Interview by T.K. Mills - All images copyright of the artists (Interviews have been edited for concision and clarity)
Amidst all the other problems plaguing our world, one may be forgiven for the oversight of forgetting about plastic pollution. But make no mistake, oceanic degradation is an ongoing issue with grim consequences. While impossible to determine, one study estimates that by 2040, there will have accumulated 600 Million Metric Tons of plastic in Earth’s oceans.
One artist is using their platform to bring attention back to the issue. Luke Rudman, a South African, performance & multimedia artist incorporates recycled plastics into his work, transforming himself into monstrous creations, symbolic of the horror the oceans face. We spoke with Luke to understand what inspired him to take such a strong environmental stance.
What initially inspired you to take an environmental stance? Why does your work focus particularly on oceanic pollution?
Themes of environmentalism have existed in my art since the beginning. While growing up, if someone asked me what my interests were, or what future I wanted to pursue, I would always have answered to the tune of something in environmental preservations or ecology. I am fascinated by the trash-to-treasure transformations that can exist in artmaking - thus the transition to using plastic pollution to create eco-art felt very logical and natural.
We are facing a multitude of environmental crises, plastic pollution being a significant one. To me, plastic pollution is symbolic of many of the ways in which we have negatively impacted the planet. Plastic pollution is a universal problem garnering much public attention. However, despite this widespread awareness, there is proportionally very little authentic engagement with the issue. We have become so comfortable with seeing plastic littering the world around us, much of our collective sense of urgency has been lost. In my work I take plastic-pollution and represent it in new, bizarre, and uncanny ways through performance to allow the audience to re-recognize the severity of the issue of plastic pollution.
Why did you pursue performance as a medium, as opposed to a more traditional artistic medium? What do you hope to convey with your art?
While I do engage in more traditional mediums - such as painting, sculpture, and photography - performance allows me to combine a multitude of mediums and techniques into one artwork. I am drawn to the immersive, experimental nature of performance. Performance can humanize an issue, which is particularly helpful when dealing with a topic such as plastic pollution and create a renewed sense of urgency surrounding the environmental crisis. I believe that art plays an important role in activism and has an ability to make overwhelming, universal problems feel accessible and personal in a way that hard data and traditional awareness campaigns cannot.
What are some environmental campaigns you’ve worked on in the past, and are there are any particular organizations you hope to work with in in the future?
I have created and performed work for Greenpeace’s ‘Protect the Oceans’ and ‘Pole-to-Pole’ campaigns as well as for Greenpeace Africa’s campaign against air pollution in Pretoria earlier this year. Last month I was invited to ‘take-over’ the Greenpeace Africa Instagram page where I released a series of 6 new works created for their Break Free from Plastic campaign over 6 days.
I have also worked with other environmental organizations, such as the Sustainable Seas Trust, and have presented the theory behind my approach of art-as-activism in both informal spaces and more academic settings such as the Commonwealth Litter Programme Conference in Cape Town in December 2019...
...There were plans to travel with the work and perform in spaces new to me - both within and outside of Africa. These have been put on hold until it is safe to continue due to the specific difficulties presented by 2020.
I am constantly looking for opportunities and platforms from which to share my work and highlight these issues. Because of the pandemic I have not performed work live since February 2020 and have been relying largely on digital formats and social media to share my work. However, I miss the directness and face-to-face dynamic of live performance. I think that is when the work is at its most impactful and I look forward to the day when that dynamic is possible and safe again.
During the anti-apartheid movement of the late 70s, a group of SA artists crossed into Botswana and formed the ‘Medu Art Ensemble’ and began producing protest posters. That form of creative collaboration strongly contributed to the anti-apartheid cause. Are you part of a group of artists in South Africa working with a common focus? Or do you prefer to work alone?
Much of my work is created collaboratively - I think that is the nature of performance art. Often the audience plays just as an important a role, as I do in giving the work significance. I also work with various photographers and models when I do large-scale performances such as my ’12 Plastic Monsters’ which was performed in 2019 and which comprised 12 separate pieces performed together. At the moment I tend to work alone, but I think that collaboration between artists is a powerful, beautiful thing.
We know that plastic in the ocean will outweigh fish in a few years. It is a sobering reality. You stated in a previous interview that, rather than holding only consumers responsible for the use of plastic, we should focus on industries and convince them to curtail their manufacturing. However, we know that unless we boycott the use of single use plastics collectively, many industries will continue to dodge the bullet. Do you believe that government should take a more active and effective role?
I think more carefully phrased and consistently enforced legislation would have a major, positive impact on the state of our environment. I think it is important to be a conscious consumer and to be aware of how the businesses you support impact the environment. However, I believe that it is equally, if not more, important to use our collective energy to put pressure on the businesses and governments which are exploiting the environment.
Your performance art is a creative means of conveying an important message. How should organizations innovate to reach a wider audience with environmental messages?
I am not sure that there is one specific answer to that question. I think that my art is effective as eco-activism because of its uncanny and surreal nature which offers an experience of the problem in a manner different to traditional protests or campaigns. This is partly why I enjoy performing my work in incongruous, busy, public spaces – because in these contexts, the work stands out like a sore thumb, the audience does not expect it and thus the work is received more authentically. The reality of the environmental crisis is not an ordinary or comfortable one, and I believe that the manner in which we bring attention to it should be equally as unusual, uncomfortable and even shocking.
How do you collect the plastic that you incorporate into your work, and how do you dispose of them afterwards?
I collect waste wherever I find it. Most of my collecting is done along my local coastlines and in the surrounding areas. I try to dispose of as little as possible. Much of my old work is disassembled and recycled into my new work. I like this method of perpetually reusing, rearranging, disassembling and reassembling and feel as though it adds depth to the running narrative in my work interrogating all things which are single-use, such as much of the plastic waste.
Do you believe ‘artivism’ is an effective means of encouraging positive change? What advice would you give to other artists who hope to bring about a better world?
Most definitely. Art has a unique power in activism that logic and statistics don’t have – it can humanize a problem more effectively than just straight information and make it accessible for people. When seeking inspiration, my advice would be not to look to what has already been done but to create something entirely novel. I think, given the complexity of the environmental crisis which we are currently facing, we need a broad variety of authentic approaches rather than a multitude of the same.
All images in this article are courtesy and copyright of Luke Rudman