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Art What!: Planet or Plastic? at the ArtScience Museum

‘Bird’s Nest’ by Mandy Baker. Here, she captures how discarded fishing line that has formed nest-like balls due to tidal movements of the ocean. Collecting other debris in their path, they come to resemble jellyfish or other marine creatures, both alluringly alien and eerie in knowing that these are made of harmful plastics.

Climate change and environmental conservation are some of the biggest issues of recent years. But it’s one thing to talk about them in a bubble, and quite another to see examples of these laid out before you in carefully curated galleries, as we watch how our planet is slowly being consumed by the overproduction and mass consumption of plastic. Opening at the ArtScience Museum on 12th September, the National Geographic’s Planet or Plastic? photo exhibition then tells the story of the invention of plastic, and the devastating environmental effects brought about by it.

Trick Or Treat?

‘Trick or Treat?’ by Zheng Yu-Ti. These ‘popsicles’ are made of frozen water collected from a hundred sites around Taiwan, with the artists—Hong Yi-chen, Guo Yi-hui, and Zheng Yu-ti—hoping to draw public attention to water contamination and inspire people to generate less waste.

A total of 70 images feature in this exhibition, displayed across six thematic sections and how plastic pollution has damaged our fragile natural world, in an effort to raise awareness of our dependence on plastic. Not only will visitors see the impact of plastic pollution; they will also learn of the people dedicating their lives to countering these effects by coming up with solutions to this urgent problem. In particular, the exhibition will shine a spotlight on The exhibition has a special focus on the devastating effect of plastic waste on the world’s oceans, with the World Economic Forum having predicted that plastic in oceans could outweigh marine life by 2050.

Photo Credit: Randy Olson

“Environmental issues such as plastic pollution are important to ArtScience Museum. We believe that if we work together with our visitors, we can take practical actions in our everyday lives that can make a real difference. That is why the programmes and educational activities for Planet or Plastic? focus on encouraging our visitors to get involved,” said Honor Harger, Executive Director of ArtScience Museum, Marina Bay Sands. “The exhibition is all about inspiring action, and to let our visitors know that they can make a difference. By simply changing things in their daily lives, there are so many practical and concrete ways visitors can learn how to make a difference in their own lives and the world.” 

Screenshot 2020-09-10 at 5.21.25 PM

Walking in to the exhibition, we are greeted by the exhibition’s headliner image of a plastic bag in the ocean, eerily resembling an innocent iceberg floating in the ocean. Taken from the June 2018 edition of National Geographic (“The Plastic Issue”), we are unnerved by the image and how there is far more plastic detritus and waste around us than we’d care to admit. After all – it takes about 450 years for plastic products to biodegrade.

Throwaway Living': When Tossing Out Everything Was All the Rage | Time.com‘Throwaway Living’ by Peter Stackpole

Beyond the emotional front, the exhibition is well-supported by plenty of scientific facts and research about the history of plastic and plastic pollution. Take for example the photo Throwaway Living, shot by Peter Stackpole for the August 1955 edition of Life magazine. Accompanied by an article that celebrated the proliferation of plastic in our lives following World War II, there was something uncannily sinister about how it was all too simple to create more waste, tossing out the old only to continue consuming even more before the cycle repeated itself again, relentlessly consuming more and more.

50 years on, our reliance on plastic grows greater still, even as we recognise its problems. The exhibition shows just how difficult it is to live a plastic-free life, from using plastics to cover the Da Vinci robot in the surgery room to plastics being used on boats, and of course, plastics in our everyday lives.

Loggerhead turtle ensnared in plastic fishing net. Photo Credit: Jordi Chias.

Perhaps what it takes to finally make a change is to make people viscerally aware of the terrible things plastic has done to our environment. Jordi Chias’ image of a loggerhead turtle ensnared in an old plastic fishing net is a heartbreaking sight, alongside other images of animals in distress, caught up in plastic debris or their homes destroyed creates both horror and sadness in us, at the realisation that all this destruction is a result of our own inability to protect the environment, opening our eyes to the visceral truth behind our plastic-ridden planet. 

Photo Credit: Justin Hofman

Yet it’s not all doom and gloom, as we move from here to a section of the exhibition highlighting that we can still change things if we try, as we are introduced to images showcasing groups and organisations around the world seeking to put an end to plastic pollution. Change is happening, slowly but surely, with how scientists, engineers and innovators are racing against time as they find ways to bolster community action and inspire government policy change. They engineer new materials that break down faster after they are discarded, find new uses for the plastics we already have, and develop more effective strategies for capturing waste that escapes the disposal stream.

