Critics’ Picks

Mandy Barker, Burnt, 2012, archival digital print, 42 x 59 3/4".


Mandy Barker

East Wing
Dubai Design District d3 Building 2, #07
December 10–February 10

Floating in disorienting pitch blackness—like outer space or the deep sea—suspended debris indicates life’s pulse. The contextualization is both soothingly familiar and panic inducing. Mandy Barker’s “Plastic Sea” comprises photographs depicting plastic collected from beaches and animal stomachs—a time capsule that suggests how the ocean gifts us not only with crustaceans and seaweed, but also artificial flowers (Soup: Ruinous Remembrance, 2011) and toy turtles (Soup: Turtle, 2011). This stew—a concoction of monochromatic pipes, syringes, and pregnancy tests that coexist with sea creatures (Soup: Every Snow) or candy-hued toothpaste tubes and bottle tops (Soup: Refused, 2011)—is laid out in galactic compositions. The spatial depths and thematically arranged objects, paired with Barker’s meticulous layering and play with perspective and proportion, irreversibly submerge the viewer in the repercussions of the Anthropocene.

The visual poetry belies a harsh wake-up call to the damaging ubiquity of plastics. Accompanying research underlines the gradual supplantation of the sea’s fish with plastic refuse. The series “Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals,” 2016, pays tragic homage to John Vaughan Thompson’s discovery and documentation of plankton in the 1800s, by presenting plastic minutiae as the new microorganisms that are filling both oceans and marine anatomies. Barker provides a visceral punch: The new natural is man-made.

Barker’s surreal photographs capture a current underwater landscape transforming into a distorted replica of what exists above it. Speaking to the pitfalls of indestructible modern comforts, these peaceful cosmologies reveal that despite infinite space, there is little left for the organic, offering us something between an experience of aesthetic pleasure and a haunting visual confrontation with the consequences of a lack of social responsibility.