Alejandro Durán, a Mexico City–born artist now based in Brooklyn, traveled to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve in Quintana Roo, Mexico, to create the piece Rayo (2018) that adorns the cover of Topic’s Earth, Wind & Fire issue. He constructed the river of yellow trash, shown snaking along the beach, entirely from flotsam found in Sian Ka’an. It’s a continuation of Durán’s ongoing series Washed Up, in which he collects beach trash, sorts it by color, and reconfigures it into land art before photographing it in situ. After documentation, he removes the trash and stores it for future projects and community work.
The artist—who has an MFA in poetry from the New School in New York—says both land art and poetry are major influences on the series, which he has been working on for eight years. “When I started, I saw a more finite ending to the work,” he explains, “but as larger quantities of garbage wash ashore, I feel called to continue it.”
Topic spoke to Durán about his labor-intensive process, the many iterations of his projects, and how collecting unspeakable amounts of plastic has changed the way he lives every day.
What are you commenting on with this work?
All the installations in this series are my attempt to mirror the reality of our current environmental predicament, where plastic flows like a river into our marine ecosystems.
What kinds of waste did you use for this installation?
The piece is comprised solely of plastic items that I found washed ashore in Sian Ka’an, Mexico’s largest federally protected reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. When I first visited the area in 2010, I was blown away not just by its beauty, but also by the amount of trash that I found washed up along its coast. You’ll find toys, toothbrushes, sandals, sporting equipment, helmets, buckets, crates, baskets, packaging tape, bottle caps, and more. Over the course of working on the project, I have found products from 60 countries and territories, from six continents, all washed up on this Mexican coastline.
This image resembles your 2011 piece, also called Rayo. Does it serve as a comment on that original piece?
This work serves as an evolution of that piece. I like to iterate; several of the pieces in the series have been reconstituted multiple times. In this version of Rayo, there is approximately three or four times as much plastic as in the original.
How has your own consumption of goods changed since you began the Washed Up project?
After starting, the first change I made was to buy my own reusable water bottle. I avoid single-use plastic whenever possible, and I have become hyperaware of the decisions I make as a consumer on a daily basis.
What are your own artistic inspirations for the series?
Poetry has had a tremendous influence on my work, and poems such as John Ashbery’s “The Painter” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Monument” have inspired this series in particular. I also admire the work of [land artist and photographer] Andy Goldsworthy and the monumental work of other land artists, such as Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt, Michael Heizer, and Walter de Maria. [Filmmaker] Alejandro Jodorowsky’s work as an artist and healer has also deeply inspired my creations.
Have you ever considered a Washed Up installation elsewhere in the world? You live in Brooklyn—have you ever done or considered a similar installation on a New York City beach?
I would like to do similar work in different parts of the world, but for now, Sian Ka’an keeps calling me back again and again.
“When I started, I saw a more finite ending to the work, but as larger quantities of garbage wash ashore, I feel called to continue it.”