A Day With the Langs
It was a temperate day last March when the three of us journeyed to Kehoe Beach to collect beach plastic-a weekly pilgrimage for Judith and Richard Lang since 1999. Each outing is really a meditation, but through this practice they have collected over two tons of plastic in eleven years. We park at the entrance to Kehoe Beach and, with bags in hand, begin the quarter mile walk to the ocean. The path is breathtaking, and all the while, Richard is sharing the local lore, and stopping here and there to take in the beauty.
I'm struck by my friends' love of the natural world and their commitment to raising awareness of the ubiquity of plastic trash and its impact on delicate ecosystems. Compelled to alert more people to this sobering reality, the Langs have found many ways of turning their collected plastic debris into works of art.
What I've come to appreciate and love about the Langs' approach to their artwork is its humor and playfulness and how it invites a curiosity to learn more. Most importantly, it inspires the question, What can we do?
Like the Langs, we can focus on one place. We can pick up plastic detritus one piece at a time and not purchase plastic in the first place. We can stop buying single-use plastic. We can engage politicians, schools, and corporations in problem solving. And we can vote with our pocketbooks. ?
What Can Happen
- R. Whittaker
Seeing the famous Ryoanji garden in Japan recreated from discarded plastic served as my introduction to San Francisco artist Judith Selby Lang. The introduction came via Reiko Fujii's documentary film of Lang's project.* Under Lang's direction, a group of friends installed the work in San Francisco's Civic Plaza as part of Earth Day activities in 2007. Created from over 6000 discarded white plastic bags, black plastic collected from Kehoe Beach in Point Reyes National Seashore and discarded plastic packing from consumer electronics, it's just one example of the many ways Lang has made art from the plastic debris that's an increasing environmental blight worldwide.
Not long after I'd seen the film, I made the acquaintance of Judith's husband, Richard Lang, owner and director of Electric Works Gallery in San Francisco. The Langs, I discovered, met on Kehoe Beach in 1999. Both were already in their fifties. They soon recognized in each other kindred spirits. Each had been collecting plastic debris for three years when they met and, between them, they shared over fifty years of experience as studio artists. Each had also been a long-time instructor at the College of Marin and UC Santa Cruz.
Running into each other at Kehoe Beach led to a powerful collaboration that some twelve years later has only become stronger. But, as they acknowledge, it took awhile for the two of them to sort out how to work together. Finding their way through this tricky passage deepened their relationship, and in the spring of 2004, they decided to take the leap into marriage.
As they write, "we combine our love of the natural world with our interest in science to produce an ongoing series of artworks about the oceans and the environment. We have presented our work in over 40 exhibitions in art galleries and museums." And they add, "We advocate listening to the small inner voices, often necessarily full of impracticality. Really it's the creative mind we're talking about. We are witness to what can happen if you follow an idea wherever it takes you."
While the Langs take considerable pains not to strike a didactic tone in their work, clearly their central hope is to help initiate some kind of counterforce to the worldwide momentum of the thoughtless use and dumping of plastics. In 2005 the United Nations Environmental Program reported that there are 46,000 pieces of visible plastic floating in every square mile of the ocean. And perhaps even more sinks to the bottom. While it seems the full extent of the problems being caused by the ubiquity of plastic waste in the environment is not really known, it's clear this growing presence is unhealthy for life in multiple and alarming ways.
We have all been sold the myth of disposable plastic, as they point out. We throw it away, but it stays with us and may ultimately irreparably alter the planet. Some of the plastic tossed away and returned, sea worn, on Kehoe Beach is from the 1940s when synthetics rose to replace vital materials for the war effort. The Langs report finding items that date from that era, intact and completely identifiable.
It often feels like the environmental problems are just too big, insurmountable, they write. But when the problems seem so dire, engagement with a creative activity can be empowering. As I've heard Sam Bower of greenmuseum.org say many times, we need to find creative, artful solutions that are delightful and engaging.
The Langs see it that way, too. Pleasure, not fear, is the prime motivator for human change, they argue. As they put it, "We collect plastic trash with the avid eye of anyone who collects. And, like any modern collector, we have set curatorial limits to what we collect. We collect only the plastic bits that wash out of the Pacific Ocean and onto Kehoe Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore. The beauty of just that one thousand yards and what we find there has become our way to bring into human focus the planetary dilemma of plastic pollution. We approach this above all with love; love of a place, a mid-life love story, the love of making beautiful things and the age-old love for collecting."
Reaction to the Langs' work has been unequivocal-ly positive. From the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco to the Corps of Engineers Bay Model, their work has inspired thousands of people to make their own creations from what they find on the beach. A beautiful little film of the Langs' work, One Plastic Beach by Tess Thackara, is available online at http://vimeo.com/18718794 and had its world premier at the Geography of Hope Film Festival in Point Reyes, CA February 2011. ?
More information can be found at http://www.plasticforever.blogspot.com/
Also at http://www.beachplastic.com/
And at http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/oceans/pollution/trash-vortex/