5th August 2021
A box of delights, a box of tricks, a Pandora’s Box? Tod Hanson’s sculptural installation, Box Room, asks questions that evoke industrial history and ideology, consumption and control, family and faith. This brightly painted shipping container-sized structure sits, shrine-like, at the newly whitewashed heart of Port Sunlight’s Church Hall. Its busily decorated exterior recalls the red, blue and yellow colour blocks of the original 1884 packaging for Sunlight soap, the wholesome laundry product that helped turned Lever Brothers into what is now a global consumer giant, Unilever, selling us everything from ice cream to washing powder, mayonnaise to tea.
Hanson’s take on the Lever story and Port Sunlight’s place within it is rich in references that stretch from the fireplace of a Victorian factory worker’s home to palm oil plantations in west Africa. It’s a journey that makes connections through a visual language which combines the design flourishes of early consumer advertising with Hanson’s own distinctive use of dots, mapping and repeated graphic motifs.
Another box readily springs to mind here – Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box series from the 1960s. Yet while that iconic, ground shifting work elevated a banal, everyday consumer object into something worthy of sculptural representation, Hanson instead deconstructs both the product and its promises. To use a more contemporary cultural reference, if this were an ‘unboxing’ video on YouTube – if you’re not familiar with the genre, try entering the term into a reliable search engine – as the layers of packaging come off, talk would turn to the people and places involved in making the item, the industrial reality behind the lifestyle dream, rather than the merits or otherwise of a shiny new piece of tech.
Hanson’s ‘unboxing’ comes in the form of a heavily patterned interior domestic space, revealed proscenium arch-style along one side of the structure. Here the colours become muted and metallic in a domestic space snaked by painted, factory-style conveyor belts, their curves offering a visual link to the exterior’s architectural grids that call to mind street plans and gardens. Box Room, then, can be seen as a meeting place for unpicking what capitalist consumer culture proposes and what it actually delivers, whether that’s the allure of a better, more comfortable life through ‘perfectly pure’ soap suds, or the social control that inevitably came with the workers’ village model of Port Sunlight, with the factory a short walk away from home and the boss living just round the corner.
Not that Box Room is in anyway didactic or hectoring. Hanson’s CV may include time working on projects for Greenpeace UK, but there is no sloganeering zeal. It feels significant, in fact, that while the first thing the viewer sees as they enter the space is the back of the installation which directly draws on the Sunlight soap design, any text that would have been on the original packaging has been replaced here with bubble-like circles and dots. You could say the original messaging has been redacted – albeit playfully – turning a specific historical item into a modern marketing trope: Bright colours! Bold graphics! Buy now!
Do we buy it? Do we delight in the surface promise of our consumption-driven lives or do we want to explore other routes, find different narratives, construct another way? Box Room asks us to think about such things, to consider how we got from there to here – and perhaps decide what has and hasn’t been worthwhile about the journey.
– By Chris Sharratt