The little red samurai appears menacing and sinister, and so he should. He floats in the oceans, riding the waves, coming and going with the tides. Like the bright plastic he is made from, he always seems to be in our sights, if only sometimes as a backdrop.
The plastic samurai in full ancient regalia appears not just as a metaphor for the poisoning and pollution of our oceans, but as a signature for a remarkable exhibition, Vanishing Point, currently showing at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) in Hobart.
The samurai is not there by accident. The little plastic figure was retrieved from the carcass of a laysan albatross by one of the participants in the exhibition, biologist Heidi Auman when she was doing research into human impacts on seabirds on Midway Atoll in the Pacific.
Some of the artists have taken the theme of the samurai to link their work, among them Katherine Cooper who in one of her pictures portrays the drifting samurai being pursued underwater by a gannet.
Vanishing Point is an arts/science collaboration to raise awareness about the issues surrounding plastics pollution in the oceans and its ecological, biological and social impact. Initially the brainchild of Cooper, she is joined by four other artists and three scientists from IMAS researching impacts of ocean plastics. The goal of the project is to raise awareness in the community about the impact of our daily use of plastics through art and science communication in a complimentary and engaging manner.
Cooper said the idea for Vanishing Point began many years ago when she was beachcombing the King Island coastline. She discovered shells, various sea creatures, pieces of broken china and assorted debris from shipwrecks and, of course, plastics.
First there was intrigue at the origins of these brightly coloured toothbrushes and cigarette lighters, assorted footwear, shampoo and water bottles with descriptions in various languages, but the intrigue quickly turned to concern as more and more plastic appeared upon what should have been pristine beaches.
Marine debris poses a vast and growing threat to our coasts and oceans. Around 8 million items of litter enter the marine environment every day, ultimately representing seven billion tonnes of plastic littering the ocean every year.
It is estimated three times as much rubbish is dumped into the world’s oceans annually as the weight of fish caught.
Available information indicates at least 77 species of marine wildlife found in Australian waters and at least 267 marine species worldwide are affected by entanglement in or ingestion of marine debris, including 86 percent of all sea turtles species, 44 per cent of all seabird species and 43 per cent of all marine mammal species.
Other threats to wildlife and ecosystems include destruction or smothering of the sea bed, accumulation of toxic substances and the transportation of invasive species.
Through the medium of the paintings by Cooper, photographs by Peter Walsh, poetry by Ron Moss, Toby Muir Wilson’s woodwork and sculpture and jewellery by Sophie Carnell, each of the artists involved has brought their own particular viewpoint to the project.
In a piece titled Food for Thought photographer Walsh has arranged into a bigger artwork photographs of small pieces of colourful plastic found in the stomachs of short-tailed shearwater chicks. The shearwaters were confiscated from poachers at Clifton Beach and of the 171 chicks, 96 per cent had plastic in their stomachs.
The artists say their goal is not to shock viewers specifically, but they deliver a shock all the same.
A samurai figure found in the stomach of an albatross, and a series of pictures of the neatly arranged plastic contents of the stomachs of short-tailed shearwater chicks carry a potent, and yes, shocking message.
The exhibition runs until the end of June.