"Ghost Dog," made from recycled wire, synthetic ghost net, beach rope and thread. (Photo: Sue Ryan/Anchorage Museum)

From the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to Great Lakes microbeads, plastic pollution has become an increasingly widespread and well-known problem in recent years. But while most people now realize plastic trash kills sea turtles, seabirds and other aquatic animals, few of us ever see this ecological scourge once it escapes into the wild. Rallying public interest can be hard when a problem seems faraway and faceless.

But a new exhibit at Alaska's Anchorage Museum is designed to fight that disconnect, using art made from marine debris to capture our attention and help us visualize what's happening to Earth's oceans. "Gyre: The Plastic Ocean" is a 7,500-square-foot collection of impressive but unsettling artwork that "explores the relationship between humans and the ocean in a contemporary culture of consumption." It features 80 pieces by 26 artists from Australia to Finland, all made with debris collected from oceans, coasts and waterways around the world.

Along with this eerie assortment of art (see photos below), the exhibit also presents a National Geographic film, documentary photography and other findings from a 2013 scientific expedition that studied wayward garbage in Alaskan waters. That voyage included scientists from the Alaska SeaLife Center, Blue Ocean Institute, Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but it also carried artists, educators and filmmakers. Some of the artwork in the exhibit was made from trash collected during that expedition.

Being reminded about the scope of plastic pollution can be discouraging, even depressing, but that's not the goal of "Gyre." Instead, the exhibit's organizers say they want to help people confront the problem by presenting it in a novel, interesting way, and then help them realize it's not too late to do something about this man-made mess. "Humankind has certainly imposed its footprint on this landscape, but we have not ruined it," says Julie Decker, Anchorage Museum director and exhibit curator, in a press release about the show. "Plastic is a modern material, so this is a modern and recent problem. That means there are things we can do, individually and collectively, to reverse the impacts."

"Gyre" opened this month and is slated to run until Sept. 6, so stop by if you're in Anchorage before then. (It's just one of several collections at the city's 170,000-square-foot art, history and science museum, which finished a $106 million expansion in 2010 and draws about 160,000 visitors per year — nearly a quarter of Alaska's population.) In the meantime, here's a brief preview of the exhibit's haunting artwork:


John Dahlsen/Anchorage Museum

John Dahlsen, "Thongs," digital print on canvas. Measuring 9 feet wide and 4 feet tall, this giant photograph offers a bird's-eye view of more than 1,000 discarded sandals. Dahlsen personally collected each of the sandals pictured, mainly from remote beaches in Australia.

Susan Middleton/Anchorage Museum

Susan Middleton, "Shed Bird Stomach Contents," digital print. Middleton observed an albatross chick for two months as its parents unwittingly fed it inedible plastic. The chick later died with an impacted stomach, the contents of which are revealed in this sad photo.

Chris Arend/Anchorage Museum

Rebecca Lyon, "Plastic Death," mixed media, Pratt Museum collection. Lyon, an Alaska Native artist, says she mixes traditional and modern styles "to highlight her culture's reverence for the natural world." In this piece, a human face spews plastic from atop a whale that's been harpooned by plastic spears and also has a belly full of plastic, "demonstrating that convenience has had unexpected, toxic results."

Anne Percoco/Anchorage Museum

Anne Percoco, "Indra's Cloud," post-consumer plastic bottles. This "cloud" is a mobile public sculpture, originally created in 2008, that Percoco made by sewing together 1,000 plastic bottles found along India's notoriously polluted Yamuna River. She built a new, site-specific version from recycled plastic for the Anchorage Museum exhibit, which also features photo documentation of her "Indra's Cloud" project.

Chris Arend/Anchorage Museum

Cynthia Minet, "Sled Dogs," post-consumer plastic and LEDs. Minet, who's known for her series of recycled-plastic animal sculptures, says the visible use of electricity (via energy-efficient LEDs) is a comment on waste and a reflection on our complex relationships with nature.

Judith Selby and Richard Lang/Anchorage Museum

Judith Selby and Richard Lang, "Shovel Bands," digital print. Over the past 15 years, California-based artists Selby and Lang have taken hundreds of walks along the same 1,000 yards of Kehoe Beach in the famed Point Reyes National Seashore. They collect pieces of washed-up plastic trash as they go, curating them over time to create "works of art that depict, with minimal artifice, the material as it is."

Steve McPherson/Anchorage Museum

Steve McPherson, "28 Objects that Measured the World," found plastic objects, entomology pins. British beachcomber McPherson also scours his local shores for plastic debris, which he arranges into tidy "taxonomies" of discarded objects that evoke slices of human history.

Chris Arend/Anchorage Museum

Mark Dion, "Cabinet of Marine Debris," mixed media. Order is not a common quality of trash, so seeing marine debris organized neatly in a cabinet can force us to see it with fresh eyes. This effect is a hallmark for Dion, a renowned visual artist and mentor at Columbia University who's known for his "spectacular and often fantastical curiosity cabinets [that] exalt atypical orderings of objects and specimens."

Chris Arend/Anchorage Museum

Pam Longobardi, "Dark and Plentiful Bounty," mixed media. Inspired by piles of plastic she'd seen wash ashore in Hawaii, Atlanta-based Longobardi launched the Drifters Project in 2006 and began making art primarily from marine debris. "I approach the sites as a forensic scientist," she writes on her website, "examining and documenting the deposition as it lay, collecting and identifying the evidence of the crime."

Related marine debris stories on MNN:

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Ocean trash reborn as art in Alaska [Photos]
Marine debris is transformed into art for a new exhibit at the Anchorage Museum, offering an eerie look at Earth's plastic problem.