All at sea: Stowaway artists turn life on the ocean into art

Story highlights

  • The Container Artist Residency saw seven contemporary artists work on board commercial container ships
  • The journeys have inspired artworks that reflect the commercial, globalized nature of the world

Hong Kong (CNN)The vast container ships that line the deep waters of Hong Kong share a ponderous beauty as they make their way across one of the world's busiest harbors.

Yet of all the cargo on board these enormous vessels, contemporary artists are probably the least expected consignment.
That was until the first 'Container Artist Residency,' a program that saw seven contemporary artists live on board commercial container ships to create art that reveals the movement of goods, money, and human lives that occur in this rarely-seen industry.
    The artists' journeys have inspired installations, performance art, sculpture and drawings, some of which are now on display at Hong Kong's Para Site gallery for an exhibition called 'Creative Operational Solutions.'
    "The sea is the backbone of globalization and exchanges of global culture," Cosmin Costinas, executive director of Para Site and one of the curators of the exhibition, tells CNN of the thinking behind the project.
    "Art can help us better understand the world in which we live, and the complicated exchanges, structures and flows that lie at the core of it."

    Creative sailing

    The idea for the Container Artist Residency came from program founder Maayan Strauss, a New York-based Israeli artist who couldn't afford to fly from Israel to the US while completing a graduate school degree at Yale in 2012.
    Drawing on her creative skills, she convinced Israeli shipping company ZIM Integrated Shipping Ltd (ZIM) to let her to hitch a ride on one of their container ships traveling from the northern Israeli port city of Haifa to New Jersey.
    Strauss documented the three-week voyage in a series of photographs entitled 'Freight,' capturing the unusual perspective of life at sea, and several years later proposed turning her own experience into a residency program -- an idea that ZIM embraced.
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    Following an open call for applications, a jury headed by New-York-based designer and exhibition co-curator, Prem Krishnamurthy, selected seven artists from a field of more than 2,000 proposals. The artists were invited to board a ZIM shipping route of their choice, with freedom to produce their work while on board or after the journey.
    Although the idea for the residency was the first of its kind, others have since embarked on similar projects.
    Most notably, British artist Rebecca Moss found life outstripping art when a separate container ship residency she participated in was halted one week into the journey because her sponsoring shipping company had filed for bankruptcy, leaving her stranded at sea for 25 days.

    The great connector

    Shipping forms the foundation of our interconnected planet and, despite a recent industry slump, a record 10 billion tons of goods were transported around the world's oceans in 2015, according to the UN -- almost 80 percent of global trade by volume.
    "The space of the sea is the great connector of the world," Costinas says. "This makes it a crucial space for pretty much every other discussion."
    Supported by this philosophical backbone, Creative Operational Solutions sets out to comprehend the effects of such an increasingly globalized and commercial world, and the impact it's had on artists.
    "There's less and less public money for art, and private money is becoming the dominant force in artistic production and cultural exchanges," Costinas explains.
    In this respect, while ZIM's involvement in and sponsorship of the project may have been a decision based on public relations or corporate social responsibility benefits, the Container Artist Residency seeks to confront this reality.
    Instead of being held hostage by commercial forces, the artists seek to make this sponsorship and the forces of global commerce the subject and critique of their work.
    As Costinas says, ZIM was aware that the artists chosen "would not just take pretty pictures of the sea."

    Contracted inspiration

    The most confrontational response to these commercial limitations is Mari Bastashevski's piece 'ZIM™,' which she describes as a "fully automated stand-in for an artist."
    Comprised of a mirrored glass box filled with water from the Suez Canal, 'ZIM™' has been fitted with a camera that takes a photo of whatever is in front of it -- the engine room, the ceiling, blackness -- every five minutes and uploads it to a dedicated Twitter account, @ZimTmRobot.
    A note on the box states that the artwork is only concluded once it is auctioned -- at which moment it must be destroyed with the hammer she supplies.
    Other responses include Erin Diebboll's 'Voyage 51 East,' which meticulously illustrates the contents of shipping containers, both meaningless and unknown to the ship's staff.
    'Voyage 51 East,' by Erin Diebboll
    Similarly, Athens-based Christopher Page's dual artwork -- 'Containment' or 'Integration' -- consists of three identical shipping crates that can be disassembled and hung to show their interiors, which have been painted like the outside of the crates.
    In the Hong Kong exhibition, two of the crates' interiors have been hung on the wall, while the third sits fully assembled to the side.
    London-based duo Revital Cohen & Tuur Van Balen use massive electroplated metal sheets to highlight the global flow of goods from Africa to China and then to the West; while Hungarian artist Ferenc Gróf's 'Flags of Convenience' highlights the practice of registering ships in countries with beneficial tax or legal arrangements.
    Costinas points out that, in the context of the present global political climate, Creative Operational Solutions couldn't be better timed.
    "It analyzes the backbone of our globalized world, and that's what's being put under question these days," he says.
    Creative Operational Solutions will run through March 5, 2017 at Para Site in Hong Kong.