For the past two decades the British artist Stuart Haygarth has been creating beautiful installations, often in the form of chandeliers, from marine detritus collected across Britain’s beaches.
To mark Earth Day on 22 April 2023, and ahead of two of his works being offered at Christie’s in May, we spoke to him about the source of his inspiration.
You describe your work as employing the ‘flotsam and jetsam of everyday life’, which is reminiscent of Duchamp’s ‘readymades’. Where did this idea stem from?
Stuart Haygarth: There is an association with the readymade, but where Duchamp employed a single item — in his most famous case, a urinal — my works are a collection of found objects which have been modified and arranged in a way that changes their appearance.
I started doing this around 2004. I used to go down to Dungeness, on the Kent coast, with my dog, and I started noticing interesting objects washed up on the beach. I began collecting them, building up an archive in my studio, categorising them by colour, utility or material.
In 2005, the first Tide chandelier evolved from arranging some of these pieces of translucent plastic so that light would travel through them. The work’s spherical shape is a reference to the Moon, which affects the tides washing up this debris onto the coastline.
I’m also interested in the diversity of the objects represented in each work, thinking about how they came to be on a beach — whether it’s a child’s spectacles or a shoe, for instance. They each have an interesting narrative, and the finished work is an archive of these stories.
Would you say that your work is about making something beautiful from rubbish that has been created by human laziness?
SH: Yes. It can be seen as either a celebration of humanity’s amazing manufacturing abilities or as symbolic of an environmental catastrophe, where all this plastic is being put in the ocean and is damaging ecosystems. But when I started doing this work, back in 2004, the issue of plastic in the oceans wasn’t really a concern — not like it is now, anyway.
Do you go looking for certain types of waste, or does what you discover dictate the project?
SH: I generally pick up what’s of interest to me. There is a lot of stuff I leave because it’s not aesthetically interesting. Everything has to have some degree of visual appeal. But on a good day of collecting I will be hauling 30 kilograms of rubbish on my back.
I bag it up and bring it back to my studio, then lay it all out on the floor. Because I have several projects on the go at once, I will separate the pieces into piles that I can use for each one. I also have a huge storage container in Essex filled with lots of boxes of the stuff.
Has your work always involved an element of collecting?
SH: Yes, I was a photographer for a few years, then gave that up to become an illustrator. But my illustrations were collage-based, so I was finding objects and printed material then collaging it together to tell a story. I’ve always collected things since I was a kid, but that’s when it became professional.
I used to do books and magazines and album covers in this Joseph Cornell style of collage. I was also doing still-life photography, collecting interesting pieces of textured wood, plates and so on, so I’ve always collected stuff for my work.
Are there particular beaches you visit to collect marine plastic?
SH: I own a campervan and always go for a minimum of three days at a time, or sometimes for a whole week. I once did a 450-mile-long coastal walk from Gravesend, where the River Thames meets the sea, to Land’s End in Cornwall, collecting plastic for a 2012 commission for the offices of the charity Macmillan Cancer Support. I did this in several trips, walking for around a week at a time, collecting my way along the coast. It was an amazing journey.
Does each work start as a defined image in your head, or do you experiment as you build it?
SH: I do a lot of sketching until I’m happy with how the final work will look. Then I’ll figure out the technical aspects through scale drawings on graph paper. A lot of time is also spent preparing the objects: each one has to be cleaned thoroughly, then have a hole drilled through it.
Next I create a ceiling panel with eyelets, then begin threading pieces of plastic onto lines made from micro steel cable, which hang from them. I work with two assistants, fitting the work together from the centre outwards like a giant jigsaw puzzle.
You have to plan ahead, placing small objects next to large objects so that nothing touches and everything looks like it’s floating in space. It takes the three of us about one week to build each piece.
Why did you decide to create lights, rather than any other form of sculpture? Is the illumination important?
SH: The lighting element comes from my background as a photographer, where I learnt a lot about how light affects different materials and creates ambience in a room. That’s why I often work with transparent plastics — or other materials, like glass — so that light can pass through it to create certain effects.
Where did the idea for Drop come from?
SH: Back when I made Drop, in 2007, airport security was very strict about not taking liquids through. I’d been to lots of airports and was thinking about the volume of wasted plastic as people put their half-drunk bottles in the bin, and I wanted to create something that drew attention to this problem.
Stansted Airport in London agreed to give me a week’s worth of its plastic-bottle waste, so I drove a big van there and loaded it up. I only used the ends of the bottles, because they’re the most interesting, moulding-wise. That bit is quite sculptural. I used thousands of these ends to create the chandelier in the shape of a water droplet.
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What are you working on at the moment?
SH: More plastic works. I am creating more editions of some previous works, and have been collecting lots of black plastic, which is often a product of the automotive and electronics industries, and the most commonly found colour on British beaches. I am going to make a black version of Tide to go alongside the coloured and clear editions.
Christie’s Environmental Impact Report 2022, prepared in association with Accenture, indicates that Christie’s is on track to reduce its global carbon emissions by 50 per cent and to achieve net zero by 2030