On a recent visit to Robert Filiou: The Institute of Endless Possibilities at the Henry Moore Institute, I stood for a long time in front of an odd little object, or rather an odd little collection of objects. At its center was a plank of blonde wood set on hooks as though a module in a much bigger accumulation, with three diminutive boxes containing a small red sock, an even smaller red sock, and a tacked piece of paper with its title, Création permanente, scribbled on it. I did not come into the exhibition with much knowledge of Filliou or his work, and neither is my concern here. My reaction to this object was not academic, but felt personal, intimate even, and certainly without regard for any artistic intent. The aspect that set the whole work off for me was the vitrine-like frame around the interior objects. This enclosing, museological box initiated a deeper interrogation into the mechanics of the smaller boxes contained within; which in turn, created reciprocal dialogues of scale and the (in)accessibility to interior space. The structure of the outer box prompted me to think of preciousness, of the things we long to preserve, to contain, to separate, to keep hidden, to move or to share.
The encounter with Filliou’s “permanent creation,” this box of boxes, also caused me to reflect more broadly on the nature of boxes and the fine lines separating them from other inanimate things, from the things they contain, transport, or put on display. A quick google image search for the word box unsurprisingly generates hundreds of banal images of plain wood and brown cardboard cubes, stamped with “fragile” and “handle with care;” objects existing to help you move and store other objects. Scattered amongst these results – besides an alarming number of cat-related boxes (litterboxes, how to make a hammock for your cat in a box, etc.) – was an image of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box. Now leave it to Warhol to collapse so many complex concerns into such a tidy, seemingly straightforward thing. He gives us no access to the inside of his box. We only have the silkscreened surface, almost perfectly replicating the wrappings of a mass-marketed household product, and yet we know, either from looking at the object in front of us or by reading a caption/wall text, that this is a wooden box, clearly constructed and placed within an institution for the display of art. We are left then knowing or not knowing what is inside (nothing, structural armature, fun surprise, actual brillo pads…).
Warhol’s Brillo Box then is not just a box but also, depending on your inclination, a painting on a three-dimensional support or an outright sculpture. It crosses a threshold between a box significant only for what it contains and a box that is a thing in its own right. The history of art, both told and untold, is littered with boxes that operate in this liminal space, calling attention to its functional qualities while proclaiming its existence as sculptural thing: sarcophagi, reliquaries, decorative objects, cabinets of curiosities, and even the modern space of the museum gallery. Modern art has introduced us to Duchamp’s suitcases of miniatures, Cornell’s melancholy, cosmos of imagination, and the geometric, metal cubes of 1960s abstract sculpture. In these boxes, and the many more that could be included, there is an innate tension between the structure of the form and space or material in between its exterior boundaries.
Contemporary art has plundered this tension, which could be understood as the distinctive characteristic of the box. For example, Walead Beshty created glass sculptural cubes made specifically to fit into standard FedEx boxes, which he then shipped in said boxes around the world, displaying them together at their destination – the gallery exhibiting his work. Or another, quite formally divergent example, the performance of Tilda Swinton at MoMA this past month, which involved the actress and her personal effects napping on a mattress within a glass vitrine. Though made with vastly different intents, both works relied on the structure and inherent tension of the box, which in both cases was crucially transparent.
What these two, rather randomly selected, examples attest to is that while there may not be anything innately unique about a box, its framing and containing qualities can immediately set another thing apart as something worthy of careful consideration, especially within the context of art. While often thought of as innocuous display vehicles or not thought of at all, the box is a limit in designating art as such. Robert Smithson, who employed a variety of box-like forms in his site/non-site pieces, wrote of the power and necessity of such containment in his 1968 essay, “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects.”
Yet, if art is art it must have limits. How can one contain this ‘oceanic’ site? I have developed the Non-Site, which in a physical way contains the disruption of the site. The container is in a sense a fragment of itself, something that could be called a three-dimensional map…. It is a three-dimensional perspective that has broken away from the whole, while containing the lack of its own containment. There are no mysteries in these vestiges no traces of an end or a beginning.¹
1 Robert Smithson, “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects (1968),” in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.