As a contemporary environmental artist, author and university art educator my work examines the passage of time in landscape and the place of humankind within it. I work with found objects, primarily plastic ocean litter, to create semi-abstract compositions. My work is multi-disciplinary and includes assemblage, sculpture, installation, painting and printmaking.
Over twenty years ago, dating back to 1998 and 1999, I made my first assemblage work titled “Contemporary Landscapes” from beach-found plastics. I used recycled materials to convey the history and memory of a place, to comment on the human experience of place and the beauty and degradation of the environment. And as I evolved as an artist, these elements have deepened and become more sophisticated through both my studio based work and my own research as a practicing visual environmental artist.
I am based in Byron Bay, Australia where I have lived for close to thirty years. I was originally born in Sydney, Australia and spent my childhood growing up in East Gippsland in Victoria, Australia. After moving to Byron Bay in the early nineties. I lived in a beautiful home that had lime-washed ceilings and walls. This fascinated me because it reminded me of the driftwood that I used to collect and work with when I was in art school at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne. I thought at the time: ‘I want to go back and collect driftwood from those remote beaches of Southern New South Wales and Eastern Victoria’.
When I eventually went back to New South Wales to collect that driftwood, I noticed plastics washing up on shore. They weren’t there fifteen years prior, and I became fascinated. Suddenly, I felt that I had this enormous meaning that I could express in my art. A social and environmental conscience existed alongside a commitment to create objects of beauty. I put my brushes down and didn’t paint again for close to fifteen years. Living in Byron Bay made access to beaches easy and was the perfect location to engage in this activist focused work.
The Plastics Washing on My Shore
The ocean litter plastic I find on Australian beaches largely conditions my environmental message. I even have favourite spots in Byron Bay where I collect, such as Byron, Belongil and nearby Brays Beach close to Broken Head and up in the corner of Seven Mile Beach towards Lennox Head. I’ll walk up and down these beaches collecting plastics in the morning or afternoon.
Today, I’m finding that people are picking up plastics everywhere. They take a bag with them and turn the walk into a daily chore. It’s become a common task, which of course I think is great. Twenty years ago, this community collecting activity did not exist to a great extent. Then, along with the smaller pieces of plastic, I was collecting predominantly large pieces of plastic. Now, I’m largely collecting small pieces of plastic known as micro plastics, which I recently turned into a series called the “Pacific Garbage Patch.”
The “Pacific Garbage Patch” is based on the 2018 to 2019 mapping of the Garbage Patch that exists in the centre of the Pacific Ocean. People have asked me: ‘Is this the map of Australia?’ It’s actually not; it’s the current map of the Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch. Next year it will be different. It’s going to keep changing. Five years ago, it was the size of Texas. Now it’s more than doubled and my work will continue to reflect these changes.
My artistic process includes mixing micro plastics with ecologically sustainable plant based, clear resin. I paint the plastics onto stretched Belgian linen into abstract details or the shape of the Garbage Patch in the Pacific Ocean. It’s a meeting of my past painting and my current assemblage work. I love the aesthetics of it. I love the fact that this work is quite literally contemporary in the sense that it represents the small pieces of plastic I pick up on the beach every day.
Although these plastics are generally seen as ugly or as trash when littering the shores of the world’s beaches, I see something different. I see the potential for art, and the potential to inspire. I see the potential possibility of renewal through art.
There’s always the possibility of turning a negative into a positive. Just like collecting rubbish on beaches, you can do something positive, and it can be beautiful as well. If that message gets across through my artwork, it can only be a good thing. In truth, I see something unique in all the plastics that I collect and include in my art, and therefore, I don’t necessarily dislike these plastics.
Plastic Garbage on my Studio Floor
My foray into making environmentally based art was entirely accidental. I was collecting driftwood from very remote beaches in East Gippsland in Australia to make furniture for our new home in Byron Bay, and I stumbled across huge amounts of plastic debris. I felt compelled to collect it, intending to take it to the local dump for recycling. The more plastic I collected, the more intrigued I became. I then shipped sixty to eighty jumbo garbage bags back to Byron Bay and left it on the side of my studio while I made driftwood furniture. When I poured it onto the floor, the colours, the forms, amazed me. I was on fire with the possibilities of what I had discovered.
I tipped the plastic garbage onto my studio floor.
Before my eyes, a potential palette appeared. I put the reds in one corner, the blues in the other corner, the pinks in another, and so on. Many artistic ideas started to emerge, including how to work with a challenging medium and its inherent activist and environmental overtones.
Exhibitions over the years have provided a resource and a platform for me to create and become aware of environmental problems. I am able to use these exhibition opportunities to reveal how I have actively harvested from ‘nature’ the far removed products of human manufacture: the raw material extracted from the earth, processed into commodity, used, discarded, and returned by the tide to human use.
