Multi-coloured flotsam and jetsam go far – but not beyond the boundaries

WHEN Robert Callender’s Coastal Collection was exhibited in the old Shetland Museum gallery some years ago it appeared in a slightly darkened room and seemed to fill the gallery space.

It also seemed to ask more questions than it gave answers. Coming during a time of lots of visiting artists, who all seemed to be beachcombing and putting it in galleries, that show probably seemed just another of the same thing.

For a place like Shetland the theme of polluted beaches is particularly apposite. As any visitor to the coastline will confirm the amount of rubbish gets worse. Those involved in Da Voar Redd Up will back this up with plenty of evidence sighting all forms of plastic rubbish. (Whatever happened to good old-fashioned driftwood?) With Callender’s new installation Plastic Beach at Da Gadderie in the Shetland Museum, we’re being drawn to focus yet again on coastal pollution and its consequences. This new show is seen in the opened up space with plenty of room around it and gives a better sense of its scale. Photographs around the walls provide the only other element.

So what do we get? A black surface “littered” (excuse the irony) with a multi-coloured collection of flotsam and jetsam. Except, of course, that it’s not real rubbish. This has all been manufactured by the artist. Each object here is painstakingly reconstructed from a plastic or metal original using the simplest of materials, paper, card, glue and paint. The artist’s skill is in the construction and finish given to it.

How do we get into a work like this? Well first we have a good walk around. It’s perfectly lit. The bright primary colours are dazzling set against the black background. Think of a carpet of many coloured 3D objects. Then you begin to appreciate the juxtaposition of these different objects set out within the rectangle. We can identify many of them and quite a lot look real and rather toy-like. This can be challenging for children visiting the show whose first impulse is to play with them!

However, I must admit to a certain dichotomy when faced with this show. One question I ask, as ever the devil’s advocate, is why?

Presumably the original plastic items are either disposed of or littering the artist’s studio, as seen in a useful video programme featured in the exhibition. Cal­lender’s work becomes another collection of the same, a duplicate, living in a parallel world of art. So in reality he’s doubling the litter. It’s certainly challenging and the artist goes some way to understanding our unanswered questions in his video but argues that artists now have no boundaries to work within.

But is that a valid excuse? Boundaries are a feature of all cultures and by breaking them you often alienate others. I don’t believe however that Plastic Beach is beyond boundaries. It’s far too British for that. Too close to Blue Peter than the avant-garde although that’s not to denigrate its trans­cendent power. Callender is choosing to make a statement about the world we live in. In choosing to do this using a kind of faux cultural archaeology he is simply taking one avenue.

English artist Tony Cragg did a similar thing in the 1970s, collecting coloured plastic waste. But his approach was to present the waste itself adhering to the elements of pattern, colour and tone. It’s another approach and perhaps more “environ­mentally-friendly” than Callender’s.

In Plastic Beach Callender’s raw materials feature in the form of 36 on-site photographs. I see them more like still-life studies and there’s much to see in the chaotic mingling of plastic and shingle. We see the original beach, on the Stoer Peninsula, again on that video, the artist looking almost like a refugee on a bombsite. And that’s the real sadness in this show – the overwhelming amount of rubbish that ruins the landscape and becomes a hazard to wildlife.

In the end if we can get away from any negative associations we have with pâpier maché and other worries and criticisms apart, if this show makes us focus on the damage we’re doing to our environment then it will have done its work. Get along to Da Gadderie and judge for yourself.

Peter Davis


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