Oceanic Oddities: Artist images sea creatures rising from plastics pollution

In school, we learned that the Pleistocene Age was the era when elephants and saber-toothed tigers prowled the land and were hunted by ancient men armed with long spears. But we were never taught about the Plastiocene Age, and that is a problem!

There is an almost universal lack of awareness about how in the Plastiocene Age — plastic refuse in the form of disposable water bottles and plastic bags, etc. — has polluted the environment, especially our oceans.

This age of pollution by plastics is the most recent stage of the Anthropocene Epoch, the era which dates from the commencement of a significant human impact on the Earth’s ecology and ecosystems, that is, when the footprint of mankind began to alter the environment in ways that were not so good.

Artist/scientist Pinar Yoldas hopes to change all that. She explores the issue in a new exhibition, “An Ecosystem of Excess,” which opened Feb. 2 at the Calit2 Art Gallery in Atkinson Hall at UC San Diego.

The problem, according to Yoldas, is imperceptibility. People are just not aware of what is happening to the environment. Through her artwork, she hopes to inspire people to think about the repercussions of their actions and make better choices.

Yoldas said she grew up in Turkey where people were so poor they did not have enough of anything to create waste or pollution. She was completely shocked when she came West and saw our mass consumption through all the waste and trash we generate, and all the pollution we create. The experience affected her so much that she decided she would do something about it.

“It makes me so sad,” she lamented, “All the pollution ... our oceans have turned into a plastic soup!”

“Plastic, like from old water bottles,” she continued, “is the most abundant form of marine debris. Marine scientists first discovered it floating round and round with other trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a place in the ocean, whose mass is contributed to by all the nations of the world, and where the currents endlessly swirl garbage round and round. It’s huge — between 700,000 and 1.5 million square kilometers in diameter!

“A plastic soup has resulted, which I call The Plastisphere, and in less than 20 years, it has become part of the food chain in the oceans. Now, at the microscopic level, tiny sea creatures are living on plastic debris, interacting with it, and creating new forms of life!”

Jules Jaffe, a professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who studies the ocean on the microscopic level, backed up Yoldas’ claims. Jaffe was part of a panel that convened to discuss her art work at a recent Calit2 Gallery opening.

“The scientific fact is that all organisms in the ocean now have micro plastics in them,” Jaffe said. “Interactions with these micro plastics are creating random mutations on the genetic level, paving the way for the development of new creatures.”

Jessica Block, a professor of geomorphology, geology and paleoclimateolgy, was also present for the panel discussion. Block remarked, “In the future, geologists will be able to look back and find plastics in the segmentation and date precisely when we started polluting the oceans and the planet with plastic waste.”

Yoldas’ exhibition will run through March 17. The show is a combination of oceanography, art and speculative biology. Yoldas said she imagined, and then created with a 3D printer, some new sea creatures that may arise in response to all the plastic now in the ocean. She has these creatures floating in glass, aquarium-like cylinders through which air is bubbled. In the background, projected on a wall, and in the hallway on a large screen, explanatory videos play.

The exhibition is part of a larger series of work that uses art to help people think about what they’re doing to the environment. Yoldas’ pieces, which have created quite a stir, show throughout the world in galleries in Taiwan, Moscow, Istanbul, Berlin and Beijing.

She said one of her shows was motivated by the sobering fact that at least one million seabirds die each year from poisoning by plastics. In addition, at least a quarter of all seabirds have swallowed whole, intact bottle caps that are inside their systems, and which may eventually kill them.

Yoldas said she got to thnking, “What if the red dye from a Coca Cola bottle cap inside a seabird got into its blood stream and affected its DNA so the color of its feathers changed?” Would that create a new sub species?

To illustrate the possibility, she created an entire art show filled with strangely colored feathers made by way of her 3D printer.

Yoldas said she’s been a hard worker and a good student, studying both the arts and sciences her whole life. She gave her first solo art show when she was only five years old and won a bronze medal in the Science Olympics in Turkey when she was a teen.

Recently, she was a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow in Fine Art and a 2016 Future Emerging Arts and Technologies award recipient.

Yoldas’ educational background includes: a Bachelor of Architecture from Middle East Technical University, Master of Arts from Bilgi University, Master of Science from Istanbul Technical University, and a Master of Fine Arts from UCLA. She was recently awarded a Ph.D. from Duke University in Media Arts and Sciences, and is currently teaching at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

IF YOU GO: Calit2 Gallery is on the first floor of Atkinson Hall, 9500 Gilman Drive, on the UCSD campus. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday. Admission is free. For more about the artist, visit