Brodie Neill’s Drop in the Ocean installation for the 2017 London Design Festival (LDF) is to be commended for taking on difficult but vital subject matter as its area of focus: the rise of ocean plastic. Currently, a million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute (and this number is increasing), giving rise to a figure of between 5m and 13m tonnes of plastic leaking into the oceans each year. New research shows that microplastics are now present in both sea salt an tap water sources from around the world.
Neill’s response to this might be described as poetic. Hosted in the vast pyramidal reception room at the Foster + Partners-designed ME London hotel in Aldwych, Neill has installed a large shallow dish formed from ocean terrazzo, a material produced from fragments of ocean plastic waste. Every 60 seconds, a droplet of water is allowed to fall 100ft from the ceiling of the space, dropping into the basin and sending soft ripples across its surface. These ripples are then extrapolated out into a graphic projection of rushing waves which are sent surging up the sides of the room. It is certainly dramatic and carries an admirable thirst for spectacle – LDF is a public programme, and a sense of pizzazz is no bad thing.
There are, however, issues. The journey of a single droplet of water has been explored at LDFs past – see Rolf Sachs’s The Journey of a Drop from the 2012 festival, which made clever use of dyes in order to better telegraph the droplet’s movement and subsequent dispersal – while other practitioners have explored the potential of ocean plastic as a material, most notably in Studio Swine’s Sea Chair. This sense of familiarity is not necessarily a conceptual problem (in fact, more designers should explore ocean plastic), but it does nonetheless slightly deaden the sense of awe and surprise that the installation is intended to evoke.
More problematic, however, is whether awe is the correct response to try and engender. The scale of global plastic pollution is staggering, and any attempt to bring home the magnitude of the issue and explore its ramifications – as in Jane Withers’s 2015 Project Ocean exhibition – is to be welcomed. In the case of Drop in the Ocean, however, it is doubtful whether anyone will leave the installation with a greater understanding of the issues it deals with or with any increased sense of urgency in coming to terms with the levels of pollution caused by consumerism and manufacturing – the awe that Drop in the Ocean seeks to provoke seems to be exclusively at its own sense of theatricality and artistry. It is encouraging that Neill is grappling with these issues, but a little critical sharpening in the presentation of his ideas might be welcome.