THE BOX AS A MEDIUM
What happens when the most enduring form of storage leaves behind ubiquity and becomes a unique protagonist? Have a glance at this eclectic mix of artworks in which the box isn’t just a structural solution, but a means of conceptual expression.
Brillo Box (Soap Pads), 1964
Close to exact copies of commercial packaging, Andy Warhol’s brillo boxes pose questions that persist to this day: When and how does a familiar or mundane object become a work of art? The most meta part of the Brillo works are, the fact that Warhol made numerous of them and widely sold them to commercial galleries, he not only replicated their physical form, but also the real product’s consumerist modes of production.
Walead Beshty FedEx® Large Box ©2005 FEDEX 139751 REV 10/05 SSCC, Priority Overnight, Los Angeles-New York trk#795506878000, November 27-28, 2007
Walead Beshty creates glass boxes which perfectly fit to the internal dimensions of various commercial FedEx boxes. These works are then shipped to the galleries they are to be shown in, in their fragility are damaged in the shipping/handling process, and then carefully removed to be shown in their exact broken state.
“The boxes themselves are a proprietary volume owned by FedEx… DHL or UPS are barred from using the exact same size and shape, so they’re a unit of space owned by a corporation…”
Two Cubes, 2005
Sol Lewitt’s Two Cubes plays with notions of minimalism and commerciality in the same breath. The wooden box at the work’s base mimics the brown of the quintessential cardboard box, in an essentialist, clean manner.
Langhaus (Vitrine), 1953-62 and Fat Chair, 1964-85
Joseph Beuys implemented the vitrine throughout many of his sculptures. At the more artisanal end of boxes, these cabinets connote preciousness to the objects that lie inside. Made from glass and wood, Beuys’ vitrines are seen as much a part of the artwork as the sculptural elements they hold.
Image: Tate Modern
Box #75, 1968
Conceptual assemblage artist Lucas Samaras has incorporated objects and photographs alike throughout his career. From the 1960 he began forging artworks from found and purchased boxes, transforming them into “...things with a seducing-repelling quality”. Box #75 features a graphic thorn motif, sitting somewhere between 2 and 3-d, along with its bold acrylic painted surface.
One Ton Prop (House of Cards), 1986
“Even though it seemed it might collapse, it was in fact freestanding. You could see through it, look into it, walk around it, and I thought, “There’s no getting around it. This is sculpture.”
The sculptor Richard Serra used essentialist geometry in a variety of industrial materials, in this instance lead antimony, an alloy of the two metals with an extreme weight. One Ton Prop is the most substantial ‘house of cards', which Serra created in response to the verb ‘to prop’. The four sides of this box lean against one another, holding one another up. The distinction between its density, and the fleeting, almost light feeling in its execution, is vast.
Condensation Cube, 1963-5
Hans Haacke creates sculptures that exhibit their own biological processes. Condensation Cube is a sealed perspex box containing a small amount of water which then condenses over time, changing according to its surrounding light and temperature. Haacke’s cube holds a fleeting type of beauty, with its ever-changing condensation, that also transforms the immobile art-object into something more personified.
Image: Museum of Contemporary Art Barcelona
Autonomy Cube, 2015
Trevor Paglen’s Autonomy Cube is a plexiglass box housing a series of internet-connected computers, routing all of its traffic through Tor’s network: Autonomy Cube serves as an internet anonymizer. The glassy political statement is designed to be shown in galleries, museums, and civic spaces, permitting its users to evade techno-surveillance.
Image: Trevor Paglen
Franz Erhard Walther
Four Body Weights & First Work Set in Storage Form, 1963-9
Conceptual artist Franz Erhard Walther explores more abstract forms of space, relating to the human body through various durational performance works. In Four Body Weights, immateriality takes precedent: a simple box shape is ‘drawn’ by a piece of fabric held by four bodies. Erhard Walther was interested in objects, not by themselves, but how people transform and imbue life into them. He saw his works as ‘inhabitable spaces’: a box can feel like a house or a body that is altered by what it contains, and vice versa. In First Work Set in Storage Form Erhard Walther presents a variety of components used in various performances.