At the forefront of many of these initiatives are youths, and we realise how much of a personal stake they feel they have in saving the environment, leading the way forward into the future by starting at home, inspiring change in the people closest to them. It is primarily the citizen–led campaigns that have resulted in the increasingly wide-spread use of reusable metal straws and the return of glass over plastic bottles, and it is due to public interest that resources continue to be streamlined towards waste management practices.

In highlighting the figure ‘700 MILLION’ kilograms above a row of glass cases containing plastic products, our attention is drawn to the sheer amount of plastic waste discarded in Singapore each year. This only leads us to imagine the impossibly large amount of plastic that the world discards each year, reminding us that there is still so much more to be done. To that end, the ArtScience Museum is also doing its part by developing a series of programmes, including workshops, film screenings, online events and community activities to help raise awareness and slow down plastic pollution. One of the highlights is a beach clean-up, where members of the public will be invited to do their part for the environment by removing plastic waste from one of Singapore’s local beaches, so be sure to sign up and pledge to choose planet over plastic.

“Like our environmental partner, Seven Clean Seas, we were shocked by the volume of plastic washing up onto the beaches in Singapore every day, and we wanted to do something about it,” adds Honor. “So, we are holding beach clean-ups in December and February 2021, inviting our visitors to join us and do their part for the local environment. We hope the beach clean-up, and our programme of screenings, performances, conferences and workshops inspire visitors of all ages to choose the planet over plastic.”

Penalty by Mandy Barker. The image depicts the accumulation of soccer balls in four strata: the world, Europe, the U.K., and the balls collected by one person (an impressive 228). These represent the “penalty we will ultimately pay for this global problem”.

The ArtScience Museum will also be organising a series of programmes that visitors can participate in from 12th September onwards, including the aforementioned beach clean-up activities co-organised with Seven Clean Seas on 5th December 2020 and 20th February 2021.

Other programmes include ArtScience on Screen: Earth Watch, a series of film screenings that depict humanity’s troubling relationship with the planet running from 12th September to 9th October 2020; ArtScience Late at Home: David Finnigan on 17th September, a deep time story about the massive changes taking place on our planet, placed against the story of an Australian family during the 2020 summer bushfires; as well Climate Change Conversations on 6th October, an online conference that brings together climate scientists and ecologists from the region in a programme of talks that spotlight some of the most profound stories from the frontlines of climate innovation, with guests that include Cynthia Doumbia (Director, International Exhibitions at National Geographic Society), photographic artist Mandy Barker, Intan Suci Nurhati (senior researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences’ Research Centre for Oceanography) and more. More information can be found on the ArtScience Museum’s Facebook page.

Towards the end of the exhibition, we find ourselves in the ArtScience Museum’s specially-created educational Interactive Space, designed to encourage visitors to reflect on their consumption of plastic, and how Covid-19 has increased our consumption of single-use plastic, such as the disposable masks we wear, and how even this seemingly innocuous act of using a new mask each day impacts the world, and how we can do our part to reduce our plastic waste in this field as well. Due to the pandemic, the museum has also introduced a brand new ‘feet-first’ approach to interacting with the space, where visitors can interact and engage with the exhibits by touching it with their feet to minimise hand contact, and thus staying safe. 

“Plastic pollution is one of the most important global environmental challenges of our generation. But it is an issue that we can all do something about. This exhibition informs us about how we got here, the scope of the problem, and how we can each be a part of the solution. National Geographic has made a commitment to reducing our reliance on single-use plastics and our hope is that after seeing this exhibition, visitors will join us in that commitment,” said Kathryn Keane, Vice President of Public Programming at the National Geographic Society.

“What’s even more difficult is how we’re now in such a challenging, unprecedented time, where it becomes so hard to talk about how to reducing plastic and environmental conservation when faced with a global pandemic,” she adds. “We need to keep this on our minds, and remember that it is still possible to do something even though there is a global pandemic. We hope the exhibition’s stories will move visitors, and change their hearts and minds, and inspire all sort of actions and make them realise that even the smallest little thing can make a huge difference.”

At the end of the day, the biggest takeaway from Planet or Plastic? is how the arts and sciences come together to tell a series of poignant stories, and how the collaborative efforts of the ArtScience Museum and National Geographic have produced an educational, engaging, thought-provoking exhibition, that hopefully inspires and stirs the minds of the new generation of environmental stalwarts. One thing’s for certain, it’s time to add a new R to our standards of the old adage of ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’. And that’s to refuse single-use plastics to reduce our everyday plastic consumption, and make a bold statement that it’s time for change. 

Planet or Plastic? runs from 12th September 2020 to 28th March 2021 at the ArtScience Museum. For more information and tickets, visit their website here, and their Facebook page here 

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