Artist and illustrator Tan Zi Xi’s work mixes wry, playful humor with the realities of ocean pollution. Her early collection, “An Effort Most Futile,” showcases cartoonish scenes of overwhelming environmental challenges. More recently, her large-scale installation of recycled oceanic debris—“Plastic Ocean”—was on display at the Singapore Art Museum from May to August 2016. Composed of over 20,000 pieces of refuse suspended motionless, “Plastic Ocean” is an eerily immersive reminder of the permanence of our impact on the oceans.
How long have you been an artist? How would you describe your work and your artistic background?
My background is in illustration, and I have been an illustrator for about six years now after graduating from Central Saint Martins in London. Between illustration and art, I feel it is difficult to draw a line. With both, I try to create works that are purposeful and communicate a subject that I feel strongly for, which could be in the form of illustration, sculpture, or installation.
What sparked your mission to raise awareness through your art? Is there a particular moment or realization that inspired you to focus on the relationship between the natural and built environments?
In 2008, I created “An Effort Most Futile,” a series of illustrations that communicates and shares my concerns about the environment. Although I am very concerned about the environment and truly wish to be part of the solution, I feel it isn’t as easily done as commonly advocated. Pollution and the destruction of our environment occurs on a very large scale; rescuing it is really beyond me as an individual, and this was my initial motive when I created the illustrations.
In 2015, I found the perfect opportunity to revisit this subject when the Singapore Art Museum invited me to be part of Imaginarium: Under the Water, Over the Sea. Inspired by “An Effort Most Futile,” I wanted to recreate a physical manifestation of the Pacific Garbage Patch, where children and adults could experience being immersed in a space covered with trash, simulating the environment of the ‘plastic pool.’
What’s your process like? How do you find inspiration, how long does a piece take, and when do you determine it’s complete?
My inspiration mainly dwells in ‘misadventures’ and ‘the grotesque.’ I have a fascination with dark humor and tend to have a strange slant to most of my work when I push to exaggerate some of the themes. I am always intrigued by unusual experiences and the oddballs of society. Sometimes I pick up on interesting news articles or I come across some documentaries that lead on to more research, and then I build a thought around that. My personal mishaps help shape the quirky humor in my work. Some works may take as long as a year or more to conceptualize and complete; some are too painful to be completed.
What is one of the most memorable experiences of your professional career as an artist and ocean/environmental advocate?
I think one of the most memorable experience was the process of creating Plastic Ocean, as it was rather painful in many ways. Apart from the sheer amount of work when it came to collecting, cleaning, and organizing 26,000 pieces of discarded plastics for the installation, the process of receiving and learning just how much waste we produce daily was rather stressful. When we start to study and be conscious of our waste, it will hit home just how unsustainable our culture of convenience is. This revelation is life-changing.
What draws you to the oceans, specifically?
It started when I first read about the news of the Pacific Garbage Patch in the papers when I was still a student living in London. It is incomprehensible and alarming to learn that our human waste had been carelessly dumped into oceans and was affecting the marine creatures greatly. This sparked the series “An Effort Most Futile,” back in 2008.