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An artist residency hosted on a freighter crossing the Pacific Ocean has turned into a bizarre existential art piece in itself. On August 23, British artist Rebecca Moss boarded the Hanjin Geneva for 23 Days at Sea, a residency sponsored by Vancouver’s Access Gallery. She expected to dock in Shanghai roughly three weeks later. But on August 31, the Korean shipping company that owns the vessel declared bankruptcy, and now ports all over the world are barring it from entry, because it can’t pay docking or service fees. Along with the ship’s crew and hundreds of shipping containers, the artist is stranded off the coast of Japan.
“It is a dumb situation,” Rebecca Moss, 25, told the Vancouver Sun. In a lot of ways, the “dumb situation” seems like perfect fodder for her work: Moss makes performances and video about the “comedic situations” that arise from the interactions between machines and nature. “My art practice is strongest when I channel an aspect of desperation and futility into it, so really, this situation has provided ample inspiration,” Moss told Hyperallergic via email. She had already been videotaping events on the ship, but believes the videos have now taken on new depth. “The absurdity of this situation — an enormous, labor-intensive operation that has spectacularly ground to a halt, is comedic, in that there is a pervading sense of purposeless in spite of all the effort. In one of my videos I made early this year, I am jumping in a frog costume on a pogo stick in a puddle. I see this situation as no less absurd than that artwork.”
For most of the crew, though, the “dumb situation” isn’t artistically inspiring — it’s just dumb. According to Moss, the crew seemed “resigned, unsurprised, determined to just get on with life on board” when they learned the Hanjin Shipping Company, the world’s seventh-largest container line, had filed for $900 million in debt. “For many years the shipping industry has become increasingly streamlined, forever finding ways to minimize overheads (like crew) to maximize profit,” Moss said. “This means that already the crew were half-expecting to be given their notice at any moment. Apparently this situation — being held outside a port while meetings happen back on land — is a surprisingly common occurrence, so everybody was resigned to it.”
Barred from all international ports, drifting Hanjin vessels the world over are waiting for the company to figure out how to move forward. The captain of the Hanjin Geneva is currently hoping to dock in Busan, South Korea, but told the ship’s crew to start rationing water and food, as they have only enough supplies to last for about a month. (Access Gallery says that all people on board the ship are safe and that it is “monitoring the situation closely.”)
Meanwhile, Moss has plenty of time to work on her art and contemplate the contents of the shipping containers. “Some of the containers contain animal skins,” she said. “What did they die for?”
You might also consider art historian John Edwin Mason‘s take on the whole thing. On Twitter, he opined: “No, this is not a metaphor for the art world. Why do you ask?”
You can track the Hanjin Geneva’s whereabouts here.