lxwxd: contemporary dimensions of the box

Brisbane City Gallery
I 9 April - I 6 June 2002

One of the exhibition spaces at the Brisbane City Gallery used to be a shop, I think. lt is small with wooden panels and frames. lt is not painted white and the polished timber shelving has been retained in brown. There are ten or so panels in the room about a metre wide where shelving might once have been: each panel is more like a discreet space, an inset receptacle with an auburn-coloured frame. This small gallery has always been a perplexing space, partly because it was once a shop now used as a gallery, and partly because it is quite small. lt is often used for craft and jewellery exhibitions or exhibitions of small pieces. lt is actually kind of boxy, not in a claustrophobic way but in a way that is intimate: warm and brown and wooden.

lt somehow seems appropriate that this small space was the venue for an exhibition of works that variously engage the !rope of the 'box'. LxWxD featured ten Queensland-based, contemporary artists whose works use concepts of the box as a recurring motif. These artists included Madonna Staunton, Nicole Voevodin-Cash, Kim Demuth and Helen Nicholson. Despite its seeming intractability as an object-a box is a box is a box-the box nevertheless has a certain flexibility and versatility in our lives. Most obviously, it is a receptacle, a container for memories, hopes and dreams. Actually, the box is a container for just about anything that can be stored. lt is just more poignant or precious when we store memorabilia and mementos than breakfast cereal. In my living room alone, there are probably about seventeen different kinds of boxes, all holding different kinds of things. Some are empty for a shortage of things to store. Thatdoes not include the archive boxes in which I have stored my current working files, or the drawers in the sideboard, or the boxed artist book, or the sets of Nick Bantock and Frida Kahlo postcards or the television or the computer. Strangely in a bothersome way, I tend to lose quite a few things by placing them in boxes. In they go, never to be seen again. One day I might have the good fortune to write about matching sets of things, then I could tell you that I have several sets of things in this room too, sets of boxes, ceramic milk jugs and encyclopaedias. There is a great currency of boxes in my house-we give each other the gift of the box, not just the boxed gift, the box itself. All manner of box, in fact. We make assemblages and dioramas of collaged scapes for each other in cigar or other boxes, just modest offerings that speak of the things that flow between us. Of course, part of the gift is that anticipation of opening it, feeling the oiled smoothness of the hinge, to see what or if there is anything inside, like a gift that keeps on giving.

Obviously, I am the kind of compulsive collector who boxes and arranges things according to some imaginary architectonic of categorisation. lt is no surprise, then, that an exhibition of box-based work tickles my fancy to the most obsessive degree. lt is rather like visiting the boxed and modular world of IKEA. When I was a young girl, I was fixated by the Glory Box, this idea that a girl not only saves herself for marriage but also saves objects for marriage, making deposits into this box as a way of making the prospect of marriage all the more real. Like a money box-rest assured I had several of those too with which I saved small denominations of coins for a rainy day, the box is invested with the future in a way that collects all our hopes and desires. Pandora's Box, of course, was a mighty old box indeed. How negligent to have spilled all the woes of humanity onto the earth, except, as we know, hope. I wonder if, with our boxed collections of minutiae, we return to this archetypal trauma and endeavour to push back into the box what Pandora so fecklessly lost. Or perhaps, with our boxes of keepsakes and savings, we relive that moment of hanging on, as if to life itself, to hope, eternal hope.

Janet Callinicos's works, including installations and videos, have repeatedly evoked baking and bread-making to refer to life and death. For Callinicos, making bread addresses the alchemy of sustenance and transformation. In Knead, she used baker's loaf tins as a death metaphor to highlight the liminality of the spoken and unspoken. These tins are cold, empty and lifeless, blackened and scorched by years of use and removed from the oven's fire. lt is not just that these tins are containers for dough but that in order to become bread, the tins and their contents must be cooked. When my father died last year, I encountered this economy of the box. Never having buried a loved one but considering myself to be an expert on boxes, it was a difficult choice to make. My mother was emphatic that I pick a 'respectable box' (as if I could wrap my father in a chipboard or cardboard coffin!). I decided on a middle of the range, knotted pine box with a walnut stain-it did not have that glossy, almost mirrored finish which obliterates the grain. Very respectable , I thought, even as he was lowered into his grave, even as we dropped handfuls of dirt onto the box, even as the dirt hit the wood with a tiny thud, even as so many tears drenched the white, lace hankies we had bought especially for this occasion. Eugene Carchesio's Box Music, features sound pieces which test the acoustic quality of a range of boxes, such as a tissue box and cardboard boxes of various weights and sizes. In constructing this work, pressure was applied to the sides and bases of the boxes and the results were recorded - perhaps the microphone was placed inside the boxes. I listen to them with a pair of headphones suspended from a hook in this work's particular gallery receptacle and the sounds are familiar yet hard to describe: there is some tapping, the sound of slightly sweaty fingers and hands sticking, only for a moment, to the absorbent material of the box, and the sound of rubbing, sometimes a scuff, as something brushes against the surface. Carchesio's previous works have included miniature sculptures constructed in matchboxes.

