Dead Rat Plastglomerate

Rat and Plastiglomerate
Location: Costa De Caparica, Portugal, 1990
C-Type Print from Colour Negative Film, 16 x 20 inches

In 2016, after reading Jane Bennett's book Vibrant Matter, Hughes had a moment of symmetry when he recognized the connection and harmony between the ideas expressed in the book and a memory from 30 years earlier—an image he created on a beach in Portugal. This image included plastic nurdles [which were first reported to wash up on beaches in the 1970s] and plastiglomerate, which has been reported to be first noticed on Hawaii's Kamilo in 2006. Hughes created this image in 1990, and rather than serving as a mere document or record, the photograph might potentially hold greater significance in demonstrating the importance of artists and their prescient powers of observation in a world where their foresight is often overlooked.

Condom Sewage Andy Hughes

Location: Rest Bay, Porthcawl, Wales, 1990
C-Type Print from Colour Negative Film, 16 x 20 inches

'On a sunny Tuesday morning on 4 June in the grate over the storm drain to the Chesapeake Bay in front of Sam’s Bagels on Cold Spring Lane in Baltimore, there was:
one large men’s black plastic work glove,
one dense mat of oak pollen,
one unblemished dead rat,
one white plastic bottle cap,
one smooth stick of wood

Glove, pollen, rat, cap, stick. As I encountered these items, they shimmied back and forth between debris and thing… I was repelled by the dead (or was it merely sleeping?) rat and dismayed by the litter, but I also felt something else: a nameless awareness of the impossible singularity of that rat, that configuration of pollen, that otherwise utterly banal, mass-produced plastic water-bottle cap'.

Bennett. J. (2010) Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Rest Bay, Porthcawl, Andy Hughes

Plastic Bread Bag
Location: Rest Bay, Porthcawl, 1990
C-Type Print from Colour Negative Film, 16 x 20 inches

Sker Beach, Wales Andy Hughes

BP Oil Drum
Location: Sker Beach, Swansea Bay, 1990
C-Type Print from Colour Negative Film, 16 x 20 inches

Learning to Surf
While studying fine art at Cardiff University in the late 1980s, Andy Hughes joined the college surf club. A small group of art student surfers would venture towards Porthcawl and beyond, exploring surf spots. Sker Beach was a favorite, the most westerly of Porthcawl's beaches and only accessible by walking from Rest Bay or the Kenfig National Nature Reserve. A few miles away lies the industrial town of Port Talbot in the county borough of Neath, Wales. It is located seven miles to the east of Swansea, and the Port Talbot Steelworks can be seen from Sker. During many surf visits to this beach, Hughes and his surfing buddies would walk across the dunes towards the ocean. The sea was often very polluted and discolored, with human waste and various floating debris drifting by the surfers in the lineup.

First Photographs
It was while surfing that he noticed all kinds of floating debris, including plastic, human sewage, oil drums, condoms, and panty liners washing up on the shoreline. Hughes began making photographs of these items. At the same time, he started producing a series of portraits of surfers, which became connected. The two parallel subjects became interrelated and interconnected, responding to the interactions of water, waves, and coastal inhabitants, both organic and inorganic

Rest Bay, Porthcawl, Andy Hughes

Panty Liner
Location: Swansea Bay, 1990
C-Type Print from Colour Negative Film, 16 x 20 inches

Rest Bay, Porthcawl, Andy Hughes

Plastic Particles
Location: St Ives Harbour, Cornwall, 1990
C-Type Print from Colour Negative Film, 16 x 20 inches

This idea of ghost strata provides insight into the predictive affects and temporal vertigo of an analogue photograph by Hughes taken on a small beach in St Ives harbour, 1990 (Plastic Particles). Like Colquhoun’s painting and Barns-Graham’s work, it presents a crystal image, opening up sensations of time as multiple and discontinuous. Perception of the image splits between an abstract granular surface of muted colours and a relentless, close-up vision of a tide line, with tiny fragments of debris, revealed by an outgoing tide. A milky, cloudy fluid looks like puckered plastic or viscous glue. Most of the sand is mixed with black tar-like granules. Here and there, tiny, brightly coloured flecks of red, blue, and green sparkle through. The image produces a strange sense that the material forces of this beach are undergoing toxic change. The tarry black sand and shallow murky water appear to be congealing, slowing up, and clogging tidal movement. The photograph creates a zone of indiscernibility with a loss of bearings. It is unclear whether it was taken from a few feet above a beach or is an image of an unknown planet taken from outer space. There is nowhere to imagine standing to survey the scene. The beach becomes all matter, presented as an immersive, vertical plane; all surface or depth – it’s hard to tell.

In an interview, Hughes stated that the black grains are tiny particles of coal from the region’s industrial past and that they have been circulating with the tides for decades, longer than our lifetimes and he pointed out that the coloured debris, settled in with the coal and sand, are micro-plastics. What fascinates the artist about his photograph is its early date. In 1990, there was no media coverage of anthropogenic climate change; no public awareness of the presence and agency of micro-plastics entering the geological processes of land and sea, or being ingested by organic life and humans. The photograph was taken nearly twenty years before Jane Bennett’s pivotal New Materialist publication: Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010), which is now sitting on a bookshelf in Hughes’s studio.

Living Stones: A Study of Geophysical Animism in Visual Art And Its Relevance for Planetary Consciousness
(Dissertation University of Plymouth, Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Business)
© 2023 Lizzie Perrotte  

Barry Island Trash Andy Hughes

Radion Washing Liquid
Location: Barry Island, Wales, 1990
C-Type Print from Colour Negative Film, 16 x 20 inches

Surfing in the early 1990s wasn't a mainstream activity in the UK; places like sunny California and Australia came to mind, not the coal-washed beaches of Swansea Bay. It was in 1990, after returning from a surf trip to Porthcawl, that I stopped at Barry Island. With a surfboard in tow and having spent my first student bursary on a new Fuji 6x9 film camera, I took a walk on the beach. At a distance, I spotted a brightly colored plastic object. Like a magpie, I was attracted to it. Upon close inspection, I saw it was a detergent bottle with a visually striking graphic emblazoned on its upturned surface—‘Radion.’

Radion was a new brand of washing powder. My neural networks made a connection between the word 'Radion' and the lurid, supersaturated colors. Its visuality and tone of voice seemed connected to the radiation my mom was receiving to reduce her brain tumor. The scanning systems used to identify the tumor employed highly colorized imagery. The parallels seemed obvious—radiation used on the human brain to kill (remove/wash away) tumor cells, and this wasted plastic bottle contained a seemingly simple product: detergent to wash away dirt. Of course, nothing is ever truly washed away; there is no 'away.' There is no 'over there,' away from here. Everything goes somewhere, maybe not in the same form. Everything is connected.

Notes from: A Plastic Pilgrimage 
© 2023 Andy Hughes 


Paint Bucket
North Devon, 1991
30 x 20 Inch B/W Fibre Silver Gelatin Print


Beach Trash
Costa De Caparica, Portugal, 1991
30 x 20 Inch B/W Fibre Silver Gelatin Print

Nappy Andy Hughes

Gower, South Wales, 1993
30 x 20 Inch B/W Fibre Silver Gelatin Print

© Copyright 2024  Andy Hughes
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