As a sculptural object, the shipping container has obvious associations with minimalist sculptors such as Donald Judd, Carl Andre or Sol LeWitt. The inherent inherent physical qualities of the ‘ready-made’ container are key interests for me, which are enhanced by the etching of time and space onto their internal and external fabric.
Humble materials such as metals, industrial plywood, concrete and color-impregnated Plexiglas became staples of his career.
Carl Andre: Equivalent VIII
object: 127 x 686 x 2292 mm sculpture
‘The sensation of these pieces was that they come above your ankles, as if you were wading in bricks’, Andre has commented. ‘It was like stepping from water of one depth to water of another depth.’ This was the last in his series of Equivalent sculptures, each consisting of a rectangular configuration of 120 firebricks. Although the shape of each arrangement is different, they all have the same height, mass and volume, and are therefore ‘equivalent’ to each other.
(From the display caption August 2004)
(C) Carl Andre/VAGA, New York and DACS, London 2002
“Sol LeWitt (born 1928 in Hartford, Connecticut) is an artist linked to various movements including conceptual art and minimalism. His mediums are predominantly painting, drawing, and structures (a term he prefers in opposition to sculpture).”
“Sol LeWitt‘s frequent use of open, modular structures originate from the cube, a form that has influenced the artist’s thinking since he first became an artist.”
As much as the modernist minimalist sculpture has similarities to shipping containers, it does not seem to engage with all the meaning attached to them; a container is not just a box - it is a metaphor for any number of different stories. Any engagement with the shipping container needs to encompass these metaphors. The ‘Situationist’ concept of the ‘reuse of pre-existing artistic elements in a new ensemble’ seems to begin this exploration for me, with Gordon Matta-Clark and, more recently, Brian Jurgen and Richard Wilson, expressing something of these ideas.
… It was at this time that he became aware of the French deconstructionist philosophers. He was also quite taken with Guy Debord and the Situationists. These cultural and political radicals developed the concept of detournement, or “the reuse of pre-existing artistic elements in a new ensemble.” Such concepts would later inform all of his work. He is most famous for works that radically altered existing structures. His building cuts (in which, for example, a house is cut in half vertically) alter the perception of the building and its surrounding environment. …
Matta-Clark‘s cuts inspired, among other contemporary artists, Brian Jungen, a part-Swiss, part-Dane-zaa native from British Columbia, Canada. Jungen recycles goods from a globalized consumer market and transforms them into objects that evoke a specific cultural tradition, as in his series ’Prototypes of New Understanding.' …
Matta-Clark's public interventions such as his “cuts” can been seen as the precursor to Street installation. American artist Cristopher Cichocki produces unsanctioned public works within sites of urban abandonment and credits Matta-Clark as one of his major influences.
Street installations are a growing trend within the “street art” movement. Whereas conventional street art/graffiti is done on surfaces/walls “street installations” use 3-D objects/space to interface with the urban environment . Like graffiti, it is non-permission based and once the object/sculpture is installed it is left there by the artist.
Jungen‘s art draws upon the tradition of “found art,” espoused by such twentieth-century artists as Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp. Instead of presenting objects “as-is,” however, Jungen often reworks them without fully concealing their original meaning or purpose. For instance, Jungen’s series Prototypes of New Understanding consists of aboriginal masks assembled from parts of Nike Air Jordan shoes and hand-sewn. Jungen writes: “It was interesting to see how by simply manipulating the Air Jordan shoes you could evoke specific cultural traditions whilst simultaneously amplifying the process of cultural corruption and assimilation. The Nike mask sculptures seemed to articulate a paradoxical relationship between a consumerist artefact and an ‘authentic’ native artifact.”
Wilson often works on an architectural scale, often changing large spaces in some dramatic way. One of his best known pieces, 20:50 (1987), consists of a room half-flooded with used sump oil in which the ceiling of the space is reflected, producing a disorienting effect. 20:50 was commissioned for Matts Gallery in East London and was brought by Charles Saatchi and has been re-installed in a variety of formations at the Saatchi Gallery.
I suspect I am drawn to Wilson, due the scale of his work and his engagement, like Matta-Clark, with architecture from an artists point of view. Wilson's work also speaks of de-industrialisation and the end of modernity. How true these perceived statements are is open to debate, but the debate is opened all the same; it is, I think, very easy to see how such questions can be examined in relation to shipping containers.
