by Julia Robinson
A ghost net is a plastic fishing net lost or discarded at sea from a fishing boat. It continues to drift with the tides and ‘fish’ on its own – that is, to entrap and kill marine life – sometimes for many years. A net’s ‘ghostly’ ability to continue fishing by itself has given rise to its name. Ghost nets have been recognised as an international problem since the mid-20th century, and the evidence for the term ghost net dates from this period. It is not an Australianism. However, collecting and using ghost nets as a source of art material has resulted in terms that are uniquely Australian: ghost-net art, ghost-net weaving, and ghost-net sculpture:
The ghost net weavers collect abandoned materials, with the assistance of local rangers, and make them into nets and three-dimensional art works. ‘Kids and adults, and people from any skill level, seem to engage easily with ghost net sculpture’, Sue says. ‘It’s a crazy-looking thing with a really joyous quality to it. It’s made almost entirely from marine debris.’ (Cairns Post, 15 January 2014)
This creative response is happening in the small indigenous coastal and island communities of northern Australia that are most affected by the problem. In these communities many tonnes of ghost nets – the majority from South East Asia – wash up on beaches, causing pollution, damaging reefs, and killing wildlife such as marine turtles, dugongs, crocodiles, and sharks. Ghost nets can be up to several kilometres long.
Ghost-net art grew out of a competition in 2006 sponsored by the Carpentaria Ghost Nets Programme (now GhostNetsAustralia) that challenged entrants to come up with ways to recycle ghost nets. Objects such as furniture and bags were the result, and the winning entry was a woven guitar strap by artist Chantal Cordey. The idea caught on, and subsequently ghost-net weaving workshops were held in communities in the Torres Strait, the Gulf of Carpentaria, and on Cape York Peninsula.
Since then ghost-net weaving and ghost-net sculpture have taken off as new, especially indigenous, art forms that have become a source of artistic activity and income in a number of communities, as well as a way to raise public awareness of a significant environmental problem:
The first element of the artist’s strategy is to increase the incentive to remove ghost nets from the water by making them into a saleable commodity (they were previously dumped or burned when retrieved).The second aim is to raise awareness, through art, of ghost nets as an environmental issue. (Scott Mitchell and Erik van Sebille, The Conversation, 6 March 2014)
Ghost-net art can now be seen in exhibitions and galleries:
Guests were no doubt impressed with the opening night of The Long Tide: Contemporary Ghost Net Art at Artisan gallery, Fortitude Valley last Thursday evening. (Brisbane City News, 19 April 2012)
Artists from Erub Erwer Meta (Darnley Island) produce contemporary ghost net weavings, sculptures and vibrant screenprinted fabrics. The work celebrates island life and culture by translating traditional stories to a modern medium. … Their sculptural ghost net works have quirky characteristics, often with aquatic themes. (Nomad Art, Darwin, July 2014)
It is too soon to tell if this art practice will continue, or if the words relating to it will become established in the Australian lexicon. It is possible that ghost-net art, ghost-net weaving, and ghost-net sculpture may one day appear as entries in our dictionaries.