What is beauty for? What is its source? Polish artist Alicja Wróblewska thinks about such things as she fashions fanciful sculptures, snaps photographs, and creates collages both analog and digital to explore the impact of plastics on ocean health. With a background in political science and commercial photography, Wróblewska lives in the tense space between the consumer societies we inhabit and the wreckage they leave behind.
She’s slipped away from work into the sunlight of a Warsaw park to speak to me, her long brown hair lifting in the wind as she walks with her phone, seeking shade. “It’s really hot in Warsaw right now,” she says as she settles under some trees, wearing a bright yellow top that holds on to the sunshine. It’s unusual, she says, with weeks straight in the high eighties. (Maybe not so unusual anymore. Days later, floods erase parts of Germany, killing dozens; and the fire season has already kicked off to a terrifying start in the American West.)
Out of her explorations on the utility of splendor come candy-colored compositions evoking bubble gum and jujubes. Disorienting arrangements of brilliant plastic beads that make you feel like you’ve just jumped into an underwater McDonald’s ball pit, green streamers swirling overhead. Dizzying double exposures of effervescent circles clustered in a fluorescent ring backgrounded by blue. Purple pellets suspended amid the tentacles of something like a sea anemone. These are whimsical, even fun.
The context of these images, however, is troubling. And it is their context that makes them more complicated than the sum of their aesthetically pleasing parts. In the Phytoplankton series, Wróblewska quotes oceanographer Andrew Barton, who found that 40 percent of the world’s phytoplankton, the microscopic organisms that form the foundation of the marine food system, have been killed off since 1950, a result of oceans that are absorbing more than 90 percent of the excess heat caused by humans burning fossil fuels. In Reef, she turns to climatologist Ken Caldeira, who predicts that the oceans may become more acidic in the coming centuries than they have been in the last 300 million years. Even as we contemplate these grave facts, she offers something pleasing to look at. What are we to make of that?
“We are now living in a very visual world,” she says. “If the visual is not eye-catching, then people won’t notice it. We are living in a world full of very nice pictures, but also very cruel ones.” She avoids such cruelty by rejecting the obvious: yet more images of trash strewn across a beach. But in many ways, she’s playing with the ways in which color functions in nature, to lure and to warn. (Consider the color red, for example.)
Looking at her commercial photography, there’s an eerie similarity to the environmental art she’s creating in her ocean series. Enticing plastic bottles filled with rosewater face tonic. Luscious red lipsticks spinning out of silos. Plants and balloons as background. Even her fashion photography is both glamorous and haunting, punctuated by double images and stark shadows.
Yet as she focused more on her environmental art, the commercial work became increasingly untenable. The day job I’ve pulled her from for our video call is with an NGO. She’s already left the lipstick porn to some other photographer who’s got the heart for it.
One word that Wróblewska uses to describe her work is anthropopressure. When I first read it on her website, the pop in the middle leapt out at me. Her images could so easily be accompanied by a pop-music soundtrack, images exploding like party favors, even as her liner notes track more like dirges.
The pop straddles anthropo (of people) and pressure, referring to the burden that companies and consumers impose on the planet with their existence, products, and purchases, the results of a culture of consumption that turns wants into needs into obsessions. The term anthropopressure has been around for a half century—since the first Earth Day, since researchers first started taking note of the plethora of plastics they saw tangled in the seaweed of the Sargasso Sea—its use peaked in 1992, went dormant, and is (unsurprisingly) on the rise again now.
Read or write about the degradation of this planet and you can’t help but trip over the word Anthropocene, the name proposed for the new geological epoch we’re in, in which the extent of human impact on the planet practically guarantees that our dross will be all over the geological record for eons to come. But, oddly, I haven’t seen this other term much, about the pressure we’re creating now. The human equivalent of that unfathomable force of the Earth’s surface, which can create diamonds and transform peat bogs into petrol.
But when the pressure bursts, we’re left with…confetti.
“I don’t know if it’s good to say,” Wróblewska tells me, as she dodges two drunk men who suddenly sit next to her on a park bench, or the blaring speakers of a passing anti-abortion truck, “but I’m against all the capitalistic mechanisms that are around.”
She almost apologizes when she brings up this water in which so much of humanity swims today. Although her past commercial photography was a direct offshoot of capitalism, her art photography is an attempt to negate it. Both still turn to the singular notion of how to create something irresistible. Yet she makes an impor-tant distinction.
“I wanted to connect those two things,” she tells me, speaking of nature and capitalism: “Nature is making something colorful because it is beautiful. The capitalistic world makes something colorful to make people want to buy it.”
These two means of beguiling operate in different time frames. A coral reef seems eternal, fish feeding on living corals, creating more fish, supporting even greater creatures that feed upon them: Each organism plays a role in a complex self-coordinating ecosystem. Taken together, something enduring emerges, such that it spans generations even while possessing an ephemeral elegance, vanishing in an instant should the reef die, as reefs have been doing lately at a staggering pace. Despite covering less than 1 percent of the ocean floor, coral reefs are one of the most diverse ecosystems found anywhere on the planet. They are also among its most threatened.
Meanwhile, up on land, the colorful appeal of consumer products dances across the eye, captures the ear with theme songs, entices us with the color palette stolen from a once-vibrant wild. Yet the charm is fleeting by design, lasting only a short while after the image is seen, the song is heard, the product code is scanned at the checkout counter, even as all this stuff, with all its packaging, remains. The bottled-up pressure to purchase, to acquire, to consume is released—but what is there to show for it? An ocean floor littered with plastic confetti, the party already over, even as it rages on.
What is beauty for? In Wróblewska’s case, to show us how the medium is not always the message. A bewitching photograph can seduce us to buy plastic bottles filled with promises. But it can, she hopes, also seduce us into contemplating something beyond the quick rush of consumerism, and compel us to work toward reviving a natural world that can actually thrive again.