London Sculpture Spotlights the Deadly Relationship Between Seabirds and Plastic

A shift away from British sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor's underwater work, 'Plasticide' depicts a rather depressing day at the beach. . (Photo: David Mirzoeff/Greenpeace)

The last time environmental activist and underwater sculptor par excellence Jason deCaires Taylor worked in London, it was on “Rising Tides,” a hauntingly ephemeral installation positioned in the River Thames that served as commentary on rising sea levels and our unquenchable thirst for fossil fuels.

Taking the form of four prophetic horsemen — two children, two bureaucratic-looking gents in suits and ties — straddling oil pumpjack-headed equines, “Rising Tides” was as provocative as urban statuary gets. Centered around plastic-barfing seabirds, Taylor’s latest work — a somewhat rare terrestrial piece that’s not fully or partially submerged underwater — is no different, perhaps even a bit more startling than its predecessor. As it should be.

Titled “Plasticide,” Taylor’s new work, much like ‘Rising Tides,” will only be left standing for a short time in a super-high-traffic London locale: in front of the Royal National Theatre, a renowned performing arts venue on the South Bank of the Thames. (Unveiled toward the end of March, "Plasticide" will be dissembled at the end of this week.)

At first glance, there’s nothing all that unusual about Taylor's installation. It’s a cozy, life-sized family scene — mom, dad, son and daughter — rendered in Taylor’s signature pH-neutral concrete (the same material he uses for his subaquatic sculptures which double as artificial reefs) that depicts what appears to be an ordinary day at the beach.

Plasticide by Jason deCaires Taylor, London, family at beach whole sculpture
While grim, the plastic pollution-curbing message behind 'Plasticide' is a vital one. (Photo: David Mirzoeff/Greenpeace)

Leaning against a bench, the parents are smiling, blissed-out even with their eyes completely closed. Their brood, on the other hand, appears to be darn sullen. Obviously dejected, the son grips a beach ball with one hand and cradles his downturned face with the other. Sitting atop the bench, the daughter (modeled after Taylor’s own daughters) wears water wings, goggles and a massive frown.

Are the kids are so obviously upset because they’ve just been told it’s time to pack it up and head home?

Perhaps. However, it seems more likely that they’re bummed out due to the close presence of at least one seagull retching up rainbow-colored plastic gunk. Or maybe they are saddened that their parents are sitting there, oblivious, surrounded by several small pools of the same kaleidoscopic bird vomit. Whatever the case, these kiddos aren’t happy campers.

Plasticide" by Jason deCaires Taylor, London, seagull vomits plastic waste
London is stuffed with attention-grabbing public art. It's not everyday, however, that one stumbles across vomiting seagull statuary. (Photo: David Mirzoeff/Greenpeace)

Our massive plastic waste problem

Erected in partnership with Greenpeace, the eco-commentary provided by Taylor’s 2.5 metric ton installation is obvious: huge streams of plastic waste entering the world’s oceans are wreaking havoc on seabirds and other forms of marine life that mistake bright and shiny plastic doodads for food.

As Louise Edge, a senior campaigner with Greenpeace notes in a press release: “Studies have shown that 90 percent of seabirds now have plastic in their stomachs. The problem highlighted in this sculpture would have seemed surreal fifty years ago, but it’s now a grim reality. All plastic is made on land and it’s here we need to see action to reduce the flow of plastic into our oceans.”

So how big exactly is that flow? Taking 192 countries into consideration, a 2015 study published in the journal Science estimates that roughly 8 million metric tons of plastic debris enters the world's oceans during the average year.

Jason deCaires Taylor, artist behid Plasticide
Jason deCaires Taylor is best known for his non-terrestrial works like Museo Atlantico, an underwater art museum off the coast of Spain. (Photo: David Mirzoeff/Greenpeace)

“Eight million metric tons is the equivalent to finding five grocery bags full of plastic on every foot of coastline in the 192 countries we examined,” noted Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineering professor at the University of Georgia who served as the study’s lead author.

As discovered by Jambeck and her colleagues, a majority of the top offenders when it comes to oceanic plastic pollution are Asian nations, with China in the number one spot. Brazil and Egypt are also large contributors while the United States ranks at number 20.

As MNN’s Russell McLendon pointed out while unpacking the 2015 study, it’s not that a majority of American citizens and businesses are intentionally dumping plastic en masse into the sea. Rather, the issue stems from the fact that the U.S. has such large and densely populated coastal areas — while coastal populations may be mindful in disposing of their plastic waste, it’s inevitable that smaller forms of plastic litter will slip away, as it tends to do, and eventually make its way into the ocean.

Plasticide by Jason deCaires Taylor, London, boy with ball looks sad about plastic
With 'Plasticide,' another fun-filled day at the beach is ruined by ocean plastic. Bummer ... but we can help make a positive change. (Photo: David Mirzoeff/Greenpeace)

Taylor incorporated oceanic plastic marine waste in addition to his normal concrete for the first time with this installation. For a work named “Plasticide,” it only makes sense that the offending material is represented, made tangible.

Taylor credits German marine clean-up organization Cleaner Ocean Upcycling Productions for sourcing the waste place used in the installation including the confetti-esque blob spewing from the seagull sculpture’s mouth, plastic soda bottle cap and all.

“Through my work I’ve seen first-hand the deluge of plastic on our coastlines and swirling around our seas,” says Taylor, a Brit whose best known submerged work is Museo Subacuático de Arte, an underwater museum — the world’s first — located directly off the coast of Cancun, Mexico.

"The build-up of a man-made material like plastic in the vast expanse of our seemly untouched oceans is a visceral reminder of humankind’s devastating impact on our environment. Through Plasticide I want to bring this message back to home: our oceans, and the marine life which inhabits them, literally can’t stomach any more plastic.”

Across town in Brixton, Tiger Beer recently sponsored a pop-up exhibition showcasing five works of "air pollution art" created using iGraviky Lab's innovative Air-Ink technology, a process in which carbon soot is extracted from diesel exhaust and transformed into an artistic ink. Artists hailing from each of the U.K's five most polluted cities — Glasgow, Southampton, Leeds, Nottingham and London — were invited to participate.