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Art history is full of seascapes depicting the ocean as either a thoroughly charted territory over which nations fight and do trade, or an unknowable force that is forever beyond human control. Conceptual artist Marina Zurkow‘s latest online project, two books, and exhibition at bitforms gallery, MORE&MORE (the invisible oceans), attempt to encompass these two aspects of humanity’s relationship to Earth’s oceans. Her coordinate system of sorts on this journey is the Harmonized Commodity Description and Coding System (commonly and cryptically referred to as the “Harmonized System”), which is used around the globe to categorize, catalogue, and control all legal (and some illegal) goods that are shipped. With its 99 categories and about 26,000 possible permutations, the Harmonized System is the key to a veritable ocean of data; at bitforms, Zurkow has deployed it in two distinct ways. One installation showcases tangible and tradable goods in a store-like display, while the other attempts to visualize the oceanic enormity of today’s waterborne trade system.
In the exhibition’s first room, a series of swimsuits hangs on limbless mannequins, while an adjacent touchscreen entreats visitors to customize their own through the site moreandmore.world (which Zurkow created with Sarah Rothberg and Surya Mattu). On the site, visitors to the gallery or browsers at home can get better acquainted with the Harmonized System’s taxonomy of trade by generating a swimsuit design that represents the shipping of a given good between two countries. Color-coded according to the exporting and importing nations, the suits feature a large pictogram of your chosen object or material — the Harmonized System, by design, includes seemingly every desirable thing, from crystal balls (HS 700239), airplanes (HS 880220), and grenades (HS 930690) to refined petroleum (HS 271012), gold (HS 710812), and soybeans (HS 120190). A custom pattern of other Harmonized System pictograms fills out each suit design with goods that are commonly transported in the same shipping containers as your product of choice when it goes between the two countries you’ve specified. The resulting swimsuit can be yours for $499 — so that “even you, little human, can float alongside a container ship, and accompany your products out to sea,” as a gallery pamphlet cheekily cajoles.
In the gallery, alongside the five swimsuits, shelves and glass cases display sculptural versions of Harmonized System pictograms made from a range of materials — plaster, the plastic powder used by 3D printers, fungus, coffee husks, plywood, gray chocolate, and gray soap (materials that all have Harmonized System codes of their own, naturally). The spread of sculptural goods includes handguns, frozen chickens, diamonds, cruise ships, and buoys. The installation, despite being very much about late capitalism, evokes an archaeological display of artifacts from some lost communist civilization in which every product was standardized. The swimsuits and sculptures give material form to transactions and trade routes that most consumers never see, reducing every conceivable good to its Harmonized System code so that a T-shirt made of fungus becomes an HS 610910 made of HS 060290. The objects are playful, satiric, and materially engrossing, but their cumulative effect is undeniably ominous. The installation offers a dystopian vision of our world overlaid with a code that unrelentingly monetizes everything and anything.
The exhibition’s larger, back room visualizes the Harmonized System as if it were applied to the ocean itself, rather than the goods being ferried over it. It features six digital animations playing on color-coded monitors, one for each of the importing nations that users can choose for their swimsuit designs on moreandmore.world. The animations incorporate real-time weather data and the cycles of the sun and moon to generate an infinite variety of visuals that includes patterns of Harmonized Systems pictograms, cascading currency symbols, rolling waves, and the silhouettes of trucks, trains, and supertankers moving to and fro. Where the previous room attempts to visualize how capitalism, in the form of the Harmonized System code, has infiltrated and invested every salable thing in the world, these animations imagine a landscape that consists solely of the symbols of shipping and trade. However, the animations are the exhibition’s least compelling element. They have none of the weirdness and suspense of Zurkow’s earlier animated works, and their ornate patterns and shifting movements, which might be more engaging as large-scale projections, are underwhelming seen on the small monitors and discrete boxes displaying them.
The rear room’s other major component, though not so visually rich, does a better job of conveying the enormity of Zurkow’s project, the Harmonized System code, and the movements both seek to make visible and legible. Ringing the walls of the room are phonebook-like printouts listing many of the 26,000 different permutations of the Harmonized System code and the goods to which they correspond. The overwhelming effect of seeing, in codified form, every marketable thing in the world laid out before you is overwhelming and oddly belittling, as if all human wants and needs were so easy to anticipate, catalogue, and cater to.
The exhibition’s smaller, store-like installation feels more powerful, in part because it gives tangible, material form to an essentially formless, floating system of globalized trade. It also alludes, however obliquely, to the environmental impact of the transoceanic shipping industry. The sculptural goods, especially those made of fungus and coffee grounds, look like lost items covered in algae and rescued from the Great Pacific garbage patch. These objects hint at the degradation caused by our global trade networks.
Zurkow’s project is captivating and the systems to which she gives visual manifestation — global shipping and the Harmonized System used to manage it — are both logistically fascinating and deeply troubling. But the resulting animations are toothless, particularly compared to some of her much more pointed work. In the end, MORE&MORE (the invisible oceans) feels unfinished, as if Zurkow has left the depths of this ocean of shipping data unexplored.