Fantasizing about an artist residency? It’s unlikely that vision includes a cargo ship. The enormous container carriers supply 90% of everything — from the food you eat to the clothes you buy — but they aren’t exactly, well, dreamboats.
Israeli photographer Maayan Strauss sees potential, though. She is launching Container, an artist residency that will invite 12 creatives to travel along existing shipping routes for a month. “Artists require solitude, beauty, the natural sublime and global travel,” the website explains. “They crave extended stretches of time, free of any interruption, in order to create new work. All of this can be found on a container ship.” While aboard, each will create his or her own body of work, which will be shown later in a group exhibition.
“The program is also a part of my artistic practice,” Strauss told Hyperallergic. “It’s a different type of artistic fulfillment from making photographs or objects — creating something that is not representational, rather a new situation and exchange in the world.”
Strauss embarked on her own container carrier adventure in 2011. She was then in Israel on a summer break from her MFA program at Yale, and she didn’t have money for the flight back to the US. After a friend joked that she should just take a freight ship, she mulled it over seriously. “I kept thinking about how expensive it was for me to travel, while everything around me — basic commercial goods — travel constantly,” she told Hyperallergic. “[A freightliner] seemed like my only option to return,” she said.
It was difficult to find a ship that would agree to let her tag along, as such commercial enterprises rarely take passengers. Her status as independent photographer didn’t help either; who knew what might happen if she were given leeway to snoop around? But after a month of convincing, ZIM Integrated Shipping Services agreed. In late summer, Strauss stepped aboard a container carrier docked in Haifa — the only woman on ship.
“The port scenery at night was striking and almost surreal,” she remembered, “massive stacks of containers, heavy machinery, bells ringing, workers shouting, commotion that felt somewhat archaic.” They set sail toward New Jersey on a three-week trip with stops in Greece, Italy, and Spain. “Crossing the Atlantic took exactly one week — so every night you get an extra hour of sleep, which was delightful.”
The journey was a boon to Strauss’s artistic practice. She used the opportunity to take photographs that became Freight, a series of lush, moody photographs that capture life on the vessel. The experience also widened her perspective on so many things: the hugeness of the earth, the vastness of the ocean, the structure of contemporary cities, the importance of unplugging from the world every once in a while. And of course, the maritime shipping industry.
“Traveling on this network of sea routes illustrates the connections between global markets on which production, distribution, and consumption are based,” she said. “I hope that through this framing and the perspective it highlights, the program will encourage artists to consider their creative processes not simply as that of removed commentators, but as active producers and an integral part of the global economy.”