John Healey: There’s a Great Future in Plastics
Discarded items of convenience document the poisoning of our environment and ultimately ourselves.
With the precision of a gentle archaeologist, Ottawa-based artist John Healey quietly began a collection of plastic objects found along the rocky shores of the St Lawrence Seaway.
He took his findings home, photographed them, and examined everything, trying to understand the mystery of each object; what it is, who threw it away, and why it was there in the first place. But these questions can be nearly impossible to answer. So why are Healey’s images so captivating, and feel like they are more than a simple reminder of our wasteful habits? What can his project Plastic Beach add to the complicated conversation that surrounds responsibility and legacy of plastics in Canada?
Many of the photographs feature a single object, lit precisely enough to see each and every detail, yet dramatically enough to give the object a certain kind of gravitas that allows my mind to shift between representation and imagination. Take for example Healey’s image Coolpac Bird. At first, I see a soaring animal in the night sky emerging from the isolation of the deep black background. On a closer look, the creature’s materiality becomes easily apparent. This bird is made up of cheap crinkled textures, jagged edges, and surface dirt. I should be revolted. Yet, I am enamoured by the image’s peacefulness and its ability to elevate something so mundane.
Throughout the project, other objects transform in front of my eyes. A piece of Styrofoam becomes a hovering cloud, screw caps become a dramatic portrait, and a grocery bag becomes a rushing waterfall. Through masterful lighting and presentation, Healey brings forward imaginative ways to reuse materials, reigniting a recycled desire for plastic. Captured in time in a way that only a photograph can, these plastic objects float in empty space, as if they’ve always been there and will be here forevermore, which in fact, will be the case. Virtually every piece of plastic that was ever made still exists in some shape or form.
The birds 1 soaring in the night sky often have bellies bursting with plastic debris. Recent discoveries of 2 microplastics in our bodies 3 and in our atmosphere affecting cloud formation 4 are reminders of how deeply plastic is enmeshed in our natural systems. With this in mind I began to wonder if Healey’s images were truly glorifications of the continued potential of plastic, or if they had become symbolic icons that describe the way in which our natural systems are slowly being replaced.
Rather than celebrating Healey's ability to make the plastic objects look desirable, I’m instead marvelling at how striking a warning can be. Warnings that our natural systems have already been plasticized.
Warnings that our desire is still rooted in plastic in a perverse sense of neuroplasticity. Is that why is it so hard to change? A study completed in 2022 at the University of Waterloo suggests that the reduction of plastic in the Great Lakes will not happen unless incentives and disincentives, in conjunction with raising awareness and other legislative regulations, are used in a coordinated manner to move people toward this goal. 5 In other words, plastic is so deeply rooted within everyday life that dismantling it will require both an internal voluntary change and external regulation - a change that will undoubtedly take a long time to instill.
Time is a hidden element to the project, and to the duplicitous nature of plastic; quickly used yet outlasting a lifetime. Perhaps the most prevalent reference within Healey’s photographs are found in the annals of time in the Dutch seventeenth-century vanitas paintings. Using realistic painting techniques often with dark lighting and a cluttered approach, vanitas paintings contained icons or symbolic items that encouraged people to contemplate their life, their legacy, and their faith. 6 Drawing from religious texts and encouraging the ideals of self-contemplation, the paintings attempted to communicate to the public that the pursuits of this world - pleasures, money, beauty and power - were not everlasting properties. Rather, the nature of life and the world is fleeting, finite and temporary, with a reminder that you too will die.
Healey’s Composition 12 is the best example of this reference. A crowded table of his plastic objects gracefully stands in a sea of black. There is a controlled chaos to the composition in which some objects appear to almost fall off the table, while others stand tall piercing the background. In the centre of the image, a neon green circular object surrounds a figurine, invoking a kind of religious subtext, suggestive of an altar. In this work, the pleasures of this world, our pursuits and even our faith have all been replaced with plastic. If the vanitas paintings are reminders of the fleeting nature of life, then Healey’s work contributes by asking: “What will you leave behind after your brief and wondrous time on this earth?”.
