Canadian Artist Von Wong Is Making the Climate Crisis Unforgettable

Photo © Von Wong

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Art is communication; it allows people from all across the globe to communicate with each other via images, sounds, and stories, shaping the lives and opinions of individuals whose paths may never cross.

In this way, artists have the power to translate experiences across space and time, and can use that impact to inspire, influence, and educate. Art, as well, is a powerful tool for social change, making a statement that rouses emotions and rallies cries for change in those who encounter it.

Through never-before-seen installations that use everyday materials to share critical messages, Canadian artist Benjamin Von Wong simultaneously shocks and inspires audiences worldwide. His work has been featured in magazines, digital publications, and has set a Guinness World Record for most materials used to create his installations.

A Symbolic Statement

Single-use plastic consumption increased by 250-300 percent during the pandemic, a jarring figure pointing to just how much harmful plastic is used and thrown away.

This month, the United Nations Environmental Assembly comes together to discuss a global plastic treaty, making it a critical time to bring awareness to the problem of plastic overconsumption and put pressure on world leaders to get the situation under control.

For Von Wong, an artist and activist who is always looking for unique ways to bring attention to traditionally “boring” topics, this message is best spread through the shocking and awe-inspiring art installations he has become known for. In 2021, he created a three-story-tall structure called #TurnOffThePlasticTap, a giant faucet leaking plastics into different settings.

In a case study introducing this installation and sharing the inspiration behind it, Von Wong shared: “I’ve created campaigns from 168,000 plastic straws, 18,000 plastic cups, and 10,000 plastic bottles. But those projects only raised awareness for individual objects and never pointed to the root cause of the problem: Plastic production.”

Von Wong partnered with the Embassy of Canada in France to build the art installation and raise awareness of the dangers of plastic overconsumption.

“This was my chance to careate more than  piece of art,” the artist shared. “It was my chance to create a symbol inviting the world to #TurnOffThePlasticTap.”

Photos © Von Wong

A Plastic Takeover

Once the faucet was complete, Von Wong and his team took their equipment to Oka Beach and set everything up again, this time using a team of dancers to create a visual representation of drowning in plastic. The faucet was set up as close to the water as possible, making a very literal statement about how plastic is polluting the ocean.

In perhaps one of the most striking photos, the team took to a recycling facility to capture a little-known but extremely significant message: only ten percent of plastic is recycled. Von Wong positioned the dancers to look as though they were trying to climb the downpour of plastic in an effort to catch as much as possible—resulting in a perfect metaphor for how little plastic is truly recycled.

The installation has made headlines worldwide, travelling to France, Miami’s Art Basel, and soon to museums across the globe. Each recreation of the plastic tap furthers the all-too-important message that inspired Von Wong to create the faucet in the first place, and brings attention to how crucial it is to #TurnOffThePlasticTap. The artist encourages everyone to make the faucet their own and use it to inspire their own art pieces, further spreading the message.

Behind the Faucet

A project of this magnitude and this messaging required an open mind and a creative approach to recycling, pulling unconventional materials from equally unconventional sources.

“I wanted to embody the spirit of ‘reuse’ for this entire project. That meant finding folks that believed in the same,” said Von Wong. “The kind folks at Delsan-Aim provided us with access to a building that was about to be demolished so that we could scavenge pieces of ventilation duct to bring our art installation to life.”

Von Wong and his team collected hundreds of pounds of galvanized steel ventilation ducts in different shapes and sizes. It was then cut, painted, and adapted to fit a manual forklift.

“We found a local fabrication shop called Gaufab Inc. that helped us transform over 200lbs of ventilation duct into a giant faucet that would fit safely onto the SLC-24—a forklift that could be found almost anywhere in the world,” Von Wong continued. “In less than 60 seconds, the forklift could reach a maximum extension with a capacity of 650lbs!”

The faucet itself was made from two parts: the upcycled ventilation duct and solid steel reinforcement. Next, Von Wong and his team shifted their attention to the plastic itself, which would be spilling from the faucet. They sorted the plastic into three different categories: transparent, mixed, and black—the latter of which is unrecyclable in most places.

The plastics were held together with rope made from plastic bottles; a method shared with Von Wong by fellow artist Aurora Robinson, who said that PET plastics could hold a lot of weight when kept thick enough. With an idea to push reusability as far as it could go, Von Wong and his father created a machine that could convert 2L plastic bottles into strings. Within days, the team converted over 100 plastic bottles into rope, spending hours sorting and threading each piece together.

Unforgettable Storytelling

This isn’t the first time Von Wong has used his incredible storytelling skills to convey a message about environmental protection.

When international coffee chain Starbucks decided to remove straws from their stores, they turned to Von Wong to design and create an unforgettable installation showcasing the damage that plastic straws can do to the world’s oceans.

The project, titled the Strawpocalypse, was made from 168,000 straws collected off the streets of Vietnam to raise awareness about single-use plastic pollution and its impact on the world’s oceans. The sculpture stood over 3.3m high, 8m long, and 4.5m wide, depicting a parting plastic sea that individuals were encouraged to walk through.

“The installation is meant to depict the parting of the plastic ocean in an attempt to engage and encourage individuals to say no to single-use plastics, especially straws,” Von Wong explained. “They’re used for just minutes but take centuries to disappear. Hundreds of millions of straws are used every single day around the world. We wanted to intercept just a fraction of them to show how these tiny little things add up into a huge problem.”

We are constantly surrounded by so much plastic that it’s hard to imagine something as simple as a beach utterly free of waste or even leaving a supermarket without any pre-packaged items. The worst part is that because plastic lasts so long and does not decompose in the same way organic material does, almost every piece of plastic ever made still exists today and will for at least 500 years. Even then, when plastic does break down through repeated exposure to sunlight, it still exists as tiny microparticles that make their way into our oceans, animals, and bodies.

“With more than a truckload of plastic flowing into the ocean every 60 seconds, we need to take our heads out of the sand and start looking beyond beach cleanups,” Von Wong said. “If we don’t do anything about it, it is my nephew’s generation, and every generation after that will have to live with the consequences. Unless we start by turning off the plastic tap, the problem will only worsen—regardless of how many cleanups we perform!”

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