What Once Was Lost Must Now Be Found: Chronicling Crimes Against Nature, through June 28 at the Hudgens Center for the Arts in Duluth, is Pam Longobardi’s solo exhibition that accompanies her recent Hudgens cash award of $50,000. It is equal parts collected and amassed trash, art, crime scene, lab and horror show. Confectionary-colored cast-offs culled from the garbage patches of the sea have been collected, categorized and displayed. The pieces in the exhibition are a sobering peep show of human flotsam and jetsam that are damaging our planet. There is evidence of overconsumption all around in this mere peek at a massive, global crisis.
As our planet rotates, wind patterns and forces form. During this movement, a gyre — or circular ocean current — forms, the center of which remains fairly calm and stable. One of these gyres, composed of roughly 7 million square miles of our trash, is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and is just one of many such patches scattered throughout the world. Some of it is clearly evident on the surface but much of it lurks below, where we can’t see it.
Out of sight, out of mind?
The waste is a collective testament to our out-of-control excess, and an indication of the blind eye we turn, the lack of consideration we have for Nature and, therefore, for our very own survival.
Longobardi — known as part artist, archaeologist and forensic scientist as a result of this body of work — began trolling the waters and beaches in 2006; the resulting excavations incited a very personal passion in this artist. Works in the show such as The Crime of Willful Neglect (for BP) (2014) and Feral Objects (2014) reference this cycle of rotating, gyrating trash held captive. Perched on opposite walls, Neglect is dark, tear-drop formed and heavily plasticky, while Objects, which come from the appropriately named “Neptune’s Vomitorium” in California, is light and ethereal. The two pieces seem to reference the devil — aka the oil industry — and the angel — described by Longobardi as “hairballs the ocean is trying to throw up.” The balls are a collection of soft, furry nests composed of fishing line and bits of plastics that are a refuge for the invisible, living microorganisms that have made them their homes.
Both are seductively sculptural and it might be easy to see art rather than dire portent. It is also apropos of the good and evil that Longobardi has displayed in vials of Flotsam and Sinksam, Oil and Water on an adjoining wall.
An artist showing work publicly has a responsibility to affect culture, whether via beauty; a plea to heed warnings of a medical, social, political or environmental nature; to provoke attention to things needing change; or as a reflection of the tides of contemporary life. Longobardi uses subtle tactics in a beautiful way in order to access all viewers, not just the artists and art appreciators who will respond conceptually to the pieces. Indeed, they do guiltily appeal to the visual and tactile inner self. At the same time, they state clearly the need for change. Longobardi, who effectively and educationally spun the Evidence of Crime hall, says, “Nature transforms things and they become beautiful . . . that’s the way it communicates its declining state of being. The beauty then becomes its weapon.”
The Sadness of Balloons (2014) is particularly sobering through childish, cartoony humor. Helium-filled, happy character and message balloons hit the mainstream party scene some years ago and we can’t get enough of them. Longobardi has turned SpongeBob toward the wall in what seems an extremely clever attempt to penalize him through the use of corporal punishment. That SpongeBob is next to the BP piece is fitting. The hanging fish balloon is so darn pretty that one is temporarily diverted from thinking about the horror. But just temporarily. I couldn’t help visualizing that brightly colored fish balloon inside of a real fish, ribbon dangling from its mouth as it choked to death.
The Forensic Study Lab for Plastic: Crimes Against Nature (for M.D.) contains specimens, posters that list the crime committed and some seemingly innocuous gray photos. Longobardi worked with Robert Simmons of the Micro Imaging Lab at Georgia State University as the lab documented the skeletons of living organisms that are on some of the plastics in the exhibition. The lab used nanophotographic processes via electron microscopes to show a fascinating glimpse into a world our naked eye cannot see. It is easy to get nostalgically diverted by the objects on the shelves in this lab: plastic guns and army figures, toothbrushes, phones and more. These are the things of daily living and childhood. What would we do without them?
Is this situation really as bad as it seems? Oh, yes . . . and no. The amount of garbage is more than we can deal with, and we add to it daily, despite what it is negatively doing to the planet. However, there is ongoing research to look into various ways to speed up or eradicate the plastics problem. We can hope that what was lost is found again, and Pam Longobardi will be along for the journey.