Plastic Beach contemplates notions of legacy, mortality, desire and of course, materiality. Healey’s care of small individual objects and chosen aesthetics seduced me into becoming closer than normal to discarded plastic objects, reigniting a latent desire. However, invoking the latent dangers of plastic alongside historical and religious references suggests a much more ominous message of deeply rooted beliefs and our legacy of plastic for the future. His work demonstrates the overwhelming (almost futile) undertaking of picking up each piece of plastic and caring for it until our shores are once again clean. Indeed, it is not within our lifetime that this shift will happen. I am left wondering if my legacy might include not just the plastic I am trained to use, but the steps toward de-plasticization, both in mind and along our waterways.7
There is a curious resolution that washes ashore when viewing this type of legacy work, I can perhaps see a great future in plastics, just not the one we bargained for.
These items are the messages in a bottle that have washed up on our shoreline which we no longer can ignore.
May 25 - August 25, 2023
The Public Art Program and the City of Hall Art Gallery Present:
John Healey’s PLASTIC BEACH
City Hall Art Gallery
110 Laurier Avenue West (Ground Floor)
Ottawa, ON, K1P 1J1
This exhibition is open to the public and is free of charge.
Darren Pottie is an artist, writer and curator focused on the intersection between lens-based media and contemporary craft. From digital experimentation to analogue techniques, his research seeks the symbiosis of real and virtual. He currently lives and works in Ottawa on the unceded territory of the Anishinabe Algonquin Nation. https://darrenpottie.ca/
John Healey (he/him) is a devoted photographer and instructor who grew up along the St. Lawrence River in Brockville, Ontario. His work has been shown nationally at the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival in 2017 and 2020. His work has garnered numerous awards, including winner of the 2020 Project X, Photography Award and First Prize winner for the international Figureworks competition in 2019. Healey lives in Ottawa, on the unceded territory of the Anishinabe Algonquin Nation and is currently an instructor at the School of the Photographic Arts: Ottawa (SPAO).
As featured in photoED magazine's ECO ISSUE
Roland Geyer, Jenna R Jambeck and Kara Lavender Law. “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made.” 1 Science Advances, Vol 3 Issue 7. 19 July 2017.https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.1700782
“Laysan Albatrosses’ Plastic Problem.” Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.. https://ocean.si.edu/ 2 ocean-life/seabirds/laysan-albatrosses-plastic-problem
Damian Carrington. “Microplastics found in human blood for first time.” The Guardian. 24 March 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/mar/24/microplastics-found-in-human-blood-for-first-time
Mischa Aeschlimann Guangyu Li, Zamin A Kanji and Denise M. Mitrano. “Potential impacts of atmospheric 4 microplastics and nanoplastics on cloud formation processes”. Natural Geoscience 15, 967-975. 2022.. https:// www.nature.com/articles/s41561-022-01051-9 contemplate their life, their legacy and their faith.
Trang Vu Quynh Le, “Plastic Pollution in the Canadian Great Lakes: Drivers, Barriers and Policy 5 Recommendations,” (Master’s thesis, University of Waterloo, 2022), https://uwspace.uwaterloo.ca/bitstream/handle/ 10012/19003/Le_Trang%20Vu%20Quynh.pdf?sequence=3.
Fraser Hibbitt. Vanitas: Dutch Master Paintings Explained. The Collector. July 14, 2020. https:// 5 www.thecollector.com/vanitas-dutch-master-paintings/
Get involved with The Great Lakes Plastic Cleanup at greatlakesplasticcleanup.org and other organizations.
The artist gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the Ontario Arts Council.
Enjoyed this read?!
Consider supporting us!
As the ONLY independent editorial photography publication on Canadian newsstands we'd love to continue producing great content for you to enjoy!