John Wood and Paul Harrison
Six Boxes, 1997
Humorous and playful performance artists John Wood and Paul Harrison make use of the simplicity of the box with great effect. “We have been interested in the idea of architectural spaces in a very basic way, the relationship between a wall and a floor; point, line and plane...” says Wood, and “and we worked with these very simple interests,” adds Harrison.
TO HOLD A FROG
How we learned to carry, contain, and reveal.
Our hands are porous containments, only able to hold a frog, a fruit, a flower, or another hand. Our hands are scavengers, jugglers, manipulators, openers, and embracers–rather than containers. We can only hold onto something or someone for so long.
It’s not the insular ability to hunt and carve spears that propelled our civilization forwards, but our capacity to gather, carry, and store. Perhaps, our hands needed to extend themselves in capacity further than a handful. To employ a sling, a net woven out of flax fiber and your own hair, where we were able to gather precious oats, earthy roots, and astringent fruits. We learned to work with the seasonality and unpredictable futures: to store what we have gathered on a sunny afternoon, and claim it on a cold and rainy day, in hunger. Far more frequent were the days of gathering, than hunting. Yet both, the heroism of hunting and dexterity of gathering were vital, neither could exclude the other, as noted by Ursula K. Leguin in the essay Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.
Agrarian livelihood drove the need to craft boxes, work wood, and construct basic structures that would allow us to further store and protect food, as well as seal our precious belongings. Later, societies of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece decorated boxes with intricate detail, precious stones, and metals. Ornament and inscription allowed us to provide a higher meaning to something so inherently simple. A box protected our beliefs, our rituals, our spirituality, and our culture. An ossuary was the carrier of the body into the underworld. A box was craftsmanship that invited art to tell a tale of our daily lives–the adornment of a box was the adornment of our stories: it wasn’t the paintings, sculptures, or fine art that held our precious, personal, familial, belongings. We wanted to hold onto a necklace gifted by a lover, a ring passed down from a maternal line, a letter of reconciliation, a knife with a carved-bone handle–as a relic. It was the urns, chests, coffers, and coffins that held all of it. The daily culture is inscribed in the story of our box-making. But how is our culture contained and protected today by a cardboard box of Amazon?
We learned how to build shipping containers, and with the invention of an industrial cardboard box in the late 19th century, the content within the box slowly turned into a commodity that preyed upon the pleasure of anticipation and the rush of excitement. As we open the box, the mystery is revealed and we have caught a piece of novelty in our hand. Naomi Klein encapsulates the elusive sense of satisfaction after opening a new box in No Is Not Enough:
“…while our branded world can exploit the unmet need to be a part of something larger than ourselves, it can’t fill it in any sustained way: you make a purchase to be a part of a tribe, a big idea, a revolution, and it feels good for a moment, but the satisfaction wears off before you’ve thrown out the packaging for that new pair of sneakers, that latest model of iPhone, or whatever the surrogate is. Then you have to find a way to fill the void again.
But it’s always worth remembering: at the heart of this cycle is that very powerful force — the human longing for community and connection. And that means there is still hope: if we rebuild communities and begin to derive more meaning and sense of the good life from them, many of us are going to be less susceptible to the siren song of mindless consumerism.”
Unboxing videos on YouTube are a phenomenon that allows us to pseudo-receive. Maybe, watching someone else unbox a new purchase from our cherished brands brings us closer to belonging, even without having to own the item ourselves. Something that evolved our culture throughout the centuries, continues to capture our attention and drives the endless growth of our economy today. The chest that once carried a mystery, became means to demystify and obtain the world.
Can we feel the desire to absolve the mystery: to feel the height of anticipation and slow down our need to gratify? To hold the tension.
Perhaps. We are reminded of the Japanese folktale of a young fisherman Tarō, who was told not to open a precious jeweled box, and still, he did. Surprisingly, the young man opens the box out of grief and derangement, after realizing that a hundred years have passed while he was gone. The grief of the lost community and family pushed Tarō to unseal the lid. White smoke came out of the box and turned Tarō into an old grey-haired man. The folktale parallels Naomi Klein’s sentiment: the presence of community soothes the insatiable consumption with the medicine of connection. Boxes are portals, a transformation, delineating boundaries of the inside from the outside. Opening the box merges both realities, by making the object, idea, or secret present on the outside. The way Tarō is transformed, upon receiving, so are we. The question is, who do we want to be transformed into, after opening a box?
