banana republics, the way things go.

“This article is about the retail chain. For countries dependent on a single, limited-resource export, see ‘Banana republic.’”[1]

See also:
Banana Republic (album): a live album by Italian signer-songwriters Francesco De Gregori and Lucio Dalla
Banana Republic (song): a single by The Boomtown Rats

It does roll off the tongue. Ba-na-na re-pub-lic. Syllabically rhythmic, it conjures fruit trees and easy elegance—khakis and seersucker tops, cotton… but that’s another story. The overlap between the colonial safari aesthetic of the Gap Inc. brand Banana Republic and the actual lived horror of political instability dependent upon a singular primary export is a startlingly close disambiguation.

Although banana republic is a pejorative term, it aptly describes the thinly veiled colonialism that characterizes these impoverished nations. The term began, of course, with the exploitation of banana exports from Central America under the United Fruit Company (a merger consisting of US fruit enterprises Chiquita Brands + Boston Fruit Company.) The UFC bought huge tracts of land in Honduras and the Caribbean Basin, displacing native peoples through a policy of legalistic dispossession[2], and then employing them to work their own land for extremely low-wages.

When the trumpet sounded
Everything was prepared on earth,
And Jehovah gave the world
To Coca-Cola Inc., Anaconda,
Ford Motors and other corporations.
The United Fruit Company
reserved for itself the most juicy
Piece, the central coast of my world,
The delicate waist of America.

It rebaptized these countries
Banana Republics,
And over the sleeping dead,
Over the unquiet heroes
Who won greatness,
Liberty, and banners,
It established a comic opera:
It abolished free will,
Gave out imperial crowns,
Encouraged envy,
Attracted the dictatorship of flies…

Pablo Neruda’s “La United Fruit Co.” in Canto General of 1950. [3]

The terms co-optation into a multinational retail chain with high brand recognition is a classic win-win in capitalism’s unyielding optimism; the lifestyle brand of a successful neocolonial plantation owner appeals to middle class Americans enough to overwrite history and place a store in every indoor mall in the United States.

Consequentially, Banana Republic and parent company Gap have production in factories in New Delhi and Bangalore, which, as recently as 2007, were employing children as young as 10. The Gap also settled from a lawsuit for using sweatshop labor in Saipan, a US territory in the South Pacific. Despite claims to the contrary [4] Saipan may very well also be classified as a banana republic.

The ever expanding nodes of history, exchange and imbued postcolonial energies makes the banana republic an analogous port to access the works in Rikrit Tiravanija’s curatorial project The Way Things Go through May 24, 2015 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. The project traces the global flows of commodity exchange, often through the cipher of food. The Way Things Go subtly hints at the shared experience that food provides, while also tracing the cultural ruptures of globalized trade as it relates to food as a commodity.

The exhibition consists of thirteen artists/artist-groups unpicking and untangling the multi-fibred net of postcolonial trade and cultural exchange. The objects are all imbued with a narrative essence; they weave together forgotten truths and slippery fictions to expose the agency and power of objects in a history of imperialistic exchange.

Maria Thereza Alves, detail from Wake in Guangzhou, 2008
Maria Thereza Alves, detail from Wake in Guangzhou, 2008

The work opens with a literal journey tracing the life and migration of seeds and plants from the Guangzhou district of China, as it was the lone port city through which foreigners were allowed entry into China. Maria Thereza Alves, a Brazilian artist working in Berlin, painstakingly delineates the network of travelers and options for migration of single seeds (she lists the mud-caked wheels of bicycles and traveling entertainers as well as various conquests) in Wake in Guangzhou: The History of the Earth (2008.) The viewer walks through this web around a constructed circular wall, and feels dizzy and dazed by the end of the proposition, having done exactly what the title suggested— traveling the history of the earth through a very specific lens.

Similarly, the Museum of Gourd in the central gallery of YBCA offers a look at the permutations of one specific object through its iterations in different cultures. A curatorial project by Chihiro Minato with works by Terri Friedman, Daizaburo Harada, Reiko Ogura, Shiro Takahashi, Victoria Wagner and Chihiro Minato and objects from the California Gourd Society, Museum of Gourd ranges from historical artifacts and archival traces to loose associative works. Reiko Ogura, an archivist, maps the usage of gourds in mythology; Terri Friedman and Victoria Wagner, two Bay Area artists, use the gourd as a springboard into deeper imaginations of their distinct practices. An anthropological assortment of objects both made of and influenced by the shape of gourds rest under plexiglass vitrines while two gourd shaped contraptions by Terri Friedman circulate water colored with glitter and light.

