The haunting specter of a ghost has struck terror in the human imagination for millennia. The 19th century California writer Ambrose Bierce described a ghost as "the outward and visible sign of an inward fear." A ghost is even more terrifying when it appears out of the great unknown, the deepest, darkest places of our inner psyche, like an unpleasant memory that we would prefer to ignore or forget. All of this comes together as a great metaphor for local artists Judith Selby Lang and Richard Lang in their exhibit The Ghost Below, which opened recently at The Marine Mammal Center in the Marin Headlands.
The Ghost Below is an art installation that vividly displays the impact of ocean trash and offers a horrifying vision of the repercussions of human negligence. The exhibit consists of a large sculpture assembled out of a variety of fishing nets, with new pieces slated to be added throughout next year. The first sculpture, nicknamed the "Ghost Net Monster," stands ominously in the courtyard of The Marine Mammal Center, glaring out at a life-size statue of an elephant seal that has long had this space to himself.
The Marine Mammal Center, which is a rescue hospital for seals, sea lions, and other marine mammals, may seem like an odd place for an art exhibition. The story told by this art, however, is a perfect fit for an organization that treats a large number of patients each year who have become entangled in or injured by ocean trash. The Center has long been a source of educational programs that offer the community powerful insights into the issues of ocean health, marine biology, environmental awareness, and sustainability. The Ghost Below exhibit follows on the success of last year's Washed Ashore exhibit, which featured giant sculptures of marine creatures fashioned largely out of plastic found on the beaches of Oregon.
The Ghost Below gets its name from more than just the disagreeable apparition of garbage in our seas. "Ghost Nets" are fishing nets that have been discarded or lost by fishermen and left to float aimlessly in the ocean for years. They make up a large portion of ocean trash, including that which is swirling around in the North Pacific Gyre, often referred to as the "Garbage Patch." A gyre is a swirl of naturally occurring ocean currents, caused by the circulation patterns of wind and the rotation of the earth. They are found in all of the oceans, although the North Pacific Gyre has become the focus of concerned scientists and environmentalists in recent years, because it has become a gathering place for massive amounts of ocean trash.
In 2008, a sperm whale washed up on a beach in Tomales Bay. Veterinarians from The Marine Mammal Center, led by Dr. Frances Gulland, Senior Scientist and member of the Marine Mammal Commission, performed a necropsy on the animal to learn more about how and why it died. They were horrified to find more than 450 pounds of ghost nets and other assorted trash in the stomach of the beast. The haul was extracted from the animal and brought back to The Marine Mammal Center, where it was put into storage until some useful purpose could be found for it. This is where Judith and Richard Lang came in, using 162 pounds of the ghost nets to form much of the body of the Ghost Net Monster. Other netting, which still maintains its bright colors, was extracted from the North Pacific Gyre by Project Kaisei, a Sausalito nonprofit that carries out an ocean cleanup initiative for the Ocean Voyages Institute. The netting is draped around an armature constructed out of recycled aluminum pieces by fabricator Alexander Treu.
Just behind the courtyard at The Marine Mammal Center is a small exhibit space with an artwork that complements the Ghost Net Monster. The piece is a collaborative work by artist Chris Jordan, of Electric Works, San Francisco, based on a photograph of a humpback whale by photographer Bryant Austin. It features a depiction of 50,000 plastic bags, the average number of pieces of plastic that can be found in each square mile of the oceans of the Earth. Taken together, the plastic bags form the overwhelming image of the humpback whale.
On November 29, The Marine Mammal Center held a reception for the artists, before the official opening day of the exhibit on December 1. It was a cold, rainy, and overcast day, perfect weather to display the ghostly sculpture that towers over the courtyard, eerily gazing at visitors with a threatening leer. Exhibit curator Anne Veh talked about the significance of the Ghost Net Monster and described the provenance of some of its more unusual pieces. The face was assembled out of trash found at Kehoe Beach, in the Point Reyes National Seashore, while the eyes are a type of eel trap floats commonly used by some fisheries. The teeth are Chinese fishing floats that rattle menacingly in the wind that sweeps in from Rodeo Beach.
The artists Judith and Richard Lang made a presentation about the exhibit in the education classroom of The Marine Mammal Center, in which they described how it all came together. "We are interested in the world," Judith explained. "Anyway it comes to us, and this time it came in the form of nine boxes of ghost nets." Judith went on to read In Gratitude for the Sperm Whale, a Native American poem that was a fitting tribute to the artwork. They showed a short video, which featured an image of Judith's wedding dress, an elaborate ensemble fashioned out of hundreds of plastic bags. Richard Lang went on to explain, "We throw nothing away, because there is no away."
Judith and Richard Lang spend many hours gathering material for their art at Kehoe Beach and they think of themselves as the "curators of the beach." They write a couple of blogs, Plastic Forever and One Beach Plastic, which tell the stories of their work and seek to spread awareness about the consequences of our throwaway culture.
The Marine Mammal Center is a nonprofit organization that rescues, treats, and rehabilitates sea lions, elephant seals, harbor seals, and other marine mammals. The Center rescues injured, sick, or orphaned animals in the waters of San Francisco Bay and along a 600-mile stretch of the northern and central California coast. They are a partner with the National Park Service and have a state-of-the-art facility in the Marin Headlands, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
The Ghost Below exhibit runs from December 1, 2012 through the end of 2013. The Marine Mammal Center is located in the Marin Headlands, at 2000 Bunker Road, just up the hill from Rodeo Beach. They are open to the public daily, 10:00AM to 5:00PM, except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. Admission is free; guided tours are available for a small fee.