Cover Image: Urashima Tarō opening the tamate-bako (Box of the Jewel Hand). Source: japanpowered.com
Image 1: Complete set of canopic jars of the four sons of Horus; 900–800 BC; painted limestone; Walters Art Museum (Baltimore, US). Source: Wikipedia
Image 2: The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction by Ursula K. Le Guin
Image 3: Amazon prime shipping box. Source: Amazon
THE STORY OF KIRI-BAKO
A box contains everything and nothing until you open it.
A long time ago lived a young fisherman, named Urashima Tarō. One day on the shore he saw three young children torturing a small turtle. He rescued the turtle and released it back into the waters. The next day, a big turtle approached Tarō to thank him for the rescue, as the small turtle happened to be princess Otohime, the daughter of Ryūjin, the shapeshifter Emperor of the Undersea. The turtle rolled Tarō on his back and brought the fisherman to the underwater palace of the Emperor, Ryūgū-jō. Here the young man met Otohime in her human form, and she treated him well with delicious food, drinks, and entertainment. Three days passed and Tarō realized that he needed to come back to the village, so, he asked to leave. With sadness Otohime let him go, but before Tarō left, she gifted him a mysterious jeweled box called tamatebako. The princess told the young man that the box will protect him from harm, but there is one thing–he is never allowed to open it. When Tarō resurfaced on the land, he realized that he couldn’t recognize anyone in his village. Everything has changed. People he knew were gone. Overflown by grief, the fisherman realized that a hundred years have passed, and out of grief, he opened the tamatebako. A white smoke came out of the box and Tarō turned into an old man with a long beard and crooked back. Suddenly he heard the voice of Otohime, reverberating from the sea: "I told you not to open that box. In it was your old age...".
The Japanese relationship with a box follows a trail of an ancient culture, deeply tied to the mystery of containment. In a box, we can capture the essence of dreams, symbols, and amulets. It parallels a chamber, where we place our treasures, jewels, memories, ideas, visions, and stories that live beyond us. Only when we open a box, a story is told. The folk tale about the fisherman Tarō opens our eyes to our desire to touch the unknown before our time. And it also asks us to hold onto our curiosity, and sometimes, allow the mystery to remain a mystery. In the tale, the Japanese word tame plays on the double meaning of jewel and soul.
In the cultural web of time, the Kiri-Bako box became an accompaniment to Japanese rituals by protecting items of profound significance: heirloom kimonos, tea ceremony sets, etc. Whether the box was passed down from one generation to another, or gifted as a meaningful gesture of union, it signified an establishment of a bond between the giver and receiver. Every precious vulnerability asks for equally capable containment, and Kiri-Bako has proven itself to be the most reliable companion to the precious pieces it was meant to contain. The reason Kiri-Bako has gained such popularity is because of its wood, which comes from the tree called Paulownia, in Japanese Kiri 桐.
Paulownia is known as the Empress Tree. It opens its lilac, fox-glove blossoms in spring, seeping with a fragrance of vanilla. Each blossom, like a bell, rings a story of the tree, echoing through the centuries: Japan’s relationship with this tree dates back to 200 AD. Those working with this species recognized how fast the trees would regenerate from their root systems, after the harvest. Perhaps that’s why Paulownia has been regarded as a symbol of regeneration–a phoenix, that is said to land with its feathery lilac wings, to bring good fortune. In the past, aristocratic families carried a tradition to plant the tree upon the birth of their daughter. As the girl matured, so did the tree. Paulownia saw the daughter grow, the tree saw her play, her tears, and the passage of her teenage years. When the girl was ready to leave her home for marriage, the Paulownia tree was cut, and crafted into boxes that would carry her dowry. This way the tree continued to contain the woman’s memories, as well as her belongings into a new stage of life. Paulownia with its regenerative capacity is often called the Tree of Life, which shapeshifts with the help of a deep lineage of craftsmanship. It continues to live on in our homes, as gifts and cauldrons of our belongings.
