The Collector

The Beauty of Waste

Her art is disturbing and beautiful at the same time: Dutch artist and photographer Thirza Schaap crafts bizarre sculptures from plastic waste washed ashore to raise awareness about marine pollution around the globe. We reached her on the Atlantic Ocean, on the beaches of the South African port city Cape Town

“Incredibly ugly and incredibly beautiful at once.”
C/O Vienna Magazine Die Schönheit der Verschwendung

Lara Ritter: In the Czech town Kutná Hora, there is a church adorned with thousands of bones from the deceased. A wonderful building that literally rose from the dead – it reminds me of your objects: impressive sculptures created out of plastic waste. 

Thirza Schaap: My sculptures are exactly like this church: incredibly ugly and incredibly beautiful at once. In my photographs, I emphasize their beauty in order to creep into the heads of observers. Shocking pictures like those of beaches covered with plastic are quickly cast aside. But beautiful pictures have the power to sneak into the mind and trigger emotions, which can encourage us to take action.

What’s so beautiful about plastic waste? 

The traces of time! I’ve always been enthralled by old things as I grew up in a modern Dutch neighborhood, which didn’t have any history. When I moved to Amsterdam at the age of 17, I was mesmerized by all the old buildings and second-hand markets. It always intrigues me to find plastic objects, which I can study and tell how long they have been traveling at sea. The washed-out colors, the sharp edges, the small shells that grew onto the surface – all the stories hidden in these details are fascinating. 

“Wasting time is very important.”
C/O Vienna Magazine Die Schönheit der Verschwendung

Your art originates from something that’s inherently pretty uncreative: waste. But is there a necessity behind it?

Wasting natural resources has absolutely none. Wasting time, on the other hand, is very important. In the Western hemisphere, we almost exclusively define ourselves through work because it is the cornerstone of the consumerism we need to finance. The more time I spent in South Africa, the more the feeling of having to be productive all the time disappeared. Here, quality of life means having the time to do whatever you feel like, be it hiking or meeting with friends.

“Garbage merges with its surroundings and becomes a sort of second nature.”
C/O Vienna Magazine Die Schönheit der Verschwendung

What is the most beautiful plastic object you ever found on the beach? 

Once I found a coral entangled in a fishing net; it already looked like a finished sculpture in itself, simply gorgeous. Another one of my favorite sculptures is a white bottle that I glued a shell on. You don’t see any difference between the two textures, even though one is plastic and the other a shell – garbage merges with its surroundings and becomes a sort of second nature. 

“Different forms, colors, and states – fascinating!”

Which stories do the plastic objects tell? 

On Instagram I’m in contact with people who also collect plastic waste and exchange with them about where the objects we find might come from. It’s a bit like a treasure hunt and solving riddles. If the brand name is still visible, it is easy to tell which countries they came from. I find water bottles from all corners of the globe and have even found shampoo bottles, which I remember from my youth. They’ve all taken on different forms, colors, and states – it’s fascinating!  

Holiday pictures of pristine white sandy beaches are firmly anchored in our minds… 

… because there where all of the tourists go, in front of all of the beautiful resorts, the beaches are cleaned meticulously by the staff – but that’s not the reality. The unkempt beaches around the world are full of plastic garbage. As long as we don’t see it, we just suppress the problem – but I want to change that with my art. 

“Will humankind survive?”
C/O Vienna Magazine Die Schönheit der Verschwendung

Can humankind still be saved? 

Once I asked a scientist if humankind will survive. He said “no” quite matter-of-factly. In 20,000 years we will have vanished from the Earth; others say the end will come even sooner. If you look at the long history of our planet, humans are just a short chapter. Nature is so full of beauty that I would almost be happy to make the sacrifice, if it let’s her blossom once again… 

Thank you for the interview!
Thirza Schaap is a photographer and artist. She lives in Amsterdam and Cape Town, South Africa. In 2017 she started her project Plastic Ocean in which she creates sculptures out of plastic waste and posts the images on her Instagram account (@thirzaschaap) to draw attention to the pollution of our oceans. One of her photos has already graced the cover of Vogue Singapore.