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La Jolla professor tackles dying oceans at global art exhibition

Five water-filled columns created by Pinar Yoldas of La Jolla for her "Hollow Ocean" exhibit
Five water-filled columns created by Pinar Yoldas of La Jolla for her “Hollow Ocean” exhibit represent the stages of death in the world’s oceans.
(Pinar Yoldas)

Pinar Yoldas of UC San Diego is among the artists invited to the 2021 Venice Biennale.

This summer, 112 artists and architectural teams from around the world were invited to the annual Venice Biennale in Italy to create artworks that answer the question “How will we live together?” One of the invitees is
Pinar Yoldas, a La Jolla resident and multidisciplinary art professor at UC San Diego.

Yoldas took an imaginative look at what the world’s endangered oceans might look like in 30 years.

Yoldas said she is honored to be chosen for the biennale, which was postponed from 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She hopes her installation — which will be on display in Venice through Nov. 21 — will have a long afterlife touring museums around the world, including California, and possibly San Diego, in future years.

“I built this installation to last,” Yoldas said. “I want it to have its own life cycle.”

UC San Diego art professor Pinar Yoldas of La Jolla is exhibiting "Hollow Ocean" at the 2021 Venice Biennale in Italy.
(Pinar Yoldas)

Yoldas remembers growing up on the Aegean coast of Turkey, drawing fish before she ever drew human figures. But after she moved to the United States to study art and neurosciences, she noticed that each time she flew home to visit family in Turkey, more of the sea creatures she grew up with had disappeared.

Then in 2009, she heard a TED Talk by ocean researcher Sylvia Earle, who made a wish that everyone use the skills they possess to help save the oceans before they’re depleted by climate change, pollution, overfishing and more, potentially by the year 2050.

For Yoldas — who teaches ecology in digital arts and 3-D and speculative design at UCSD — her skill is creating art that she hopes promotes curiosity and empathy. She said that technique is more effective in delivering a message about the dying oceans than “wagging your finger at people and making them feel bad about themselves. Once that happens, we shut down like a clam.”

The "plastic ocean" column in Pinar Yoldas's "Hollow Ocean" exhibit at the 2021 Venice Biennale.
The “plastic ocean” column, featuring an albatross skeleton with a heart filled with microplastics, is part of Pinar Yoldas’ “Hollow Ocean” exhibit at the 2021 Venice Biennale.
(Pinar Yoldas)

In 2013, Yoldas won international acclaim for her Berlin exhibit “An Ecosystem of Excess,” in which she sculpted imaginary sea creatures, birds and bugs that evolved to metabolize the microplastics that contribute to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Ever since, she has dedicated her art to eco-activism.

For the Venice Biennale, she created “Hollow Ocean,” an immersive walk-through exhibit that imagines an ocean empty of life in the year 2048. It features five water-filled glass columns that stand 16 to 19 feet tall, which she said creates the illusion of walking through an underwater kelp forest. Each column represents a different form of ocean death.

The “plastic ocean” column contains a stylized albatross skeleton with a heart filled with microplastics. The “phantom ocean” column has an assemblage of bones from sea creatures snagged in bottom-trawling ghost nets. The “dark ocean” column imagines the long-term impact of deep-sea oil drilling on sea life. The “acidification” column looks at how rising global temperatures are destroying coral reefs and shellfish species’ ability to create calcium carbonate shells.

The final column, “hollow ocean,” is surrounded by a staircase with steps labeled from 2031 to 2050. It shows how temperature and sea-level rise caused by global warming could gradually kill off marine life. It also imagines new man-made species that humans will create to fill the hollow oceans.

A view from above of Pinar Yoldas' "Hollow Ocean" exhibit at the 2021 Venice Biennale."
A view from above of UC San Diego professor Pinar Yoldas’ “Hollow Ocean” exhibit at the 2021 Venice Biennale.
(Pinar Yoldas)

Yoldas said that while the danger that marine species are facing is real, it’s not too late for humans to intervene to save the oceans, which are depicted on the exhibit floor with a Spilhaus projection, a global map created in 1942 by oceanographer Athelstan Spilhaus that makes the oceans the central features on Earth rather than the land masses.

“‘Hollow Ocean’ is not a horror movie,” Yoldas said. “I tried not to be super grim and dark. There’s still a lot we can do. I think that’s a hopeful and light-colored message.”

Besides looking for future locations to exhibit “Hollow Ocean” in 2022 and plans to create a “Hollow Ocean” art book, Yoldas is now creating exhibits for a medical museum in Copenhagen, Denmark, about how humans are impacted by microplastics, and a show in France that will blend ecology with science fiction.

“I believe I will work on ocean advocacy using arts and culture to turn this around following Sylvia Earle’s call for the rest of my career,” Yoldas said. ◆