During the Edo period in Japan, Paulownia wood became a highly valuable material for box craftsmanship. It is sturdy, yet light and pliable. No other wood is able to withstand heat, cold, and water, the way Paulownia does. Once the Kiri-Bako is submerged in water, it swells and seals itself, protecting the inner contents of the box. These qualities were deeply valued in the changing climate of temperature and water in Japan, where fire, heavy rain, and flooding were occurring frequently. The wood also carries natural anti-fungal and anti-mold properties, making it a valuable storage material. In this way, Kiri-Bako lives its own life, alongside the treasure it contains. The presence of contemporary heirlooms asks for a new approach to how we consume, how we create, and what we decide to proliferate into reality. Is there a box that opens, and continues to live on, for generations: a Kiri-Bako, a box of a regenerative tree, that provides a safe containment of our communities, dreams, stories, ideas, and creativity?
CHOWA introduces Kiri-Bako as Chowa Box, which is crafted in partnership with Akebono Kogei, a third-generation Kiri-Bako box manufacturer from Fukuyama, Hiroshima. This region has over 400 years of expertise in the craft. Our collaboration has resulted in exceptional quality for the Chowa Box. To us, the box is a portal that creates permissionless boundaries to explore, a physical object that is an invitation to generative creativity and reflection.
Image 1: Urashima Tarō and princess of Horai, by Matsuki Heikichi (1899) Source: Wikipedia
Image 2: Paulownia flower. Source: iStock, williamhc
The history of containment reaches beyond the physical. The structures we create to hold stories and beliefs are as much as real as the dimensional boundaries and grids we exert onto the material landscapes. Perhaps, the cultural landscaping we engage in within our societies arises from the grid-like structures within. Certain beliefs, stories, and myths ask to be unboxed into the daylight of our awareness. To be lifted out of the container and re-examined with a generous dexterity. Boxes have served us as blank slates to allow us to manipulate metaphors and draw mental models: encouragement to think outside the box affirmed that we were already inside, to begin with. We contain and pass down stories from mouth to mouth, from one culture to another. And yet, at the very primal level in a box, we are able to store what is precious to us, as well as what we want to hide from a plane sight–what we want to preserve and what we want to forget. A box is a place of liminality, a portal, adorned by jewels and mystical scriptures or mail stamps and shipping labels. Here, we picked the 10 most iconic boxes of the mind.
THE BOX OF SCHRODINGER'S CAT
Schrodinger's Cat is a thought experiment in quantum mechanics, portraying the box as a container of potential. Imagine a cat inside a closed box with a vial of poison that may or may not be released by the decay of a radioactive atom. According to quantum theory, before we observe the system, the cat is in a superposition of both alive and dead states, representing all possible outcomes simultaneously. The cat's fate is intricately connected to the decay of a radioactive substance, which is also in a superposition of decaying and not decaying. Only when the box is opened and observed does the wave function collapse, and the cat's state becomes definite. Until then, the cat exists in a blurred, indeterminate state of possibilities. Schrodinger's Cat illustrates the concept of superposition and the inherent paradox, paralleling a cat to a quantum particle.
The black box is opaque. It exists in relation to being understood and remaining an enigma. The design of the black box becomes an intentional lack of transparency and occlusion, where the designers themselves are unable to recover the primary elements that went into the black box in the first place. The term first emerged in the 50s within the cybernetics community, aiming to name something larger than we can understand, hoping to help us break down larger complexity into smaller, more understandable parts. The black box could be anything, from biological, neurological, and psychological, to computational systems without knowing how they worked, apart from understanding their inputs and outputs. One strand of cyberneticians wanted to build computational systems modeling the human mind by first trying to understand how it worked in the first place, trying to research and demystify its processes. Hence first observed black box was the mind. Cybernetics introduced a modern relationship with the unknown, training the Western culture to build as well as research the emergent mystery. However, a black box is also relative to the relationship of understanding the mechanics, and could in part be used as a justification for opaque algorithmic oppression, especially in the ethics and decision-making processes of neural networks and AI.
