20,000 pounds. of recycled materials used in the installation of Burning Man

Photo: Matt Emmi/Studio Jen Lewin

After a two-year hiatus, Burning Man has returned, and with it the innovative art installations the festival is known for. This included an interactive LED sculpture made from recycled ocean plastic and glass by an artist-engineer Jen Lewin. the last ocean is a large sculpture and light platform made from 10,912 pounds of recycled plastic and 9,268 pounds of recycled fiberglass and composites from the coastal beach communities of South Africa.

Visitors were invited to interact with Lewin’s installation, as 250 nested platforms of the last ocean illuminated over 70,000 RGB LED lights in millions of colors as people moved through space. As the users moved, the colors swirled, catalyzing the dynamic experience of the artwork and representing the organic and powerful nature of the ocean. As the weekend progressed, the platform lights began to dim, inviting visitors to remember their impact on the ocean.

A bear named Ursa Minor stands at one end of the platform. Its presence is a reminder of the Arctic, which is appropriate given that Lewin’s installation was inspired by images of the Ross Sea in Antarctica. By day, the bear’s recycled materials shine brightly, and by night, they take on the fantastic colors of the platforms.

Fortunately, the last ocean has a life beyond Burning Man and will be set in several different locations. We spoke with Lewin about this, and the challenges of creating an installation from 100% post-consumer materials. Read on for the exclusive My Modern Met interview.

How did you come up with the idea for the installation?

In 2012, I first conceptualized the last ocean sculpture after meeting John Weller and viewing his book The Last Ocean: Antarctica’s Ross Sea Project: Saving Earth’s Most Pristine Ecosystem. Weller’s photos included a series of beautiful images collected from the Ross Sea in Antarctica that touched me deeply.

The vast ice-fractured landscape left me with a sense of epic beauty and awe, but also a deep protective concern for the future of the landscape. I was both inspired by the natural beauty of the Ross Ice Shelf, but also terrified of the melting and potential destruction of such an important landscape.

Ocean plastic sculpture by Jen Lewin

Photo: Matt Emmi/Studio Jen Lewin

the last ocean has been in the making for a long time. What was the hardest part of bringing your vision to life?

It took me over 10 years to find a way to authentically create the last ocean in a way that felt socially conscious and authentic at work. The hardest part of this ended up being finding manufacturers who would manufacture with large percentages of post-consumer recycled materials. Most American and European plastic manufacturers use post-consumer materials, but only in very small percentages.

Few manufacturers were even willing to talk to my team and me when I insisted that the last ocean be created from 100% post-consumer content. After two years of rejection, we finally found Ocean Plastic Technologies in Durban, South Africa who were willing and open to take on the project.

Jen Lewin's Last Ocean

Photo: Matt Emmi/Studio Jen Lewin

Can you tell us a bit more about the collaborators who helped you find your materials?

I started working with Ocean Plastic Technologies in 2021, which helped us source all ocean and ocean plastics, clean and sort them by hand, and then use them to make our panels. In January 2022, Mikael Flores-Amper, Senior Designer and Project Manager at Jen Lewin Studio, and I flew to South Africa and directly contributed to this process. It took several attempts to determine the correct melting temperatures, correct oven design and correct mold shape to create our 100% post-consumer surfaces.
The vast majority of plastics used in the work include blue bottle caps (which create swirls of blue particles in the tops), clear water bottles (which make up most of the LED diffusion material), and white containers (such as milk jugs), which form the rest of the structure.

Jen Lewin's Last Ocean

Photo: Matt Emmi/Studio Jen Lewin

How did it feel to see the facility active and running at Burning Man?

Burning Man is an exciting place to create work like the last ocean for two important reasons. First, the landscape itself is a barren, open, expansive playa, which creates an unusual and epic backdrop or backdrop for a work of this scale. I have few opportunities to install life-size works in an open landscape.

Second, Burning Man attendees have a high level of open and expected engagement—few “tip-toe” guests. The sculpture is truly “played”, often in an unexpected way. My team and I watched participants dance on the job, picnic on the job, sit and watch the job, do yoga on the job, play tag on the job, do handstands on the job, do napping on the job, kissing loved ones on the job, etc. We’re often surprised, excited, and maybe even inspired by how Burning Man participants interact with their surroundings.

The last ocean lit up at night on the Playa

Photo: Matt Emmi/Studio Jen Lewin

Why do you think it’s important for artists to engage with social issues as part of their creative process?

For me, “Art” and “Life” are entirely linked. There is no fringe condition where my experience as a human on this planet differs from my experience conceptualizing and constructing art. My life is filled with social engagement; community and society depend on where we live. My work follows – it is committed to our society and our community, and it depends on our planet and our environment.

Jen Lewin's Last Ocean sunset at Burning Man 2022

Photo: Matt Emmi/Studio Jen Lewin

What do you hope people take away when they discover the installation?

There are many different ways to think about climate change, precious resources (like the Ross Ice Shelf) or planetary issues like existing plastic waste. On plastic waste, although ultimately I believe humans need to end the appalling levels of production of single or limited use plastic, in the meantime we will also need a solution for the hundreds of thousands of tons of plastic already in the ocean.

I hope that transforming my practice to more closely engage and pay attention to the preciousness of our planet can help set an example for other artists, makers, etc. I do not promise a solution, but I push to activate the engagement, awareness and open communication that I hope can lead to the search for solutions and a better future.

Jen Lewin's Last Ocean

Photo: Matt Emmi/Studio Jen Lewin

What are the plans for the installation now that Burning Man is complete?

The installation will visit downtown Detroit, then Arizona, and the Exploratorium in San Francisco in November.

Jen Lewin: Website | Facebook | instagram

My Modern Met has granted permission to feature photos by Jen Lewin Studio.

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