Monday, June 20, 2011

The World of the Box: A Collection of Thoughts

A shoebox can hold shoes, cradle substitute memories, or be discarded once we handle what it holds. Boxes hide, protect, preserve, keep secret, or darken our past chapters. They can contain us, frame us. We both are and aren't our old photographs, papers, and saved objects.

Our perception of the box takes a turn when we focus on it, the box, as just as important the contents. Sir Hans Sloane collected and identified plants and insects in the 1680s, committing his finds to boxes which were sealed inside with one glass wall, not hidden, only partly protected. He did not want any of the contents forgotten or the collection broken, and after he died in 1753 the boxes became the core of the British Museum at Bloomsbury and later the Natural History Museum. If you looked at the boxes and did not know that Sloane was a scientist you might think he was an artist: the edges of the boxes are covered in marbled paper, his lovely pen and ink handwritten notations and labels covering much of the backs or backgrounds. Here is a beetle, here is a dried leaf. You can also see a sort of specimen cabinet with pigeonholes for objects as well as the boxes. Photos of the boxes themselves are in issue #41 of Cabinet magazine accompanying the article by James Delbourgo "What's in the Box: the time machines of Sir Hans Sloane." I'm also interested in the fact that Sloane brought a recipe for chocolate back with him from his travels to Jamaica, that eventually the Cadburys used Sloane's recipe, and that chocolates are sold as specimens, perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, in a compartmented box.

What about the box as art? Looking at Joseph Cornell's boxes, you find a similarity with Sloane's in the glass wall. A viewing box as well, not meant to hide, but to frame and keep order, to "contain compositions," three-dimensional still lifes. Cornell, who was also interested in scientific discovery, did not collect objects to identify, classify, and label, but to juxtapose them inside the box to tell his own story and to create something new rather than to preserve something old. Cornell began to make his boxes around the time of the Depression in the late 1920s - early 30s, approximately two hundred years after Sloane. The time period called for frugality and re-use so it seems natural that he would collect and save objects for the future. In the lavish and wonderful catalogue Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination he is quoted, "…everything can be used in a lifetime" (56).

Two exhibits at the Oakland Museum of California this year reminded me of boxes. Mark Dion in his exhibit The Marvelous Museum: Orphans, Curiosities & Treasures, made a whole section of the museum into a cabinet of curiosities just by pulling forgotten odd objects and taxidermied animals from the museum's archives. His work makes the box enormous, and he is propelled by uncontainable curiosity. What happens when the world is the box? What kind of dialogue can two objects have?  What happens when we see unfamiliar objects? Can you bring the past back to life? How do seemingly obsolete things affect us? He says:

…I think slippage is an important idea.…There should be a moment of uncertainty…It's very much an experience of moving from one familiar thing to another, and then occasionally there's an object—a painting, an artifact—that leads to a point of irritability. There's something you don't know here, something unfamiliar. (21)
The excitement, the awakening of the viewer comes from that unfamiliar moment, and may lead to a rethinking of what s/he has experienced up until that point as well. The quote is from the exhibition catalogue, which is nicely packaged as a faux wooden packing box containing translucent envelopes bound into a book along with traditional pages. Inside the envelopes you will find full color cards of various objects with detailed labels on the backs. A book in a clamshell box: familiar, yet not entirely.

Michael C. McMillen created a series of lifesize boxes, stories, other worlds for his exhibit Train of Thought. His glass wall is rather the fourth wall of the stage. Sometimes that wall is a peephole, sometimes there is no glass and you physically enter and become part of the work and world. The museum website describes the works as "multisensory installations." He has transformed his early experience making stage sets into a lifetime of working as an artist creating worlds from his own imagination. He takes and makes common objects, builds, and sets up scenes. He, too, has a catalogue. The exhibit is at OMCA until Aug. 14th and contains films he has assembled as well as the large installations.

These makers similarly use the box to reveal rather than to hide. Preserve and label: catalogue for information. Juxtapose and imagine: present a vision. Focus on the connecting links: set up a discussion. Collect and stage: create a world. Four ways of working with the box. In the above examples you can't handle any of the contents, only the outsides of some of the smaller boxes. The staging is fixed the way the sequence is often, but not always, fixed in a book format. But what if you could rearrange the contents? In some instances the meaning will change. In other cases the sequential order does not matter, it is the cumulative effect that is important. Your knowledge builds with each object, but the full intent is only revealed when you have handled all of the pieces.

There isn't really any reason why you couldn't read a book out of order this way; we certainly read online like this. Sometimes to become fully engaged with something, however, we want to get lost in it, not get lost because of it. I know I tend to like a story with a continuous narrative or at least with thick enough threads to hold onto. But you might consider, and not discard, using the box in your work for a multi-faceted and tactile reading experience.

Word Waves & Wordless Tides, 2009


Chele said...

Oh boy, I love boxes. I love books about boxes. I love boxes that hold books (like Patience by Randi Parkhurst).

But I've never made one. My brain sort of turns off when I start thinking about that 3rd dimension.


Alisa said...

To avoid brain freeze, ease in slowly…
Here's one approach if you want to try working with the 3rd dimension:
Choose a topic.
Scavenge for objects, words, colors, and images that relate to that topic.
Randomly pick two of the things and put them together to see what happens.
Add another.
Follow a feeling, keeping your topic in mind as you add things one by one, arranging the material as you go.
Play for awhile to see what seems to fit and what doesn't.
Don't be afraid to save half of what you've collected for another project.
(If you want to try building the box itself, instructions are in Chapter 11 of MHB.)