Craig Martin on Maeve Brennan's 'An Excavation'

We commissioned writer and researcher Craig Martin to respond to Maeve Brennans An Excavation’ (2022), you can read his text on the work below.

ONE WORK is a series of online discussion events to think more deeply about how an artwork came into being. Focusing closely on a single work, these generous discussions provide space for an artist to present a recent work and talk through the work’s creation. The events are accompanied by a month-long online screening and specially commissioned written response published on the LUX Scotland website.

Maeve Brennans work​‘An Excavation’ (2022) was presented on the LUX Scotland website in April 2023 as part of our ONE WORK series.

Craig Martin is Reader in Design Studies in the School of Design, Edinburgh College of Art, The University of Edinburgh. As an interdisciplinary researcher his interests span design studies, social and cultural geography, and anthropology. Key theoretical concerns include the intersection of mundane design and social complexity. Of particular importance to his research is investigating the hidden power of everyday design, specifically the malevolent aspects of design and spatial politics, played out in a range of empirical settings such as drug smuggling practices. His books include Shipping Container (Bloomsbury, 2016) and Deviant Design: The Ad Hoc, the Illicit, the Controversial (Bloomsbury, 2022).

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The word EMPTY stands out. For me, it is the focus of the entire film.

Wrapped in tissue paper, newspaper, and bubble wrap, there is a sense of care for these looted antiquities, evidenced in particular by the thoughtful hands of the forensic archaeologists. The artefacts are carefully laid out on the table, the first stage in excavating the histories of the objects themselves, and the illicit networks of stolen goods.

This process of piecing together the fragmentary is central to Maeve Brennan’s An Excavation (2022); from painstakingly reassembling the antiquities, through unravelling the looting techniques used to identify the archaeological sites themselves, to the supply chain geographies of the illicit trade in looted antiques. For me it is the film’s focus on the mundanity of cardboard boxes, wrapping materials, or old pieces of newspaper that speaks to wider discussions of the materialities of illicit trade networks, both looted antiquities and others such as narcotics, and tobacco smuggling, but perhaps most starkly with people trafficking.

Written in black marker pen on a Global Singapore cardboard box, the word EMPTY holds the shot as the box is lifted out of a shipping crate. It is there again, screen-centre, as the archaeologists begin to unpack. I keep coming back to this word. Perhaps because the box is clearly not empty. It may of course simply refer to a previous context where the box was indeed empty. A palimpsest of use.

Instead, it is the potential of the word itself that resonates so powerfully. EMPTY could well be about disguise; diverting our attention away from what’s inside. There is nothing contained in the box, nothing to be seen. It is this technique of diverting the attention of the viewer – or more pointedly the interest of security services – that is so central to the material cultures of illicit trade networks such as looted antiquities or drug trafficking. In so many instances the packaging’ of illicit artefacts plays a fundamental role in the counter-logistical practices of criminal enterprises and networks.

This is particularly evident in the adoption of existing transportation routes, where illicit artefacts – be they cultural antiquities or methamphetamine – are, for example, smuggled through international airline routes, shipping and freight lanes, or postal networks. Distinct from shadow transport routes that run parallel to legal channels, in these situations traffickers deploy a range of smuggling techniques to embed illegal goods within the legality of these routes. Like the cardboard box that is seemingly empty, a suitcase with a false bottom used to house cocaine, carried through an airport terminal is outwardly a mundane object that simply forms part of the day-to-day life of a traveller. A motor car shipped across Europe is again a familiar facet of contemporary economic life, less so when the void spaces in the door frames or the bumpers are used to smuggle large quantities of heroin. Likewise, when shipping palettes sent from Columbia to Spain are not actually made out of wood as one expects, but from compressed cocaine disguised to look like painted wood.

An Excavation trains our eyes on the materialities of these illicit artefacts, the painstaking attempts to reconfigure the fragments of a looted culture into a splintered whole. Where the word EMPTY implies a void of sorts, it also directs our attention to the mundane packaging mechanisms employed by criminal entities in the circulation of illicit artefacts – the torn cardboard boxes, faded packing tape, the wrapping materials. These form an important part of the vast material assemblage of illicit circulatory capitalism.

The box is far from empty.


Image description: An image of a battered brown cardboard box on a table top,​‘empty’ has been handwritten in black marker at the top. Below it is a logo of a blue globe superimposed with the text​‘Global, Singapore’ in blue and white. Behind the box in a darkened room are fragments of ancient pottery.

Audio Version