In August 2015, with funding from the Asian Cultural Council, Oakland-based artist Gabby Miller crossed the Pacific Ocean on the CMA CGM Gemini, a 380-meter-long container ship, to Xiamen, China.
On board, she developed Turquoise Wake (Coal, Air, Chicken & Shit), an ongoing project that explores the movement of goods, people and power across ocean lines. The body of work includes paintings she made with the ship’s engine oil, photographs she took at sea, fragments from family archives, and the piece 609 Containers (1967), a pile of small-scale ceramic recreations of shipping containers.
For the past month, Miller has been in residence at Random Parts, a gallery space in Oakland, continuing her research into the history of containerization, processing conversations she had with crew members, drawing connections between global trade and her family history, and making new work. KQED Arts sat down with Miller to discuss her 21-day-long journey across the Pacific.
Your participation in the 2011 Occupy Oakland protests was one of many departure points for this project. Can you discuss how this experience fed your impulse to spend 21 days on a cargo ship crossing the Pacific Ocean to Xiamen, China?
Being part of such a huge group of people felt beyond the imagination, almost dream-like. It got me interested in port blockades — all these human beings physically stopping enormous machines. In researching the history of containerization, I learned that shipments from Oakland’s port escalated the Vietnam War. There’s this historical link between my two homelands — Vietnam and Oakland — between personal and geopolitical history.
It’s clear that your family history and sense of identity play key roles in your practice.
Yeah, it’s big. A lot of my work has been trying to make sense of my parents’ union. My Vietnamese mother and white father met and married in Saigon at the height of the Vietnam War. Much of the life they’ve built together has been in resistance to Western imperialism.
Also, I have this mystery brown ethnicity, and I’m sort of mystery gendered, so in my practice, I’m doing the best I can to make sense of existing in multiple contexts.
Was it alienating or challenging to be on board with only men?
I had trepidation about being the only woman, and the only passenger on the boat with thirty sailors, but upon arrival, it was clear I was in a safe environment. The men were really thankful to have a break from the monotony of being at sea for 4-9 months. Being mixed race made it easier for me to navigate social relationships with the whole range of crew members.
When did you start making paintings with the ship’s engine oil?
When we landed in Nakhodka, Russia to bunker. The chef realized I was an artist when I borrowed a jar to put the oil in, and he asked me to paint a portrait of him and his wife. I quickly got requests from every other crew member. I offered to paint whoever they wanted commemorated.
I opened up a studio in the swimming pool room and left the door open. People would stroll through after dinner, and it became a communing point. There were some pretty artistic souls on board. They started painting with me, and we had an art show. Gathered around the paintings, everyone could talk about the people they were missing, and it became a really poignant exchange, given that the boat was very racially divided.
How did you arrive at the title Turquoise Wake (Coal, Air, Chicken & Shit)?
I was thinking of “wake” not just as in the stream of water behind the boat, but also as in after somebody has died, and in terms of wakefulness, coming to awareness in the Buddhist sense.
Turquoise is the color of the sea, of transformation. We associate turquoise with the American Southwest. But, early mining in turquoise happened in Iran in these Persian empires; it was the color of expansion in many ways.
My great grandfather was an engineer of coal mines, so I wanted to make this connection to my family legacy. Also, it’s currently under debate whether coal will be shipped from Oakland’s port, primarily to China and Vietnam.
Chicken, shit, and air are the three things that crossed the Pacific in containers with me. The air containers were getting sent to be refilled with tons of things. “Shit” is stuff that’s too expensive or illegal to recycle or dispose of in the States, like electronic parts. We send frozen chicken and fish to get processed in China because the labor and the materials are cheaper, and then send it back for consumption and send it around the world, which is insane.
Can you discuss your piece 609 Containers (1967), a pile of small-scale ceramic recreations of shipping containers?
I made this piece to tell the story of the connections between the escalation of the Vietnam War and the rise of containerization. 609 was ten times as many containers as the amount that could be transported on a regular ship previously, so this was revolutionary. The war, this logistically impossible thing, became very smooth.
I couldn’t have produced the work as easily in the US. I went to a traditional Vietnamese ceramic village to have them made. For them it was like, oh this is hardly anything, and for me I was like, this is a mass-scale project. So, there’s that underlying story of labor and mass production.
I’m still considering what it means to work at Random Parts, in this neighborhood. I can see containers coming in and out of the port. This neighborhood has been a southern Vietnamese diaspora for 40 years, and people here are facing violent gentrification. Again, there’s this connection between the local displacement and global displacement, which is so linked to world trade.
Regardless of the city, country, or neighborhood you’re working in, whether you’re on land or at sea, you’re attuned to the violence and the repercussions of trade, and bringing that into your practice.
Yeah, these really powerful underlying narratives of Western imperialism, of ownership of people and goods. I’m investigating the ways we’re embedded in history and how that history loops.