The work of Matta-Clark, Jungen and Wilson, along with Street Installation, can be interpreted as being in the tradition of art intervention. For me, it is precisely this notion of an intervention with regard to shipping containers and the political, economic, architectural and physical language that they have become imbued with, that I would like to explore.
An art intervention is an interaction with a previously existing artwork, audience or venue/space. It has the auspice of conceptual art and is commonly a form of performance art. It is associated with the Viennese Actionists, the Dada movement and Neo-Dadaists. It has also been made much use of by the Stuckists to affect perceptions of other artwork which they oppose, and as a protest against an existing intervention.
Although intervention by its very nature carries an implication of subversion, it is now accepted as a legitimate form of art and is often carried out with the endorsement of those in positions of authority over the artwork, audience or venue/space to be intervened in. However, unendorsed (i.e. illicit) interventions are common and lead to debate as to the distinction between art and vandalism . By definition it is a challenge, or at the very least a comment, related to the earlier work or the theme of that work, or to the expectations of a particular audience, and more likely to fulfil that function to its full potential when it is unilateral, although in these instances, it is almost certain that it will be viewed by authorities as unwelcome, if not vandalism, and not art.
Other artworks / artists dealing with Shipping Containers
- IN[ ]EX
IN[ ]EX is a project by a Canadian art group which acts as a nice low-tech approach to the spread of digital information. Their piece consist of a shipping container with (initially) 3000 wooden blocks of various sizes attached to it with tiny magnets. There are also a few bigger ones that actually contain sensors for the smaller blocks. The setup has two functions: a sound installation inside the container which is being generated and influenced through the way that the small blocks are attached to the wall of the container and around the bigger, sensitive blocks. The other part is actually participatory since the artists ask visitors to pick a block and take it with them. Ideally, they should attach it to another metal surface in the city, spreading the installation all over the place. IN[ ]EX is meant to “explore the migration of capital, goods, and people through the ports and public spaces of Vancouver and San Jose”, and the Canadian wood did migrate quite a lot. By the time this photo was taken, almost 1000 pieces were already gone and you would see them in the most absurd places, some people get really ambitious with these things.
Allan Sekula: Fish Story
Given the increasing ubiquity of the shipping container during the 1960s, one cannot help but wonder why this new form passed unnoticed by the artists most likely to have been interested: artists associated with pop art, minimalism , and conceptual art. One reason, of course, is that containers did not move through either the Manhattan waterfront or the city streets. The container port was developed in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
With his silkscreened boxes, Andy Warhol moved behind the stage of advertising and immediate retail consumption, reachin the warehouse, but no further. Dan Graham, who recognised the serial geometric uniformity of suburban housing in Homes for America (1966), also regarded the highway largely as a space of domestic family travel, rather than commercial transport. The one artist who demonstrated a sustained interest in industrial landscapes was Robert Smithson. But Smithson was enamoured of a science-fiction scenarios of entropic heat-death and sought only evidence of stasis and decay. Furthermore, his hostility to action painting and kinetic sculpture led him to dismiss anything that moved.
Cosmic entropy fails to explain the moving box, carrying “unknown cargo.” Nor does it explain the vampiric vitality of capitalism, although it certainly offers a tempting “explanation” of economic stagnation, which may give Smithson something of the aura of a prophet since he was writing during the Vietnam War economic boom, before the recession of the early 1970s.
I propose a more provisional funeral. If anything, the appropriate metaphor is found in Marx‘s notion of the “dead labour” embedded in commodities. If there is a single object that can be said to embody the disavowal implicit in the transnational bourgeoisies’s fantasy of a world of wealth without workers, a world of uninhibited flows, it is this: the container, the very coffin of remote labour-power. And like the table in Marx's explanation of commodity fetishism, the coffin has learned to dance.
Allan Sekula, “Fish Story”, pp136
Further Notes / Thoughts
Oddly, the container, although fast becoming the building material de-rigeur for architects; for artists, it still seems to be somewhat under-utilised; even in the ~11 years since Sekula's Fish Story. Why is this?