I grew up with a jerry can1. It was military green and a bit battered, being, I imagine, an army discard. The most important thing about it was that it was a prized possession, and it was perfect for its job of storing motor-mower petrol. My father’s well-ordered workshop was full of recycled containers, salvaged because of their usefulness for storing precious and sometimes hazardous contents. In this workshop the containers, as much as the tools and machines, were well managed and cleaned; they were something rather than nothing. Today, for every container we save and reuse in a year, we probably chuck away hundreds of others. Having performed their task once, most containers are on some path toward obliteration. Joe Sheehan says his forms derive “mostly [from] industrial containers scavenged from around the worksite at Tawa, a large industrial site… a mine of discarded acetone, bleach, diesel, oil, heavy duty cleaner and turps containers.”
“Objects are the silent witness to our lives.”2 Containers are mute but this description doesn’t quite get to their essence. The point of the utilitarian container is its contents. More often than not the contents activate our labours, whether petrol for running a machine, chemicals for spraying or substances required for production. Most of the time containers are impassive, but when they’re at hand, in-hand or strapped to our bodies they are our companions in labour. They activate us. They’re like batteries invisibly powering our production.
Mute they may be, but they aren’t characterless. Sheehan admits “I was really interested in the range of forms. Images of plastics manufacturer’s wares were strangely alluring to me. You start to notice the small groups around the home and they become interesting and you don’t know why”. Another NZ artist who has submitted to the allure of common-place plastic containers is the late Bill Culbert. Both Sheehan and Culbert are interested in the materiality of these quotidian objects but their approaches are quite different. Culbert deprives his containers of contents to exploit the luminosity of their emptiness. Sheehan’s interest is in full containers. He endows his containers with his choice of materiality to the point that its materiality is its content. The largest of his bottles weighs between 10 and 15 kilograms. He says “the shock thing is important; it’s a bit of trick work … to wake the handler up. They need an operator to make them go … a human hand. They ask the handler to carry some weight.”
That weight. Sheehan’s weights are suggestive of the burden to the environment and our futures, of the real cost of producing and consuming both the containers and their contents. Costs that are largely invisible because they aren’t counted as part of the price. “The thing I wanted to do was to lean on that recognition of the familiar and make it strange again. The form and formless combined, pieces of mountains, solidified fluids, states of change, fossil fuels … these ideas and words were floating about when I was making them.”
Making the familiar strange requires us to rethink our assumptions about the commonplace. Sheehan’s containers are made of argillite and basalt from Southland, black and white marble from Nelson, diorite from Omaui, and granite from Karamea and Coromandel. They bring these very specific materials and places into our everyday lives, just as the ubiquitous plastic container brings all manner of unknown materials from unknown places into our lives. His containers move us from the general to the specific. They don’t have names or identities but they do have pedigrees; they come from somewhere and they can be attributed to a place. If we can recognise Sheehan’s unique containers as objects that can be attributed to specific places and processes can we not begin to discern in their manufactured prototypes some distinctive qualities too?
If a 15kg granite container is our companion, what process might it activate within us? Might it be a conversation about the significance of origin, or the significance of materiality and content? And, going further, might it also raise questions about scarcity, artistic skill and labour … and how the value of any of these is counted in a price?
Philip Clarke, September 2020
1. A jerry can is a robust liquid container made from pressed steel. It was designed in Germany in the 1930s for military use.
2. Australian artist, writer and lecturer Anne Brennan’s often quoted observation.
Photographs by Kallan MacLeod