My washed and pressed funeral hanky has now been carefully stored in that box in the top drawer of my dresser where I keep my most precious things, those things whose loss would be too unbearable. Its contents, among other things, includes a perfectly dried rose which I picked from the wreath, eidetic memorabilia such as a bracelet and rosary beads that were given to me and worn to church on Sundays and a baby photo of my now seven year old niece. Both of my parents are post-war migrants, having arrived in this country from Italy in 1957. They were strangers to each other when they boarded the ship, meeting on that journey and disembarking with their suitcases in hand, the suitcase of so many migrants, which contained everything that was theirs in the world. lt was not even full , my mother told me. So it is not as if their lives had to be squeezed into those cases, just folded and packed, then rattled around the not-full cases across the ocean.

Because of the demands of my father's work, the entire family moved interstate annually, every year collecting boxes, packing and unpacking until we stopped when I was about ten years old. The museum and archaeology of our lives was shunted from state to state, city to city, school to school, like too much baggage. We little girls lost so many beloved toys and pets to these movements. In Toy Gallery, Gareth Donnelly curated an exhibition of miniature, postage stamp size geometric abstractions in a compartmentalized cardboard box hung against the wall. lt was like a scaled maquette but the tattered gallery, made from corrugated cardboard, also had hallmarks of a homemade dolls house. For Susan Stewart, 'the miniature links to nostalgic versions of childhood and history, presents a diminutive, and thereby manipulative, version of experience, a version which is domesticated and protected from contamination'.1 The five white 'galleries' presented eleven tiny framed, paintings. Ahh irony. Donnelly questioned the authority of both the museum and the abstractions by undoing their seamlessness and scale. In miniature, they were no longer imposing largesse or architecture: they were mnemonic and precious

When we, my family, stopped our itinerant existence, my parents bought a convenience store, where everything was boxed in one way or another and where we three girls helped by packing groceries in boxes of every conceivable size. Andrew Arnaoutopoulos's By Products (No Logo) features a range of boxed consumer goods-1 recognise the packaging for a box of film-and obliterates the trademarks with a painted faux finish which transforms the cardboard surfaces. They all have a rusted, metal-like, industrial look which makes the once light card seem heavy and weighted. Arnaoutopoulos seems to reference Naomi Klein 's recent book, No Logo, and strips the capitalist import of logos and trademarks from these products, rendering them into industrially charged objects. In his recent works, Arnaoutopoulos has engaged ideas about the museum, the collection and the cultural affects of colonisation. He particularly points to the British Museum's refusal to return culturally significant artefacts, such as the Elgin Marbles, to their original owners. So, there is a strong tradition, at least in my family, of boxes and the things they contain. lt is like so many cups of tea. In Wim de Vos and Adele Outteridge's Teabag Sculpture, used teabags are threaded together and mounted in perspex boxes and look something like the stained and yellowed pages of an ancient book. There is an extraordinary kind of ordinary in this work where de Vos and Outteridge have collected what is wasted or left behind-like so many memories and souvenirs-and inscribed it with exhibitionary significance.

LxWxD presented many shades and shapes of the box in contemporary artistic practice. However, this show did not include any computer or video works, the boxes of the television and computer were conspicuously absent. The cultural significance of the box was brought to the fore in these explorations of the polarities of inside and outside, past and future, closed and open, contained and loose. The boxed assemblages and collages of Duchamp and Cornell were enmeshed in readings of LxWxD. So too, Gaston Bachelard seemed to echo in the corners and crevices of this little gallery of tiny sculptures: 'every angle in a room, every inch of secluded space in which we like to hide, or withdraw into ourselves, is a symbol of solitude for the imagination; that is to say, the germ of a room, or of a house'. 2 These boxes invariably referred to other boxes like the architectures and constructions that contain us, the boxy suburban home, the gridding of urban space and the 'white box' of the gallery and museum.

notes: 

I . Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, 1993, Duke University Press, Durham, 1999, p.69.

2. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 1958, Beacon Press, Boston, 1999, p.l36.