation of material, while elevating the disposable into the realm of fine art. Saban’s decision to depict plastic bags also speaks to their quiet symbolism in America’s consumer culture, and art’s place within this economy. For her, the bags “symbolize business and trade, and of course, art is part of that dialogue.” The designs, which include slogans such as “Thank You for Shopping Here”, “Have A Nice Day,” and “Gracias,” as well as instructions about safety and recycling, are all readily available from wholesale plastic bag distributors around the world. Framing each of the three plastic bags separately helps emphasize the individual yet collective impact that plastic bags have on not only our environment, but also our creative intuition.

What if we could reclaim the ocean’s plastic pollution problem and turn it into something positive? We invite viewers to think about how artist KT Goodge considers reclaiming trash and plastic bag waste. By weaving together discarded paper and plastic grocery bags into a swimsuit, we might consider the intentionally of how plastic bags are "introduced into the ocean" —here by way of a swimsuit-- in contrast to the thoughtless, harmful ways plastic bags usually end up as ocean garbage.

Image of swimsuit created from plastic bags

"Out of Sight, Out of Mind" Swimsuit


Designed by KT Goodge

"This swimsuit was made from 25 brown LDPE grocery bags and 50 white LDPE grocery bags. The bags were collected within a mile of where they were originally used. The bags were not transported anywhere to be recycled. Instead, the bags were cut into strips and used as ‘plarn’ to knit this swimsuit. No chemical nor thermal processes were needed; only mechanical. By cutting the plastic bags into strips and winding into yarn, the tensile properties were enhanced, and 100% of the product was able to be reused. This swimsuit is wearable and inherently advantageous for its end use due to its hydrophobicity. This swimsuit is one solution. One solution will not fix everything, but a million small solutions all custom-tailored to the specific scenario will fix more than we think. Do not mindlessly throw your waste away where it gets shipped off out of sight, out of mind. Sit with your waste. Get creative with your waste. Do not let your waste leave your sight. Find mindfulness through your waste.”

-KT Goodge

Detail image of swimsuit created from plastic bags

Additionally, as a result of the plastic waste that has accumulated in the oceans, ecologists are currently looking at the ways that jellyfish mucus can safely adhere and extract plastic particles from the ocean. Non-profits like “GoJelly, have recently been examining the untapped properties of jellyfish mucus and how they might help to clean up our planet’s water."

Cyanea Capillata
Cyanea Capillata
Photography by Claire Smith

Title: Cyanea capillata

Common Name: Lion's Mane Jellyfish

Collection: Cornell Collection of Blaschka Invertebrate Models

Photographer: Claire Smith

Identifier: 9898441231Cyanea01Smith

Blaschka Number: 231

Cornell Number: 566

Original Blaschka Species Name: Cyanea capillata

This glass jellyfish model, from Cornell Collection of Blaschka Invertebrate Models, can help viewers envision how jellyfish can be used to reclaim our planet’s waters. Jellyfish are the oceans’ primordial survivors and are around 500 million years old. They reproduce quickly and have incredibly high populations and have been the fastest organisms to help fill the “ecological niches” that have been created due to global warming, climate change, and overfishing. Their tenacity allows them to thrive and though considered by many to be the pests or ocean trash of the sea—they can bloom in great numbers, close beaches, and overwhelm fisheries—ecologists are looking at new ways that they might be able to help solve the ocean plastic trash problems.