Single-Use Landscape (2012)

Artist and photographer Julie A. McConnell has always made collages and assemblages. By putting different items together and placing them in unexpected environments she arrives at a new visual language and explores imagery that avoids the usual mundane associations. In “Single-Use Landscape”, McConnell’s work is made from every day waste products--the very plastic bottles, straws, fishing line, ropes, cans and children’s toys that wash up on our shores. Her photos of beach litter assemblages viewed through eye-catching curtains of rainbow-colored trash are succinct recreations of her daily experience. McConnell says, “When I walk on the shore, the garbage at my feet infects my view of the sky. I try to clean up the mess but it feels futile, so I use what I find to create a visual incentive”. For McConnell, this means taking a non-documentarian approach to a serious problem. The trash that ends up in the ocean and on the beaches degrades into microscopic particles that endanger marine life, and threatens the viability of the entire ecosystem. McConnell isn’t trying to shock us into awareness. As she sees it, literal depictions don’t shake us up enough. When images of the horrors we perpetuate overwhelm us, we reject them.

Though McConnell’s compositions are powerful enough to disturb, they’re touched with wry humor. In “Fish Out of Water”, a plastic fish hangs in the air tangled in fishing line gasping at water through a straw. Feathers shoved into in plastic straws, or discarded bottles represent how animal life is contained and exploited for human use. Materials that aren’t recycled waste resources. A used water bottle looms in a seascape, or enters the landscape mimicking a tree. “Unmoored” shows marine rope debris fashioned into nooses spilling from the stomach of a faded cartoon character balloon. Interspersed among the photographs, the bright plastic bits of beach trash strung on lines beckon from a distance. There is intent in this arrangement. The eye follows colorful strands of rubbish trailing down the walls to low tables where alternatives are presented to the plastic packaged products. A stick of butter wrapped in wax paper is next to a plastic container, a book of matches is offered instead of a plastic lighter, and a reusable aluminum bottle appears alongside a plastic water bottle. Seemingly innocuous, the plastic choices are the source of
so much toxic garbage in the sea.

With this body of work, McConnell encourages us to take a deeper look at our throwaway culture and not be swayed by the convenience, or festive colors of disposable and single-use items. McConnell’s poetic animations are subtle, grounded in the material reality of our consumer culture and meant to produce an empathic response. She wants us not to think of other species, and the natural world they inhabit, as disposable commodities to be used and consumed. Instead, she wants us to recognize their miraculous presence and their right to coexist with us in a clean, safe environment.

Donna Maria DeCreeft

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