Prairies, Postcards, Islands, Fantasies.

Image: Paddy’s Green Bananas, an example of a prairie landscape.


In the Cartonography collection I consider each carton to be a conveyor of not only produce but potentially some other meaning, truth or idea. This may be a little wishful. It is only packaging after all; mass produced, delivered, used (once in most cases), transported again, and again, and then recycled to make other cartons. The life-cycle and journeys of a fruit carton is a fascinating thing and will one day be the centre of some of my research, but for now my concerns are focused on the designs that adorn these transient devices, and whether they can tell us something. Each carton has a design. Some are complex, some are humorous, some are garish and others are quite boring. Cartonography does not discriminate in collecting. It is a process that is interested in all fruit cartons and the possibility of each to contribute to a possible understanding of the landscape we are all part of in someway.

When I began collecting I was mainly interested in the way that fruit cartons depicted the landscape. I was intrigued by the way that the place that the fruit and vegetables were grown was represented by the people there. Was there a process of simplification occurring whereby the design was mimicking the process of simplification that occurs in agriculture?* And was there a sight-line from representations of landscape in the fine art traditions to agri-industrial representations of landscape? What I discovered was that the more cartons I collected the less interested I was in these questions alone. There were many other factors of design that were dominant, and the representation of landscape represented only a fraction of the designs across the broad spread of designs in the collection.

Consistent with all cartons, for example, is the use of text on the carton. Family names, and the use of word play were the focus of early research, as well as other observations on solar imagery. However I now return to the original area of inquiry – this question of representation – by way of other vernacular design types, such as those found on pins for bowling clubs and golf courses. Both these sites, which function primarily for entertainment and leisure, employ a similar simplification of the landscape in order to facilitate their eponymous functions. Especially golf courses, for which I have a long held fondness. I grew up playing golf and it has great significance for my family in forging identity (especially in the case of the Irish sides of my family). For me the golf course is an escapist playground; the contemporary equivalent of the landscape garden at best, and the decrepit theme park at worst (shame shame, putt-putt). My interest in their simplification of the land was matched by their respective coats of arms, often occupying beer coasters, t-shirts and decorative pins. In an earlier entry on The Cartonographer, “Emblematica – the fruit carton as coat of arms” I explored the idea of a fruit carton as a way for one to designate a quasi-official significance to one’s farming operation, borne out of a pride in their place and the way they had come to, and continue to, inhabit it.

This, combined with a visit to the Clovelly Bowling Club in Sydney, where there is a cabinet with pins from bowling clubs all over Australia in it, has led me back to the subject of landscapes on fruit cartons. These representations range from photographic, at one end of the spectrum, to gestural at the other. ‘Gestural’ is probably being generous in many instances, with some cartons’ landscapes represented as a single line to denote a hill. For the purposes of evaluating the array of landscapes I have elected categories for each carton to fall within, or across, as the case may be. These categories are as follows: Islands or Floating Worlds, Postcards, Prairies, and Fantasies.

Island 1. Islands/Floating Worlds. Understandably many cartons have sizeable variations in the relative scale of their graphics e.g. a large rockmelon alongside a small picture of a homestead on a farm. Within a regular picture plane, and sans text, these differences in scale would look rather strange. However the viewer’s acceptance relates to the context. “This produce is not from the ‘Big Rockmelon’” is not something the viewer will have to consciously process. Island_2 As is the case with the ‘Island’ or ‘Floating World’ on some fruit cartons. In these instances a landscape or house is untethered to any surrounding environs, and is not bounded by a proscenium or window frame; it is not grounded and seems to exist as a floating island within a monochromatic void. In such instances there is an allusion to the self-sufficiency of that which is represented, or perhaps it is less assured than this and the farm drifts in a sea of loneliness and isolation. Allandale 2. Postcards This category is fairly self-explanatory. It is essentially characterised by a desire for the carton to be snapshot of the place that it is from, and is usually more ‘accurately’ representational or photographic. A good example of this is the pineapple cartons that come from the Glasshouse Mountains near the Sunshine Coast, which is such a magnificent and otherworldly landscape. Mulgowie 3. Prairies These are probably one of the more fascinating representations of landscape within the realm of fruit carton design, even though they are characterised by their simplicity or ‘gestural’ nature. A prairie is essentially a meadow or grassland, which is naturally devoid of trees. It is a vast and open space, often flat but often having gentle undulating hills. The prairie has always occupied my mind as a romantic landscape, one located in the heart of America and looked out upon from a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, which in its horizontality pays homage to, and is dialogue with, the landscape around it. It’s either that which comes to mind or the saturated filmscape of Napoleon Dynamite, or a Blind Melon video clip. In both cases the simplicity of the environment is celebrated (for better or for worse). Part of the appeal with the prairie, I think, is that it is like pre-ordained farmland; it was first encountered that way and it is almost like it was born to have cattle or crops on it. It is this timeless quality that allows the farmer to look upon it as landscape to be worked with, and not against. Bora_Creek 4. Fantasies There is probably two separate types within this category: The fantasy of how they would like the place to look, as well as the fantastical, as it relates to fairytales, for example. Cartons designed in this way convey a fascination with the landscape they are from. There is a mystical – or just plain odd – quality to their depiction of the land. Cartonography makes no judgements when it comes to strangeness – but basically the odder the better. Fantasies are a category that exist both as landscapes and as vignettes (which do not necessarily pertain to location), and there is an element of fantasy in every depiction of landscape, so this is therefore a fairly obtuse category.

Occasionally however, you get cartons that are so brilliantly strange that they could stand for the category alone. Bora Creek Bananas is one such carton. On it a procession of what look like, relatively speaking, enormous bananas float down a river in a bare, hot pink landscape with a smattering of banana trees on either side. It becomes less strange when looked at for a while. Hot pink is a colour in fruit carton design that only begins to occur above a certain latitude around the area of Innisfail in Far North Queensland. This is an observation I made during the Cartonography exhibition, when all the fruit cartons were visible at once (it will be the subject of another blog entry). In the case of Bora Creek this colour might be more appropriate than the actual dominant colour of that area in conveying what it is like to be there. Granted, pink is a colour that makes one’s product stand out, and this may be the primary reason for choosing it, but looking at Western Desert paintings and the colours that are used and how appropriately they have come to illustrate their place, Bora Creek’s pinkness isn’t off the mark. Having been up there it is less implausible in representational terms than it might seem at first glance.

As for the creek in Bora Creek’s carton it is literally conveying the bananas, probably an analogy for the creek’s role in irrigating the plantation. This is unlikely though as looking at the map the farm appears to be on the foothills of the range, and would probably be amply supplied by orographic rainfall. Whatever the case the landscape and its dominant features are the central elements on this carton, as is the case with most of the simplified landscapes of fruit cartons across all of these categories.

Having looked at these designs and assembled a somewhat loose system of categorisation (a system that will probably need to be added to and/or refined as the collection grows), it may provide a methodology for making judgements on the nature of representation of landscape on cartons more broadly. However it may be that this pseudo-scientific system is inappropriate for looking at something that is essentially irrational, and can be explained in much simpler terms. I might be over thinking it, but it wouldn’t be much fun otherwise.

*Agriculture simplifies the land by clearing it of its original foliage, ploughing it, and sewing seeds on it at regular intervals, giving a uniformity to the arrangement crops and enabling mechanised management. It is simplified in both logistic and aesthetic terms.

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