Victoria Wagner
Victoria Wagner

If the circulation of the gourd, and the range of its influences seems oddly specific to Native American cultures of the American West, it may surprise you to find that The American Gourd Society has chapters in 26 states, and there are brick and mortar Gourd Museums in Angier, North Carolina and Sautee, Georgia.

A secondary look through the intertwined distribution of product and politic is evident in Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan’s Monument of Sugar. Rows of thick bricks made of refined white sugar lie in a grid on the floor. The narrow spaces between the bricks are dusted with erosion– some bricks have suffered vertical fractures leaving free standing columns of condensed sugar sediment.

Lonnie Van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan, Monument of Sugar

While some blocks retain the opalescent white of refined cane sugar, others have experience browning and discoloration. Warm taupe colors radiate from the centers of the blocks, result in a gradation, which could be photographed and formatted to become a quality control test.

Van Brummelen and de Haan are based out of Amsterdam, and as such, their work had to be imported from the European Union. Currently, the European Union controls sugar imports by Tariff-Rate Quotas. These limitations force EU countries to meet their own sugar demands through the production of sugar beets and limit the amount of sugar that can be imported from abroad.

The Netherlands has a storied history with sugar import. The Dutch East India company first supported an international network of sugar exportation from the Brazilian sugar industry in the mid-1600s, creating their dependence upon South American supply. Trying to ease this dependence, trade restrictions have created a complicated web for the transport of sugar across international borders.

Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan, “Monument of Sugar” 16mm film still
Lonnie van Brummelen & Siebren de Haan, Monument of Sugar, 16mm film still
According to the Institute of Sugar Beet Research, two Netherlands-based companies, co-op Royal Consun and CSM Sugar, produced 865,000 tons of white sugar from 14,000 sugar beet growers in 2005[5]. Despite these numbers, the EU is currently facing a supply shortage of sugar, due, in part to its tariff limitations. Between 2010 and 2011, the European Commission allowed for 500,000 tons of sugar to be imported duty-free from African, Caribbean and Pacific suppliers.

Van Brummelen and de Haan bypassed these restrictions by naming their piece as a monument, which is subject to an entirely different system of import. The United States Harmonized Tariff Schedule classifies works of art and monuments, regardless of material, as duty-free, liable to be imported and exported without overbearing tax penalties and restrictions.

Co-curator Bettie-Sue Hertz says of Monument of Sugar, “circumventing international trade regulations by converting a valuable commodity (sugar) into a work of art, their project exposes the complex sugar trade between the European Union and other countries while also exploring the larger intersection of social and political issues with artistic and aesthetic practices.”

The work is paired with a 16mm film, which is projected daily in the space at 3pm. The silent film hauntingly grazes over images both of the artists preparing the blocks of sugar which have arrived in the gallery, and of the landscape of sugar production in Nigeria, charting the labor intensive process of both international projects.

The piece has traveled to Brussles, Shanghai, and the Palais de Tokyo, spreading its network through different cultures and receptions.

The projects in The Way Things Go fold together with time. It may take more than one viewing to absorb the nodes they weave together and unwrap apart, but each work at the least wraps the viewer into a deeper understanding of the way goods move, and the politics that engage in the movement of product. Like the dual meaning now implied through the vast reaches of the Banana Republic brand, we can think more of the global implications of seemingly benign commoditization.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banana_Republic
[2] Dan Koeppel (2008). Banana. The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World. London: Hudson Street Press. pp. 281, p. 68. ISBN 1-594-63038-0ISBN 978-1-59463-038-5.
[3] http://www.writing.ucsb.edu/faculty/dean/Upload501B-Fall06/PabloNeruda.pdf
[4] http://www.forbes.com/sites/muhammadcohen/2014/07/16/no-banana-republic-us-owned-saipan-acts-it-in-casino-battle/
[5] http://applicaties.irs.nl/ccmsupload/ccmsalg/sugar%20beet%20growing%20in%20the%20netherlands%20.pdf
[6]http://ybca.org/the-way-things-go

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