A Box is a Thing around a Thing it is Not

Robert Filliou, Création permanente, 1969, three wooden boxes on a wooden board, framed. Museum Abteiberg Mönchengladbach
Robert Filliou, Création permanente, 1969, three wooden boxes on a wooden board, framed. Museum Abteiberg Mönchengladbach

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.

Andy Warhol, Brillo Box, 1964, silkscreen and ink on wood, 17 x 17 x 14 inches
Andy Warhol, Brillo Box, 1964, silkscreen and ink on wood, 17 x 17 x 14 inches

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…).

Joseph Cornell, Pavilion, 1953, box construction, 18 7/8 x 11 7/8 x 6 1/2 in. Art Institute of Chicago
Joseph Cornell, Pavilion, 1953, box construction, 18 7/8 x 11 7/8 x 6 1/2 in. Art Institute of Chicago

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