Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals is not what first impressions suggest. What looks old is actually new, and what looks like nature is, in reality, entirely man-made.
Mandy Barker is an award-winning artist, and this book reflects her focus on environmental issues. She has joined expeditions to research marine life and has published and lectured on the subject of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. The ‘Beyond Drifting’ series was nominated for Prix Pictet Award 2017 SPACE, a photographic award with focus on sustainability. The Award exhibition is currently on an international tour.
Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals appears to be an aged library book. The dust jacket is darkened by light exposure and handling. The book comes with a burgundy ribbon to mark the pages and a time-worn, embossed fabric cover with drawings of the microscopic creatures floating in the ocean.
The colour photographs inside show enlarged circular images of the minuscule plant-like cells that are hugely significant to life on Earth. These specimens have been found from the Cove of Cork, and are neatly labelled. The images, as if seen through a microscope, appear to be showing cells in different stages of metamorphosis. They have an elegant, peculiar beauty, usually unseen by the human eye. The mind soon starts arranging these living organisms into shapes, faces, landscapes – suggestions of something else.
The final third of the book is sealed with red warning tape, revealing – spoiler alert! – the toxic micro-plastic pollutants that these beautiful cells actually are. Not the tiny, intriguing living organisms they initially seemed but discarded plastic waste collected from beaches on the coast of Ireland. What looks like a single-cell creature floating and evolving in the dark sea is actually a grubby headless doll or the shreds of a plastic bag. The real, gut-wrenching subject of the book is the grim reality of the catastrophic levels of plastic pollution in our oceans. Everyday objects like the single-use bottles, artificial flowers, mobile phone cases and toy parts degrade into smaller particles which end up in the human food chain, ingested by us all. This microscopic pollution is an ongoing, increasing threat to marine life, and to the eco-system as a whole.
The book draws inspiration, and its title, from pioneering biologist and naturalist John Vaughan Thompson’s memoirs, recording his research into plankton and marine life in the 1820s. For this project, Barker followed his steps in Ireland, visiting the same areas as Thompson to collect her samples. Barker’s intriguing imagery stems from the way she experiments with the photographic process. The works are photographed in-camera with multiple exposures, on outdated film stock and with faulty cameras. The resulting images have an organic, vintage feel. The flaws and blemishes reflect the subject, as if micro-particles are floating on the picture surface for us to see.
This book is an eloquent comment on an ongoing ecological disaster, slowly unfolding. The invisibility of this marine pollution betrays the urgent attention it deserves. Fusing art and science, this book shows art photography as a form of campaigning.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Riikka Kuittinen
Below, images from Mandy Barker’s Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals published by Overlapse. Images © Mandy Barker: