“For those familiar with my art practice, and with my sense of humour, this situation is oddly suited to me and I am sure will inform my work for years to come”. The words of Rebecca Moss, a 25-year-old ‘absurdist artist’, who is currently in the absurd situation of being stranded off the coast of Japan on the 68,000 tonne container ship the ‘Hanjin Geneva’ www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/sep/14/artist-stranded-container-ship-rebecca-moss-hanjin. An MA student at the Royal College of Art in London, Rebecca was taking part in a residency programme organised by a Vancouver art gallery called ‘23 Days at Sea’. Her aim was to explore ‘the comedic potential of the clash between mechanical systems and nature’ but she got more than she bargained for when the Hanjin Shipping Co, the world’s seventh-largest container shipper, filed for bankruptcy after her trip going westward from North America to Asia had commenced. Rebecca’s ‘23 Days at Sea’ should have been up by now but with no means to pay docking or cargo handling fees Hanjin’s ships are being refused entry into ports and are at sea with no destination. “The situation is completely ironic” she said “It is bizarre how much it suits my interests.” I hope Rebecca’s adventure gives her lots of material and wish her a safe return to dry land.
I was interested in the story firstly as it plays into the notion of ‘peak stuff’ – the state where our appetite for extraneous ‘stuff’ is saturated and we are using fewer material resources. We are starting to ask what is this stuff for? Does it make us any happier? Does it do us more harm than good both as people and as a planet in view of ongoing resource depletion (worth a blog of its own)? As Rebecca puts it “It has forcefully underscored the contradictions I always perceived about this endless stream of stuff that is constantly flowing across the Pacific”. In the case of the ‘Hanjin Geneva’ what stuff is actually in the containers? Why is it necessary to transport so much of it across the Pacific? To what extent has its non-arrival been noticed?
I was interested in the story secondly as it illustrates the fragility of the systems that we rely upon to underpin our daily life. Hanjin Shipping Co apparently accounted for 8% of the trans-Pacific trade volume for the US market yet its activities ceased at a stroke. It’s like the stories we regularly hear of how fast the supermarket shelves will empty in this or that crisis. The answer, as many are beginning to realise, is to build a more robust and sustainable way of life based on local goods and services – and there’s nothing absurd about that.