We think of Ireland’s offshore islands as unspoilt. I remember my first visit to Sherkin Island where I smelled the countryside of my childhood, the sun-warmed bramble hedges. There were so few cars that my then small children were able to run with the kind of freedom they had in few other places.
But islander and artist Nuala Mahon knows that Sherkin, or Inis Arcáin to give the island its Irish name, is seeing an enormous increase in plastic waste washing up on its beaches. She started her latest project at the start of the pandemic in early 2020 to try to communicate the impact of plastic waste on the world around us. Central to her work is the idea that there is no “away” into which we can throw things. Her images can be seen in an exhibition which opens this weekend on the island in West Cork, called Leave No Visible Trace.
“I worked on several different techniques before deciding it was essential to record the waste in a sustainable way. I created cameras from cardboard delivery boxes and coffee tins to make the images.” These pinhole cameras created a magic other worldly effect as if a long-gone photographer had come back from the past to catalogue our modern addiction to plastic. The images of stuff out of context taken from the low angle turn the artefacts into weirdly dominating things. So a lobster pot lid looks like a giant sombrero, a wellington stands alone on the beach, gargantuan, like Gulliver’s boot seen by the Lilliputians.
Mahon used the pinhole cameras on the windy beaches, adding to the fuzzy in situ nature of the project. Another set of images was made in studio and she has also kept the “errors” or “Chance Pinhole Images” which have an accidental magic about them, like sea creatures or storm scenes through a misted-up window.
“Most of the detritus comes from detached fishing gear which is described as ‘ghost gear’,” Mahon says. “Oil containers and children’s toys make up a great proportion of the rest of the polluting items.”
Other artists have turned the trash into beautiful artefacts, sorted rubbish into colours taking advantage of the fact that their time at sea has not dimmed their plastic brightness. Mahon wanted to do something subtler. A chemist by training, she made her own developer solutions from seaweed collected on the beaches, and fixed the images in a salt solution.
The exhibition runs each afternoon until September 8th in Sherkin Island Community Hall in Co Cork. And if you are as sick of plastic as Mahon is, you can use this Voice Ireland campaign to tell politicians to end the single-use economy and take things circular.
Catherine Cleary is co-founder of Pocket Forests