To parallel the black box, the white cube draws upon a desire to eliminate an inner superposition of feelings, thoughts, and experiences of art and its context. White sterility and institutionalization of art are critiqued to remove art from its social, cultural, and political positions. In a minimalist environment art is separated from its emergent location and community, the way biological organisms are examined in a lab. White cube invites an experience without the systemic understanding of how art or in this case, a living organism, interacts with its surroundings, under a controlled environment. Art, placed in a white cube loses its potential subversive power, rendering cultural and social transformation. Perhaps here, a white cube is not entirely the opposite of a black box: all rendered unknowns of artworks, are washed away with a universal bleach within local galleries, assuming a uniform backdrop of the displayed objects. Certain whiteness, not as a color, but as a paradigm of thought, demands orderly dissemination of safety of perceiving. We must remember that first anthropologists have never seen or met the cultures they were speculating about in their books in the 19th century. The white cube has not colonized all art, but it draws upon a historical phenomenon that our culture still proliferates today: the cube is a filter and a projector, that affects perceived worth, modulates meaning, and extenuates the social and cultural status of the artwork as much as the buyer. We too, live in a historical period where a white cube clasps the innermost imaginaries of our culture, mystified and projected upon. Just like the subjects of anthropologists, art that has not been fully met or experienced beyond speculation.
Image: Georgetown University
Pandora in her hands did not hold a box, but a vessel - a jar, pithos in Greek, full of dismay and disease. In the myth from Hesiod, she was the first woman created of earth, “all gifted and gift-giving”. Zeus instructed Hephaestus to create Pandora and her vessel, and sent her to a “technologically advanced” society, as a punishment for Prometheus for stealing the fire from Mountain Olympus. The outpour of the jar signified the end of the Golden Age. The story of Pandora became the grounds for Christian and Jewish theologies and influenced narratives around Eve. Some argue that it is not a myth, but an anti-feminist tale, manifesting as theodicy and indicating a radical shift from matriarchy to patriarchy in ancient Greece. Here, the original meaning of Pandora’s name and essence is shadowed by the opposite: instead of sending gifts, the mortal woman releases plagues and disasters. In the 16th century Erasmus, however, translated pithos into the Latin word pyxis, meaning "box" and the story became known as Pandora’s Box ever since.
THE BOX OF THE "OUTSIDE"
'Thinking outside the box' is exactly how a box would think.
We know a box that represents the paradigms we want to shake off, outgrow, or perhaps a context we wish to disarrange. This overused metaphor has lost its initial vibrancy since gaining popularity in the corporate milieu of the 80s. Much of solutionist verbiage asks us to think, rather than feel our way into, and perhaps through the box. To abandon everything we’ve learned, our ancestral rattles, our intuitive guists, to give way to internal modernity. But maybe on the inside of the box, we will find wallpapers inscribed with hieroglyphs of the answers we are looking for, clues to ideas that we dismissed a long time ago. The box forgets that outside is just another space contained–another paradigm to be broken through, another short-term solution-seeking that creates more boxes in the long run.
Perhaps this is where thinking outside the box runs to a halt. Matryoshka's metaphor is somewhat an antithesis of thinking outside the box. Here, inside one box we find another, an exact replica of the original container, but smaller. A matryoshka can have at least 8 smaller ones contained within itself. This opening and discovering creates a layered mystery, often used as a metaphor to represent design paradigms, such as nested systems, or recursive objects contained within bigger ones. Many parallels have been drawn between human complexity and the onion-like complexity of the mind. It’s something deeply human to have a desire to uncover, yet at the same time desire to sustain the unknown. To live in the tension of knowing and not knowing. To be discoverable and to discover, layer by layer. A generative question invites us to think, perceive, and feel as we go further into a box.
THE BOX OF THE SELF
Identity and selfhood, throughout the last two decades of research in neuroscience and psychedelics, have shown to be highly associated with our brain activity within the DMN (default mode network). DMN is many times compared to the seat of the self, the ego, also called as “me” region of the brain. Responsible for emotion and memory, DNM kicks in when we are not focused on an activity at hand. It is the part of us that weaves a coherent narrative about ourselves, reviewing our past life experiences and projecting new ones. It daydreams, ruminates, and brings back old conversations on a replay–the inner dialogue in a shower presenting us with a plethora of genius comebacks. The activity of the network and a stronghold of the identity of the self is highly reduced by experiences of awe, beauty, nature, meditation, and psychedelic experiences. DMN, the self is the box contained within us, which also contains us.
