It was on an afternoon in January 2019 that Benjamin Von Wong took your correspondent to his Airbnb apartment in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City to show a house full of discarded straws and plastic bags, the beginnings of his “The Parting of The Plastic Sea” project.
The art installation built from 168,000 straws which opened on January 25 is the result of two weeks spent in Ho Chi Minh City with the goal of raising local awareness of the damage that plastic, especially straws, is wreaking on the environment.
|Benjamin Von Wong walks through his art installation titled The Parting of The Plastic Sea in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Anna Tenne/Supplied by Von Wong
Wong’s days in Ho Chi Minh City were one hundred percent focused on plastic – from sitting on the back of trucks filled to the brim with discarded plastic bags he bought from scrap dealers, to washing and sorting straws with volunteers, and working with builders to design the installation’s structure.
After weeks of hard work, the Canadian photographer added a remarkable point to his profile: the creation of “the largest drinking straw sculpture (supported)” in the world, named “The Parting of The Plastic Sea.”
The ‘supported’ note means the sculpture is supported with materials like wood, lights, and plastic bags, Wong explained.
|A certificate recognizing The Parting of The Plastic Sea as the largest drinking straw sculpture (supported) by Guinness Word Records, as shown by Benjamin Von Wong
The 32-year-old has poured his heart into “The Parting of The Plastic Sea,” one of many social impact projects he has involved himself in over his career.
A 'crazy' artist
Wong describes himself as a “crazy guy with funny ideas that somehow builds weird things.”
And his “weird things” are indeed weird. A giant closet with 3,000 clothing items in Egypt, a huge waterfall made from abandoned clothes in Cambodia, and the 3.3m-tall waves in “The Parting of The Plastic Sea” from discarded straws in Vietnam certainly are not what most people think of when they picture “art.”
But each of the projects was made with one purpose in mind: to show how human beings are damaging the environment.
After graduating with a degree in mining engineering, Wong spent three years working in the industry before getting bored and opting for a career in photography.
That was when he first started involving himself in “crazy projects," he explained.
The Chinese-Malaysian-born photographer is also known for his hyper-realistic art style.
In 2014, Wong rose to fame thanks to his sensational photos of a model 25m underwater in Bali.
|A photo from Shark Shepherd, the series that helped Benjamin Von Wong gain his reputation
After that, Wong drew attention from brands in need of stunning promo photos for their products, including Nike, Wacom, and Huawei.
“Even though the money was good, I still wanted to do something different that wasn’t just about money,” he recalled.
“I decided to turn my focus to social impact projects in 2016."
In fact, money has never been the goal, the artist insisted.
“I think it's very important not to chase money,” he told Tuoi Tre News in an interview.
“You have to chase great work, do the things you believe in, and do them with people who like what you do. I think the combination of these three things can lead you to getting paid to do what you actually enjoy doing.”
'Mermaids Hate Plastic'
Wong’s work lies on the intersection of fantasy and photography and combines everyday objects with shocking statistics to send out messages about the problems he tackles.
One of the projects which helped him make a name for himself was “Mermaids Hate Plastic,” in which he captured a model donning a mermaid costume and lying in the middle of waves made from 10,000 bottles borrowed from a waste management center.
The project was generated from the idea that “if the average American uses 167 plastic bottles a year, in 60 years they will have used 10,000 plastic bottles,” Wong explained.
|A photo from Benjamin Von Wong's Mermaids Hate Plastic project
In 2018, Wong teamed up with Dell to produce a series of photos focusing on electronic waste.
“Every single day, 142,000 computers are thrown away in the U.S. alone, meanwhile, only 15 percent of e-waste is recycled globally,” he said.
The photographer combined the statistics into his project using 4100 lbs of e-waste, the approximate amount of e-waste an American might use over their lifetime.
|A photo from Benjamin Von Wong's series of e-waste
He once brought a truckload of plastic bottles, equivalent to the amount of plastic waste discharged into the ocean every 60 seconds, to a beach, tied them up, and took a photo collection to reflect the statistics.
“Our hope with this project was to highlight that unless we stop plastic at the source, cleanups and recycling alone will never be enough,” Wong said.
|One of Benjamin Von Wong's photos taken to exemplify the statistics that every 60 seconds, a truckload of plastic bottles is discharged into the ocean
In April last year, he continued his work by building a giant waterfall of abandoned clothing at a bankrupt garment factory in Cambodia to show the impact of fashion on the environment.
“After 1.5 years of work to bring this project to life, we realized one thing: every one of us has the power to simply wear fewer clothes.”
|Benjamin Von Wong's photo captures the giant waterfall of abandoned clothing he made at a bankrupt garment factory in Cambodia.
From photographing to inspiring
Recently, the Canadian man began a new artistic journey he hoped would help him create a stronger effect on viewers by letting them come and witness his work in person, not just through photos.
The artist expected to encourage viewers to take pictures and spread the message themselves.
His first installation piece was a giant closet packed with 3,000 items he created in Egypt late last year.
“Telling people to ‘not buy more stuff’ is a relatively impossible mission, so I needed a slightly different approach,” he explained his idea.
“Why not try to tackle the problem through emotions by simply showing people how many clothes they accumulate over the course of their lifetime?”
|A picture featuring the giant closet with 3,000 clothing items in Egypt Benjamin Von Wong posted on his blog
According to Wong, explaining environmental problems like climate change and conservation is difficult, and art is a great medium because it uses fantasy to explain new concepts.
“At the end of the day I'm an artist, I can't create the solution and I can't create policy, but my hope is that my art inspires people who can make a difference,” he said.
“That's all I'm trying to do. All I can do is make pretty stuff to draw people’s attention to the painful facts we have to face."
The artist also admitted that his work is not always fully supported.
For instance, “The Parting of The Plastic Sea” garnered mixed opinions.
Some people accused him of purchasing new straws to create the installation, some were concerned about how the art piece would be handled after the show, and others complained that plastic pollution problems cannot be solved through art.
|Volunteers join to help build The Parting of The Plastic Sea in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Anna Tenne/Supplied by Von Wong
“I think it's fairly unlikely that people will go around and collect hundreds of thousands of straws and encourage people to use more,” he responded.
“The thing is there are so many being used and I think it's important to try. If this installation ends up having a ton of negative comments then I have no problem admitting that there was something I hadn't foreseen.”
“That is kind of the nature of art, you create it and it will resonate with some people very deeply while others just see a pile of plastic."
However, Wong said that thousands of comments on his videos, photos, and blog have been “overwhelmingly positive.”
“Actually out of all of my projects, this has been one of the most positive,” he proudly shared told Tuoi Tre News.
“I find that cynics are good to use as a compass, a learning experience to gauge how well the message you hoped to deliver correlates with the way it's received, but besides learning from the feedback to recalibrate future projects, I don't delve too deeply into individual criticisms,” he shared.
The artist added that while looking for a place to permanently display “The Parting of The Plastic Sea,” he and his team have received interest from a couple different countries and companies; however, nothing is confirmed as it has only been weeks of the display and there are a lot of questions about shipping, costs, timeframes, and more.
“We have also received a couple different offers for eco-friendly(er) ways to dispose of it including local incinerators, and some international recyclers but we have not explored those options too deeply because they are really last choices. There are lots of options slowly knocking on the door," Wong revealed.