Dr. Shelley Roff participates in Kaohsiung Container Arts Festival

By Nicole Chavez

(December 1, 2011) -- Dr. Shelley Roff, an Associate Professor with the College of Architecture at UTSA, was selected to travel to Taiwan in late November to participate in the Kaohsiung International Container Arts Festival. In the biennial cultural event, artists are asked to transform empty shipping containers into unique works of art using interactive installations, painting, or creative reconfigurations. Roff was granted the award in the American Sister Cities category, and was one of nine artists chosen for the festival in 2011. Since 2001, the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts has invited talented artists from around the world to express their ideas on urban ecology and join the search for possible solutions to modern predicaments. The works of art created reflected the 2011 theme of “Artbitat,” a play on “habitat” which invites the artists to exercise their imaginations to create visions of the home that transcend time and space.

“This festival started in 2001 because of the slowdown of trade in the global economy,” said Roff. “Usually there is an excess number of shipping containers in America, because everything gets shipped from Asia to America, yet there are fewer goods being shipped in reciprocal fashion in the direction of Kaohsiung. However, because of the overall global slowdown there is a glut of shipping containers on their end as well. I have the impression that there was a complaint about the containers building up in this port city like garbage, so they decided to make them into something beautiful.”

Every container has borne witness to the ups and downs of maritime shipping in Kaohsiung’s evolving civilization. Each artist created a permanent artwork out of a rusty, bent waste vessel, and the exhibition seeks to let viewers share the artists’ skills, humor, and creative ideas via the container’s mysterious, yet open, quality. The works encourage people to overcome their impression of the container as being cold, hard, bulky, or vaguely threatening, and instead use it to find inspiration regarding life.

While most people think of the home as being a physical location or the actual physical container that you live in, Roff explored the idea of home in a more fundamental way. Her proposal was to turn the 20-foot container into a sculptural commentary on the nature of our primeval home. The naked container (which represents the body, our original home) is partially covered in a woven, superficial skin of repeating patterns and ‘wounds’ created with a metalized adhesive tape that has a mirror-like finish.

“When we’re very young, we’re domesticated and, in a sense, shown how to adapt to regular repeating patterns in life so we can be a part of this social world,” explained Roff. “There are some repeating patterns that show up on the surface of my container. Eventually, things start to happen to us. It’s inevitable that we have these wounds — small wounds and big wounds, all the things that help shape us into who we are. And as those wounds are different for every person, they would be different for every container.”

The viewer’s fragmented image is reflected in the “skin” of the container, next to household debris and floating text caught in the patterns. The text represents excuses, the words we say to ourselves that keep us on the surface and prevent us from spending time with our interior true self. The interior of Roff ’s shipping container is completely naked and empty, except for a reflective screen, and is designed to be a space for meditation on one’s true self.

“The little excuses on the outside of the container are the reasons why we don’t actually go inside and meditate,” said Roff. “There is one phrase that will repeat five times on the sides, and that’s the one I think is most common, at least in American culture: ‘I just don’t have time.’ Most people don’t realize that we don’t necessarily live with our true self on a daily basis. But we could. That is kind of the overall message of the piece.”

The selected artists had about two-and-a-half weeks to actually construct their sculpture — most arrived in Kaohsiung around mid-November, and completed on-site production of the physical work by the end of the month. The exhibition has been open since Dec. 10, 2011 and runs through Jan. 31, 2012. The artists receive funding for their creation, but all supplies had to be bought ahead of time. Roff took her main materials (the adhesive tape, plastic wrap, and half of the household items) with her in addition to a UTSA Football pennant, and purchased the majority of her tools and heavier materials in Kaohsiung. She also purchased the other half of the household items on-site in an effort to incorporate both Taiwanese and American cultures.

Roff said the proposal process was exceptionally detailed. Artists had to lay out a day-by-day work schedule, create an itemized list of every material and tool that would be used, and figure out travel arrangements that would fit within the budget. She also had the choice of either making a model or utilizing drawings to present her artistic vision for the proposal. Roff built a one-inch scale model, created her sculptural design from it, photographed the model, and wrote an artistic concept for the proposal.

When asked how she decided to apply for the award, Roff said that she saw the call for submissions a bit late in the process, but realized that she had some free time to work on the proposal before the fall semester started.

“Kaohsiung is a port city, and I do research on port cities. It just sounded like an interesting project,” said Roff. “I was a painter before I went to graduate school, and was also a designer in architecture offices, so I was familiar with the territory, though I haven’t done anything like this in a long time.”

Roff received her Ph.D. in the History of Art and Architecture from Brown University. Prior to obtaining her doctorate, she practiced architecture in Boston and San Francisco, and holds a B.E.D. from Texas A&M University and an M.Arch from the University of California at Berkeley.