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12 Pack: Paths to an Ecological Crisis

Article by Anna Souter /Artwork by Villamil y Villamil – 12 Pack, 2018 (12 frames and a painting packed in shrink plastic)

For many people, climate breakdown and global overheating are major causes for concern. Eco-anxiety is on the rise, sustainability has become a buzzword in many circles, and contemporary art and design are full of speculation about how to prevent the climate crisis or how to become more resilient to its effects. Melting sea ice is embedded into the collective consciousness, along with increasing fear of flooding, species-loss and oceanic plastic pollution. 

For some, though, the dissolution of the Arctic is seen as a business opportunity. Where the polar bears are being forced to jump ship (metaphorically speaking), investors are jumping onboard (literally). Pilot expeditions have taken place to ship goods via the Northern Sea Route above Russia and the Northwest Passage above Canada, rather than through the Suez or Panama Canals. Shipping companies are speculating that global overheating will make these routes more accessible for longer in the future, cutting down the time, cost and fuel needed to ship goods between Europe, the US and Asia. 

Ice in a water tank, with a red fluid under it and a ladel attached to the side

Villamil y Villamil – Cuando la sed mueve montañas

If global emissions are not reduced significantly over the next few decades, it’s likely that much of the Arctic will start to look permanently like the image of an unknown location depicted in the found painting used in Villamil y Villamil’s 12 Pack, 2018: snow-sprinkled hills and open water under a blue sky. In the short term, it could be good news for a handful of companies who want to ship their products around the world more quickly than before. Some might even use their exploitation of the newly opened routes to boast that they are cutting their emissions by transporting their goods shorter distances. In the medium and long term, however, it constitutes bad news for everyone – shipping companies included.

Image left: The Coast Guard Cutter Healy patrols the Arctic Ocean

If the complex network of capitalism is a direct cause of climate breakdown, how do we deal with art that is a node in that network, however indirectly?

The Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker 50 Let Pobedy – Video by Filip Kulisev

12 Pack, like much of the work produced by artist duo Villamil y Villamil, explores the market forces that increasingly appear to have the power to reshape our lives and the natural world. To make this piece, the duo has bound together a hand-painted artwork and a pack of frames using Evian shrink-wrap, used commercially for wrapping water bottles sold in supermarkets. This speaks to the plethora of plastic that is so deeply embedded in our economic systems, and hints at the irony of shipping bottled drinks around the world in an age where the waters are rising so fast that climate-related displacement is already a lived reality for many people.

12 Pack is also concerned with reproduction and appropriation. We do not know what the other frames wrapped in the shrunken plastic contain – whether they are empty, or whether they contain reproductions of the ‘show’ copy at the front of the pack. As a found object of unspecified authorship, we assume that this painting is of little market value; as such, the work asks questions about the role of an artwork as an actor on the economic world stage. If the complex network of capitalism is a direct cause of climate breakdown, how do we deal with art that is a node in that network, however indirectly?

Villamil y Villamil remind us that, in a world where imagery of the more-than-human world is appropriated and reproduced by companies for their branding purposes, it’s easy to forget the uniqueness and the non-economic value of the original. The price of losing the Arctic sea ice, for instance, may be more than we are willing or even able to pay.


This article is part of a series of special features for the exhibition ‘1-31’ curated by Adam Carr.

Experience Digital Exhibition ‘1-31’

The Museum of Private Collections

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