My exhibits not only transform rubbish into objects of value, but they also raise questions about cultural worth. They compel the viewer to make links between the cycles of production and use of everyday functional objects. What distinguishes a piece of plastic ground to crystal-like translucency by time and water, from a work of art? Can my exhibits shift our thinking on matters of sustainability, or is it complicit in the exploitation of the earth’s resources for human consumption?
Art is a way of sharing my messages with a broad audience. I feel that even if just a fraction of the viewing audience were to experience a shift in their awareness and consciousness about the environment and art, then it’s worth it. I believe that humanity is at a critical point in time, with our planet currently existing in a fragile ecological state, with global warming hastening unheard-of changes, all amplifying the fact that we need all the help we can get.
We have a long way to go to get the big businesses and governments of this world to treat the current environmental concerns with the imperatives that they deserve. The re-education of our species is beginning to happen and change is afoot; however, action will only take place when it becomes economically viable. I believe that this shift is inevitable. But in the meantime, it is up to each individual to bring about change and become more conscious.
I ask that individuals be as conscious as possible. This begins with the simplest of things, like people being kind to themselves, being kind to others and being kind to our beautiful planet. How could people dispose of waste in a careless manner if they are being conscious? Making this art is a way of sharing my messages about the need to care for our environment and to appreciate art.
There’s always that possibility of turning something into the positive. Just like collecting rubbish on beaches, you can do something positive, and it can be beautiful as well. If that message gets across by making the artwork I do, it can only be a good thing. In truth, I see something unique in all the plastics that I collect and include in my art, thus on some level, I don’t necessarily dislike these plastics.
Giving Form to My Path
My Ph.D. dissertation was entitled Environmental Art: Aesthetics, Activism, and Transformation. Aesthetics is all about beauty. Activism is about making a statement about the environment. And Transformation is that which becomes possible when people allow themselves to enter into the work, to go beyond.
As an environmental artist, I envision the artist’s role in the fight to protect our earth and our marine life in particular, as multi-dimensional. I create art that makes a difference and has a social conscience. The assemblage artworks I have made over the years are thematically based on environmental issues, taking society’s discarded everyday objects and transforming them into formal compositions. These recycled materials have been used to convey the history and memory of a place, to comment on the human experience of place, beauty, degradation of the environment and the inspiration possible with recycling through a positive aesthetic experience.
In my first assemblage works titled “Contemporary Landscapes” made from beach found plastics behind Perspex, created in 1998 and 1999, I used recycled materials to convey the history and memory of a place and the degradation of the environment. As a more evolved artist, having worked in the environmental art field for over twenty years now, these elements have deepened and become if anything, more sophisticate, through both my studio based work and my own research as a practicing visual artist.
One of my favourite series of works was my series of Totems. I researched the definition of the totem, which was a “symbol of the clan”. In the contemporary context, our clan-like behaviour symbolized our throwaway mentality. It also symbolized human’s desire to make something beautiful out of something ugly. Winning the prestigious Wynne prize at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2000 with the “Thong Totems” was a career highlight, as was being selected as a finalist in 2003 and again in 2004.
The objects yielded by the tide prompted a key question for me: how does one give form to the formlessness of detritus? I was well aware that the organising principles and my choices would determine the meaning of any work created. I began by sorting the found objects into material, natural or manufactured, then into colour and size. These categories suggested particular works: totem poles constructed from buoys or thongs, wall-based collages of driftwood, and, eventually, coloured plastics assembled into abstract fields that came to evoke semi-abstract landscapes.
Unlike most environmental artists, I make my work not from conventionally ‘natural’ materials—soil, grass, stones, for instance-but rather from the ‘artificial’ materials that nature has reclaimed and sculpted through erosion. The work that I make and exhibit, actively mobilises the unstable boundaries between what is human-made and what is natural.
Ultimately, the work reflects on the role of the environmental artist and art practice at the end of the second decade of the 21st century. This is during a time when damage to the environment and economic choices by the government and big business continue to challenge the ideals of environmentalism. The art protests against recklessness on the part of policymakers, while building an aesthetic appreciation of the artwork produced, contributing to new ways of seeing environmental problems.
Dr. John Dahlsen is a contemporary environmental artist and author whose work examines the passage of time in the landscape and the place of humankind within it by working with found objects, primarily ocean trash, to create abstract compositions. He won Australia’s oldest art award, the Wynne Prize, in 2000 at the Art Gallery of NSW and four years later his art represented Australia at the Athens Olympics. He’s also the author of An Artist’s Guide to a Successful Career and An Accidental Environmental Artist. Dahlsen currently lectures in Visual Art at the University of Canberra in partnership with TAFEQLD Southbank Brisbane campus.