Last summer, Anchorage photographer Tim Remick revisited Hinchinbrook Island. He had walked its long shores 10 years before and saw little in the way of trash at that time.
"What we found was your sort of standard marine debris," he recalled: "a few fishing floats," including 15 or 20 of the old-style Japanese glass floats prized by beachcombers.
This summer was a different story. "I'm not sure what I was expecting to see," Remick said. "It was a profound change.
"I can't describe the whole central portion of the island where storm-generated waves were hitting. It was just jam-packed with plastics."
Remick, who spent a week on the big island in Prince William Sound estimated that 30 to 40 percent of the flotsam was plastic bottles, the kind used for drinking water. "Another large percentage was plastic fishing floats, giant floats that support nets and hanging oyster cultures. There was plastic everywhere. If you scooped your hand through the sand, it was there."
Remick is one of several artists whose work will be shown in the upcoming Anchorage Museum exhibit "Gyre: The Plastic Ocean," which opens on Feb. 7.
The exhibit takes its name from the vortexes formed by wind and currents in large bodies of water. Everything that floats will tend to accumulate in the center of the eddy and swirl around until it breaks free or breaks up.
Plastic floats very well. And it can take hundreds of years to decompose. Nail a soda bottle to the south side of your house and see which lasts longer, the bottle or the nail.
The first fully synthetic plastic products came onto the consumer market in 1909. For most of the world today, life is inconceivable without it, said Julie Decker, the museum's executive director.
"We've been in the modern age of plastics since the 1960s," she said. "And I think it's only now that we're realizing there's another effect to that kind of mass consumption."
That realization is the basis of the "Gyre" exhibit, which will contain both scientific and artistic elements along with films and discussions.
Lightweight, versatile, durable and cheap, plastics play an enormous and often beneficial role in modern life. The exhibit takes that into account, Decker said.
Some plastic products -- like PVC plumbing pipes -- are permanently fixed for a lifetime of heavy, repeated use. Many others are meant to be discarded, such as wrappers, containers and packaging. Even expensive items, like cell phones and computers with their mostly plastic casings, are thrown away after a few years. The result is that plastic is estimated to make up about a quarter of the world's landfills.
But incalculable tons never get to the dump. Bags, bottles, take-out boxes and more blow or roll around until they reach the water, where they do not sink. Organic paper or cloth products may fall apart harmlessly within a few weeks or years.
Not plastic. It gathers in mid-ocean clumps, growing much more quickly than the centuries-long decomposition process can dissipate it.
Alaska is at the top of the North Pacific Gyre, presumed to be the world's largest, fed not only by improperly disposed trash but by fishing gear, "ghost nets" that can snake for miles, and the occasional contents of an entire cargo ship full of sneakers, appliances or automobile parts. The Japanese government estimates that 5 million tons of debris was dragged to sea in a single event, the Tohoku Tsunami that followed the cataclysmic earthquake of March 11, 2011.
The billions of items create a so-called "plastic island" of indeterminate size.
"NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) would say it's not measurable," Decker said. "It's always changing with the currents. At times it might be the size of the United States. Then a day later, it's broken apart into several smaller islands."
The floating plastic ensnares birds and sea life with horrific results. One graphic in the exhibit catalog/companion book lists thousands of dead animals found wrapped in line or garbage. Colorful items are sometimes mistaken for food. One photo shows the skeleton of a bird, its flesh rotted away, but the bright contents of its stomach still in a neat pile within the cadaver.
Even when time, wear or chewing grinds plastic down to the size of sand, it may still present a danger. The evidence is not yet in, Decker said. "At this time, the experts can't state a lot of facts with certainty."
The microcosmic effect of plastic is one of those areas of uncertainty, she said. "At some point it becomes invisible to a human eye, and most agencies quit counting anything smaller than a bottle cap. But it hasn't gone away. There's a lot of speculation about how plastics break down, from sharks eating trash to what happens on the level of microbes.
"How humans and animals adapt is one of the scientific questions that hasn't been answered."
Pollution as art
What goes into a gyre doesn't always stay in the gyre. Clumps break off and reach shores all around the world. That includes Alaska, a state with four times as much coastline as the other 49 U.S. states combined.
"In Alaska, we have this perception that we're remote and pristine," Decker said. "In fact, we have trash washing up on all our shorelines. And because we are remote, there's an even more difficult challenge in cleaning it up."
In California, for instance, you can get a bunch of people together to drive to a beach, pick up the trash and drive it to a landfill or recycling center. "Here, if we want to get the stuff out, it's logistically expensive."
Expensive and enormous. The catalog notes that more than 2 million pounds of garbage was cleaned from less than 2,000 miles of Alaska coast in a period ending in 2011; 266,722 pounds were removed from just 54 miles of coastline in the Pribilof Islands. Large stretches of beach, like Hinchinbrook Island, have not yet been cleaned, which is one of the reasons Remick selected that location for his photo expedition.
For the exhibit, Remick created masks, "human and demonic," that represent various cultures of the Pacific Rim. "Most of my work has been portraits," he said. "I wanted to address this issue in a sense that gave a human element to it.
"I have five images in the show. Four are sort of small 20-by-30-inch images superimposed over the environment. The fifth is a large centerpiece mask with about 15 or 20 images of the debris on Hinchinbrook."
Pollution in general, and ocean pollution in particular, has become its own genre in contemporary art, both as a subject and as a medium, as will be evident to "Gyre" visitors.
"Artists offer a different perspective to the story," Decker said, "a visual narrative that makes it tangible and puts the issue into context."
Among the internationally recognized artists with work in the show is Alexis Rockman, who has traveled the world doing often surreal landscape paintings that show trash. "One can't make a painting about ecology in the 20th or 21st century and not include it," he says in the catalog. "It's the reality of the state of the planet."
Speaking from his studio in New York, he described the oil painting he'll have in "Gyre," a circular porthole half-submerged to give an over-under view of the water. Rockman will be among several artists traveling to Anchorage to speak at the opening of the show.
John Dahlsen of Australia is sending "environmental art digital prints created from documented assemblages of plastics collected from Australian beaches."
Dahlsen said the images are taken from above -- "a bird's-eye view of the found plastics" -- and transferred to canvas as high-resolution large-scale pieces.
Others, like well-known ocean trash artist Pam Longobardi, created sculptures from the debris. Mark Dion of New York has created what Decker described as a "cabinet of curiosities" filled with items washed up on beaches.
"Beachcombing has become something much more about what man has made than about what's found in nature," she said.
Decker hopes the show will travel and be customized for the different venues. In Anchorage, it has a large Alaska component, looking at the North Pacific Gyre and the effect of the Tokohu Tsunami. But one of the possible places the show could go is Wisconsin, where the focus would shift to how the problem affects the Great Lakes.
With "plastic oceans" now found in large bodies of water around the globe, there's no shortage of places where a show like "Gyre" would attract serious interest.
"Plastic washes up all over the world," Decker said. "It's an unglamorous way that we're connected globally."
Reach Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM