It all happens so fast. Commodities move speedily across the globe – aided by efficient transportation systems that connect the most geographically separated of locations. Within the mass transport of things, certain bodies and ideas also move quickly, rapidly relocating from here to there and from there to here. Commenting on this very transport of goods and culture, multi-disciplinary artist Soheila K. Esfahani's Cultured Pallets reveals the complexities of mass circulation that so readily define this era of networked living.
Esfahani's ongoing project involves marking typical, wooden shipping pallets with an email address and various ornate motifs. The pallets are taken out of circulation for a time, incorporated into various exhibit spaces, both indoors and outdoors, and then put back into the larger systems of exchange and commerce in which they are initially intended. But once the pallets have been stencilled or carved with Esfahani's elaborate patterns they can no longer function as anonymous. The process of turning something non-descript into an artwork enables the pallets to function outside of pure utility. Esfahani further complicates the pallets by tracking them and engaging in correspondence with the individuals who find or use them post exhibition.
The project doesn't concern itself with uniformity. In some contexts the pallets are stacked in massive walls and in others individual pallets are singled out. The patterns and colours similarly shape-shift from monochromatic to vibrant, deep hues and gold leaf, from florals to intensely detailed graphics. For The Vagireh Pattern (2010) Esfahani laser-etched a stack of pallets with a grey toned pattern that was based on an originally colourful design from a Persian book of illuminations. In order to create a file for laser etching the final image converted full colour to shades of grey. "Vagireh" translates to the transmittable or contagious, which is made clear by the expandable pattern she applied to the stacked pallets. With this and other iterations of the project, Esfahani often works with volunteers and studio assistants to meticulously imprint onto the slatted surfaces of the repurposed pallets. These various iterations of Cultured Pallets resists the standardization that shipping pallets both display and represent. The individualized treatment of the pallets pushes against their normalized, uniform function of assisting in the globalized transport of bulk produced and grown goods. Through this long-term project of working over these many pallets each one becomes a portable unit of culture in and of itself.
Interestingly, the term globalization does not appear in Esfahani's artist statement. Instead she focuses "on the notion of translation in its etymological meaning as the process of 'carrying across' and employ[es] shipping pallets as metaphors for the transfer of units of 'culture.' The pallets also represent 'in-betweeness' by being in a permanent state of transit."1 This pivot away from globalization towards translation establishes an opening into a less regulated and controlled space. Esfahani creates a possibility to imagine where these now distinctive pallets might move to and who they might encounter. Will the pallets travel oversees or remain close by? Will they stay together or circulate separately? It is a powerful commentary on the nuances of migration and cultural exchange that often get lost in homogenizing discourse around globalization.
One of the latest installations of Cultured Pallets sees the work take occupancy in the exhibition forward motion at the Small Arms Inspection Building (SAIB) in Mississauga. The pallets are shown alongside installations that converge on concepts of migration and movement, transit and the transient by Christina Battle, Steven Beckly, Patrick Cruz, Melissa General, Julius Poncelet Manapul, Jihee Min, Ed Pien, Veronique Sunatori, Meera Margaret Singh and Tazeen Qayyum. For Esfahani, as for many of the artists in the exhibition, connecting to ideas of movement and migration is equally part of artistic practice and lived experience.
Esfahani grew up in Tehran and moved to Canada in 1992. Her practice often directly and indirectly references relocation. The Immigrants for instance brings together a collection of hand-made and collected blue and white porcelain birds that Esfahani bought at souvenir shops and flea markets while travelling and that have been gifted to her as souvenirs from other people's travels. The birds evoke physical movement but also the pathways culture travels by way of objects that are ferried over to another place by immigrants and by tourists. Like the pallets, these small birds reveal the kinds of objects we bring us when we move around and the things that might be made near us that find their way elsewhere.
Cultured Pallets at the SAIB compels a new reading of the work. The Small Arms Inspection Building was a functioning factory during World War II, producing small weaponry that was then shipped off to Canadian soldiers and allies on the front lines. What is now a multi-purpose arts space was originally part of a larger factory complex employing a mostly female labour pool. The company that operated the factory, Small Arms Ltd, is credited with helping to introduce many local women into the workforce more permanently. Although the building is now mostly scrubbed clean of its history, it still retains some hints of its former use. For one thing, the layout indicates that the space must have housed very sizable machinery.
Stacked in columns two dozen high in several immense walls, the pallets appear both comfortable and out-of-place at the SAIB. The industrial residue of the space lends itself to similarly industrial materials, like shipping pallets. Yet Esfahani's imprinted pallets counterbalance the building's problematic history as a site of mass production. The hand altered pallets subtly point to the non-neutral ways in which products are manufactured, sold, exchanged and consumed. Imperfectly produced because done by hand, the modified pallets demand an understanding of globalized economies that does concern itself with modes of production.
Cultured Pallets is full of possibilities. Possibilities that emerge in movement and circulation. Possibilities that exist outside of commerce and globalized trade. Possibilities that connect us and bring us together in unexpected ways. Esfahani cultivates these possibilities through her approach to translation and it is her interest in 'in-betweeness' that makes these possibilities possible.
1 From Esfahani’s artist statement. Accessed June 20, 2018 from http://soheila.ca/project/cultured-pallets/