these pastel photographs of beach debris are scarily pretty

Artist Thirza Schaap is raising awareness for ocean conservation with her deceptively beautiful series 'Plastic Ocean.'

by Alice Newell-Hanson
18 July 2017, 4:10pm

Next week, Dutch artist Thirza Schaap is driving 300 kilometers west from Cape Town, with two big blue IKEA bags, to collect bottles on Witsand Beach. The beach has sugar-white sand and large rolling dunes which, after a high swell, are often strewn with plastic debris. "I love the faded colors so much," she says, "But there's a contradiction between the attraction and repulsion."

Schaap moved to South Africa from the Netherlands almost five years ago (after initially planning to stay for six months). From the back windows of her house near Clifton Beach, she can see the Cape Fold mountains and through the front windows, the Atlantic Ocean. Sometimes, with binoculars, she can watch whales and dolphins passing by. But not long after settling in Cape Town she became concerned by the amount of plastic that was washing up at her local beach. "It was like confetti, like there'd been a birthday," she says, "It made me realize what we've done."

She started picking up trash and photographing it. The most common objects, apart from small worn-down scraps and tangles of unrecognizable fiber, are straws. Then bottles. She also finds flip-flops, toothbrushes, picnic cutlery, and hair curlers. When I ask her what the strangest object is, she says what's strange is just the sheer amount of it.

"A lot of people photograph beach debris, but I wanted to find a way to draw attention to it. To find a more subtle way," Schaap explains. She began making beguiling pastel arrangements that she calls "one-minute sculptures." She takes the day's catch home, washes it and dries it on the grass in her yard, then sorts it by size, before arranging the scraps into surreal still lifes. "It's like playing," she says, "It comes how it comes." Sometimes she uses sand as a backdrop or pastel paper, but each image is shot in strong natural light, occasionally filtered through the leaves of her garden's trees.

The flotsam looks uncomfortably beautiful. Schaap's planes of dusty colors, striking shadows, and use of everyday odds and ends bring to mind Vivianne Sassen's images of bright plastic chairs and glossy buckets. They also play a similar game, asking whether these objects' aesthetic appeal can outweigh their utilitarian dullness and, in the case of Schaap's objects, the danger they represent.

Eighty percent of food in Africa comes from the ocean. And while there are city-run programs in Cape Town to help clean up its (much-touristed) coastline, the problem is global and growing. On walks along her local beaches, Schaap finds thousands of translucent plastic pellets that she suspects are from a shipping accident in Hong Kong in 2012, when 150 tonnes of resin beads (called "nurdles" by manufacturers and "mermaid's tears" by activists) were dropped into the ocean. The pellets are often eaten by fish and other wildlife and can transmit deadly toxins.

Schaap wants to help spread awareness of the plastics problem locally by pasting Cape Town buses with posters of her work and creating signs, in the style of wildlife department checklists, that advertise the different types of trash you might find on specific beaches at different tides. She is also turning her images into limited-edition prints that will soon be available through her website.

Finally, she is sending a load of cleaned and categorized plastic debris to the Het Nieuwe Institut in Rotterdam, where, in September, it will go on display at an exhibition dedicated to unusual collections called FINDERS KEEPERS. Schaap's crates of sea-worn bottles (the ones she'll scavenge from Witsand next week) will be shown alongside collections of more precious objects — like an eerie warning about the dangers of accumulating all that stuff.



Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Thirza Schaap

South Africa
plastic ocean
thirza schaap