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  • Strange GardensAn Effervescent Vision of Plastic's Impact on the Ocean
  • Alicja Wróblewska (bio) and Meera Subramanian (bio)
Keywords

portfolio, photography, art, pollution, oceans, climate change, ocean health, environment, anthropocene

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What is beauty for? What is its source? Polish artist Alicja Wróblewska thinks about such things as she fashions fanciful sculptures, snaps photographs, and creates collages both analog and digital to explore the impact of plastics on ocean health. With a background in political science and commercial photography, Wró b l e w s k a lives in the tense space between the consumer societies we inhabit and the wreckage they leave behind.

She's slipped away from work into the sunlight of a Warsaw park to speak to me, her long brown hair lifting in the wind as she walks with her phone, seeking shade. "It's really hot in Warsaw right now," she says as she settles under some trees, wearing a bright yellow top that holds on to the sunshine. It's unusual, she says, with weeks straight in the high eighties. (Maybe not so unusual anymore. Days later, floods erase parts of Germany, killing dozens; and the fire season has already kicked off to a terrifying start in the American West.)

Out of her explorations on the utility of splendor come candy-colored compositions evoking bubble gum and jujubes. Disorienting arrangements of brilliant plastic beads that make you feel like you've just jumped into an underwater McDonald's ball pit, green streamers swirling overhead. Dizzying double exposures of effervescent circles clustered in a fluorescent ring backgrounded by blue. Purple pellets suspended amid the tentacles of something like a sea anemone. These are whimsical, even fun.

The context of these images, however, is troubling. And it is their context that makes them more complicated than the sum of their aesthetically pleasing parts. In the Phytoplankton series, Wróblewska quotes oceanographer Andrew Barton, who found that 40 percent of the world's phytoplankton, the microscopic organisms that form the foundation of the marine food system, have been killed off since 1950, a result of oceans that are absorbing more than 90 percent of the excess heat caused by humans burning fossil fuels. In Reef, she turns to climatologist Ken Caldeira, who predicts that the oceans may become more acidic in the coming centuries than they have been in the last 300 million years. Even as we contemplate these grave facts, she offers something pleasing to look at. What are we to make of that?

"We are now living in a very visual world," she says. "If the visual is not eye-catching, then people won't notice it. We are living in a world full of [End Page 79] very nice pictures, but also very cruel ones." She avoids such cruelty by rejecting the obvious: yet more images of trash strewn across a beach. But in many ways, she's playing with the ways in which color functions in nature, to lure and to warn. (Consider the color red, for example.)

Looking at her commercial photography, there's an eerie similarity to the environmental art she's creating in her ocean series. Enticing plastic bottles filled with rosewater face tonic. Luscious red lipsticks spinning out of silos. Plants and balloons as background.

Even her fashion photography is both glamorous and haunting, punctuated by double images and stark shadows.

Yet as she focused more on her environmental art, the commercial work became increasingly untenable. The day job I've pulled her from for our video call is with an NGO. She's already left the lipstick porn to some other photographer who's got the heart for it.

One word that Wróblewska uses to describe her work is anthropopressure. When I first read it on her website, the pop in the middle leapt out at me. Her images could so easily be accompanied by a pop-music soundtrack, images exploding like party favors, even as her liner notes track more like dirges.

The pop straddles anthropo (of people) and pressure...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2154-6932
Print ISSN
0042-675X
Pages
pp. 76-101
Launched on MUSE
2021-10-12
Open Access
No
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