Five Points Journal of Art and Literature, the award-winning literary magazine of Atlanta and Georgia State University, has published a portfolio of my ‘Prophetic Object’ photographic pieces in the Summer 2019 edition. The portfolio consists of full-color reproductions of 8 of my large-scale photographic works. Randy Malamud, Regent’s Professor of English, wrote a moving essay to accompany the works, and one of my photographs of a rare ‘plastiglomerate’ from Hawaii was used as the journal cover. You can download the portfolio by clicking here.
Essay by Randy Malamud
The sea has long been an inspiration for art, with its powerful colors and vast energies; its weathers, and winds, its waters containing marine creatures of all shapes and sizes. With visions of adventure and profit, people have always come to visit, live, and work by the seashores, continuing from beaches and ports out onto the oceans themselves. Along with travelers, commercial shippers, and aquatic harvesters whose business sends them to sea, the water attracts bathers and swimmers, subsistence fishers, artists, sailors, philosophers and dreamers who come to stare across an immeasurable expanse and think about the fascination of our world. How do we fit in? How we relate to the environment around us?
Pam Longobardi gets art from the sea, though somewhat ironically. She harvests the oceans for garbage—unfortunately, not a difficult thing to do—which forms the raw materials for her art. There is a profusion of garbage everywhere: a plethora of different kinds, colors, sizes, shapes, and compositions.The seas may seem so large that people believe we can dump garbage into them limitlessly, and their enormity will render our refuse invisible. But this is, simply, not so. These waters which cover our planet have become garbage dumps, and Longobardi’s work responds to that problem, that desecration. She takes photographs of garbage and seas, garbage in the seas.My initial response is enthusiastic: good, she is cleaning up the seas; she is removing these foreign objects, these ugly and toxic elements, from places where they are not supposed to be.
But how much of the seascape can she actually clean up? Obviously, only a tremendously small amount. Does that mean her art is ineffective? If the goal is to clean, to purify the places people have befouled, the photographs in these series, “Prophetic Objects” (the ones with the dark backgrounds) and “Evidence of Crimes” (white backgrounds), might not make much of a dent. But on the other hand, the cleaning or removal of even a single piece of refuse may make a difference to one bird, or seal, or whale, or shark, or plankton.And it may also make a difference to one person, and then to more people, who see Longobardi cleaning up (either in person, or via this project). Perhaps people, faced with the enormity of polluted oceans, cannot figure what to do. The solution, this art shows us, is pretty obvious: clean up. The cleaning is contagious: it multiplies.
But her photography is an object lesson: the objects Longobardi finds and foregrounds—pieces of dolls, bottle tops,abandoned toys,packaging, nets, Styrofoam— remind us how many tokens of our polluting presence cover the earth. Do her “portraits” of this material, set against the backdrop of the sea, the beautiful sea, the sea that would be beautiful if we stopped throwing in garbage . . . do they inspire us to be better, cleaner, smarter? Should artists engage with garbage? Perhaps we bridle at such an aesthetic. Let actual garbage collectors, and ecologists, and all the rest of us consumers, figure out how to handle garbage, how create a more sustainable ecosystem.We need artists— all the more in a garbage-strewn world—to celebrate beauty and ideals. In a dirty world, let the artist remind us of unsullied majesty . . . and of a world before human desecration.
Pam Longobardi’s art gives us the world as it is. She subverts the binary idea of beauty/garbage, for her garbage is indeed beautiful, provocative, resonant.The forms, the colors, the symbols and ideas that resonate in her photographs of garbage-in-the-world, are fully appropriate to the ethos of art, the vocabulary of art. Her photographs are engaging, fascinating, curious. They are unmistakably beautiful. (Do we deserve this beauty, after having ruined the beauty of our planet? Is the beauty crusted in irony? Even if it is, does that disqualify it from our aesthetic traditions?) “The drifter objects are beautiful because they hold a message, and a horror,” Longobardi says. “Only true beauty reminds us of its opposite, true ugliness, and to me, nothing is more ugly than the suffering of sea, land and air creatures impacted by plastic.”
These photographs represent a small part of many large and long-term projects that Longobardi has undertaken over the past decade, to find and spotlight the prevalence of “foreign objects,” pollution, plastics, in our world. Certainly she is not the only person who is saddened, and, I imagine, angry, because of what we have done to our
environment; she is not the only one telling us that we must change. But she has an approach, a style, a sense of mission in her art that uniquely catches our attention and demands an ethical engagement with the story, the danger, that her art reveals.
Oddly, Longobardi’s subjects are ensconced in the tropes of aesthetics. She labels her “Prophetic Objects” as if they were rare, valuable artifacts: specifiying the place and date of collection, and the collector. Is it perverse to fetishize this garbage? We want creativity, fantasy, ecstasy, intensity; we get garbage, yet garbage that is recontextualized and shown back to us.“Prophetic Objects” and “Evidence of Crimes” ask us to study these artifacts as deeply as we would any other relics dredged from the sea’s depths. Like the amphorae, jewels, and statuary fragments that marine archaeologists have discovered, these objects are a testament to our civilization.
Perhaps we get what we deserve.