The human mind creates boundaries for the self and refines its judgment towards the other. Our minds seek to simplify the deep complexity by creating invisible shortcuts–decisions based on biases and judgments that don’t require conscious thought. Our brains can process 11 million bits per second, however, our conscious mind can only process 40-50 bits per second. We are intrinsically positioned to box in and to categorize just to preserve unnecessary energy that we would spend for making a newly refined judgment. We unknowingly try to simplify the external reality. We continuously project our past (or someone else’s past experience that we witnessed) into the future, never truly being in the present moment and taking the time to understand the other. But the best rupture of this pattern happens when our judgments or beliefs are invalidated. When someone surprises us with a combination of their character traits, creating a startling contradiction within us. We can call this an internal unboxing of the other: unboxing people we have placed in categories and opening up to new surprising turns.
Beyond being boxed in, Foucault’s Panopticon was a critique metaphor for a growing totalitarian governance of surveillance. Originally panopticon (in Greek, all-seeing – panoptes) a prison layout, designed to have a complete state of observation, has become a basis of a critique of the modern infrastructures of urban architecture and socio-cultural normativity. Expanding beyond prisons, reverberating into the architectures of hospitals, schools, military, and factories, or other confinement and surveillance architecture, the panopticon becomes internalized. Because a person is observed all the time, everything is heard, perceived, and punished, one internalizes the watcher, the guard, and becomes self-policing to avoid external punishment. The same behavior is extended into social networks within the panopticon where the confined act as a proxy to the state of surveillance. This design of social arrangement leaves no room for delinquents– tricksters, or those who disobey, yet inevitably creates conditions for disobeying to emerge. This is an incredible example of how spatial agency (or the lack of it) molds the perception of ourselves and our world. Here, our inanimate architectures become agents of animate social surveillance.
The box of agency, and perhaps, self-liberation as a metaphor. A toolbox is seen as a parking lot for our skills and capacities, aiding us to maneuver within the world. A toolbox could also look like the capacity for self-awareness, helping us to deconstruct the boxes we are in–liberating us from unhelpful perspectives or situations. Some writers compare a toolbox to the levels of understanding grammar, language structure, and adding personal style and voice to writing. However, the trap of endlessly expanding the toolbox is learning for the sake of learning without a real-world application. In a culture obsessed with more and better, can we create a silent refinement of deepening of our knowledge instead of chasing new flashy tools? Is there a simplification that can actually lighten the load of our toolbox and sharpen capacities that are currently needed? Toolbox could also be seen as a personal agency and capacity to develop actual skills that are applicable to the very personal contexts–our lives.
Image: Cooper Hewitt
Chowa is a creative practice that brings people, ideas, experiences, and products together through the signature Chowa Box. Each release celebrates the human experience, traditional Japanese craft and contemporary culture to develop experimental products and activities.
Throughout history, boxes made from the paulownia tree (known as kiri-bako in Japan) have been used in Japan as a way to store precious items like kimonos, hanging scrolls, umbilical cords, and equipment for tea ceremonies. The Chowa Box pays tribute to this tradition, where the box not only protects and plays a supporting role in what’s stored inside, and brings it to some of the luxury items and brands of today.
The Chowa Box is handcrafted in partnership with Akebono Kogei, a third-generation Kiri-Bako box manufacturer in Fukuyama, Japan. The Fukuyama region has over 300 years of expertise in this craft, focusing on exceptional quality and sustainability. The paulownia plant itself is also known for its natural sustainability, as it’s a member of the grass family and is one of the fastest-growing trees in the world.
- Classified as a member of the grass family, Paulownia grows much faster than most trees, making it one of the most environmentally friendly materials to use in making boxes.
- Transforming luxury packaging into something reusable aligns with the Japanese concept of “Mottainai,” emphasizing resource utilization to minimize waste.
CHOWA–調和 means “harmony” or, more accurately, “Pursuit of harmony” in Japanese.