Shipping Container by Craig Martin

Another in the Object Lessons series, and I was rather excited about this one, because boxes and containerization are among my obsessions. But alas, Shipping Container let me down.

It starts out with promise: Craig Martin sits writing in a shipping container, “looking out over the dramatic landscape of Loch Long” in Scotland. I was pleased to encounter, on page 5, Donald Judd’s box-inspired and boxlike artwork (having just recently seen some Judd out in the West Texas desert) – somehow this coincidence felt both surprising and nearly inevitable. I was charmed to consider the statement that “things control our behavior, mediating how we travel from A to B, or open a door for example.” When Martin muses about the container as building component, its crossover uses, and its wide-reaching implications for shipping, globalization, and economics, I lean forward with interest.

Unfortunately, he quickly leaves dramatic landscapes and crossovers behind in favor of research, acronyms, and jargon-heavy theory (economic, strategic, logistical, tactical, and yawn). For this reader, there’s nothing wrong with research or acronyms, and not much wrong with theory, as long as it’s leavened with some of that dramatic landscape… or personality… or narrative. I kept reading, hoping that Martin would shift gears and reward me with something interesting, some whimsy, some surprise. But no.

He has a tendency to use 40 words where ten would do, as when he describes some of the finer points of smuggling: “Crucially, it is the ability to conceal such practices that is paramount. As described earlier, the use of false floors in containers is intended to make the container appear absolutely normal, should it ever be opened by Customs or security officials. Evidence of tampering is decisive, particularly the attempts by smugglers to conceal evidence of interference with containers themselves.” In other words, smugglers like to hide the fact that they are smuggling. I got impatient.

An overlong chapter on smuggling and security ends with the observation: “the ISO shipping container is an incredibly convenient box in which to move things, be they legal or not.” I spared you the first 28 words of that sentence, and look how neatly it concludes. Those 19 words, in fact, could sum up not only the chapter but the book.

You can see I got a bit prickly about Shipping Container. What I loved most about Sock and Souvenir was how widely they ranged over their subjects, how they let the simple sock or souvenir mean so many different things – how they surprised me. Here, I found a dry discussion of the shipping industry over time, with a few tantalizing tidbits at the very end about “cargotecture,” or shipping containers as building material again. (Me, I’ve seen container homes; drank beer in a container brewery; and used to race at a velodrome that stored its track bikes in containers onsite. This is not a new or surprising use of shipping containers. The surprise, if anything, was that this phenomenon didn’t receive more coverage.) I’m sorry to be so negative, but I haven’t much good to say. I wish I’d put this one down without finishing it, as I did Matthew Battles’s Tree. Not every Object Lesson is for me. Your mileage may vary.


Rating: 3 internecine discussions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: