Looking Outside and Inside The Box, Sonja Schenk
through March 23
Cerritos College Art Gallery, Norwalk
By Genie Davis
With “The Box”, Sonja Schenk’s dazzling solo show at Cerritos College Art Gallery, viewers are invited to literally and figuratively unpack the artist’s work. Both a full installation and a unique, participatory project, the exhibition includes complex parts that are contained in custom paper-pulp molding, disposable tools, hardware, and an image-based instruction diagram for assemblage all inside a metal box.
“All of the works in this series, ‘The Collectors’, which includes the interactive installation, ‘The Box’,” Schenk says, “look at materials such as plastic and polystyrene as hyper-objects, ubiquitous and massively distributed in our environment, not unlike things once considered elemental: air, earth, fire, water.”
Several of the works on display were created in part by casting forms made out of discarded packing materials, including the yellow foam pieces that are part of “The Box” itself; the pink foam pieces that are part of the installation and painting The Collectors; the black infrared fragments from Red Shift; and the white plaster pieces on a teal-colored plastic pallet, ML-2010, VX2452MH, RP-280 5.1.4, EX2700100PAS, the latter named after the products that the electronic computer-related products the piece was cast from.
“Part of what fascinates me is how unlike the real thing these casts are – solid, heavy, inchoate. No reference to the original purpose remains in this game of archeological exquisite corpse. Other pieces on view in the show explore this topic through painting – mysterious objects, relics and remnants. In a society defined by consumerism, what remains will be the record of our constant attempts to accumulate, organize and display our ‘stuff,’” Schenk notes.
Organization and display are an intrinsic part of the interactive installation, “The Box.” As participants unpack the box, they can follow the instructions and also the instructional video, Unboxing the Box (feat. Yoshie Sakai). They are transformed from viewers of art into explorers and creators as they build their own temporary structures from the contents.
According to Schenk, “‘The Box’ is not a thing. It is not a construction. It is an action. Interacting replicates the actions we perform every time we buy something, take it home, unpack it and decide how and where to position it.”
The artist’s recent work frequently involves looking at the present from the perspective of the distant future, which is the case here, in which Schenk examines the “ubiquity of shipping” and shipping materials that comes from online purchasing. The idea came to her through a successful online business two doors away from her studio, a company that repackaged and resold vintage sneakers.
“They had an open parking area in the back alley that we share and instead of breaking down their shipping boxes and putting them in the dumpster, they would just throw them in a giant pile… in the evening, cardboard scavengers in pick-up trucks would come, break it down and haul it away for recycling.” Schenk adds that the “giant mountain of empty boxes seemed emblematic of the times we are living in, excessive and yet happily oblivious.”
What brought the artist to the interactive nature of the exhibition was her own innate interest in making art that’s accessible to people who are not necessarily part of the art world. She believes interactivity is a way of “breaking down the barriers that some people feel when they view art in the context of a gallery or a museum.”
Certainly “The Box” does so with style: Schenk’s work here is compelling, really, it’s the ultimate toy box – the ultimate toy. From cats and kittens nesting to kids building forts and the kid inside an adult who sometimes hates to throw that box away, the idea of a box unleashes the imagination.
Schenk’s box measures 20” x 24” x 22,” with the contents unpackable and able to be built into temporary structures filling the room in the gallery in minutes.
Schenk included a video in the installation in part because of her fascination with “unboxing videos” on the internet. “People take a product that is still in the manufacturer’s packing and open it up, describing everything they see and think as they unbox it. There is a whole unboxing channel on YouTube and I plan to add my video to it soon,” she says, describing the aspirational aspect of such videos as a kind of “product porn.”
Video artist Yoshie Sakai performs the role of the unboxer in the character of Keiko Sakemoto, from her soap opera series, Koko’s Love. It was shot with the help of film student Eric Diaz as the director of photography, artist Bryan Ida, and curator James MacDevitt, who each operated additional cameras.
The entire project is an outgrowth of Schenk’s residency at Cerritos, which she views as a learning experience. “Although I had written a fairly developed proposal for the project, I also walked into it without any knowledge of welding, engineering, or 3D modeling. The first month or so of the residency, I simply spent the time learning to weld,” she says. She visited industrial vendors, taught herself 3D modeling using Sketchup Pro, and made maquettes out of cardboard, to be sure everything would fit together in the box without error.
“I think what struck me most was how cool welding is,” she laughs. She explains that she was greatly assisted by her welding instructors and team in welding the contents of the box; the actual box was welded by Jason Floral, chair of the school’s welding department.
One of her best moments at the opening, she relates, was when one of her welding instructors showed up with two classes of welding students who were not stereotypical attendees at art openings. “As much as I love other artists and curators, it’s more exciting to me to see ‘non-art world’ people at an opening. And the fact that they dove in and built their own temporary structure from the box was pretty cool.”
So what is there to think about both inside and outside the box? Schenk sums up. “For me, the most important thing about this exhibition, and in fact all art, is that art is not just for the elite but for the rest of us. That the issues and ideas explored within it — consumerism, late-capitalism, the antropocene, climate change, archeology, the distant future — are relevant to us all. And in the case of The Box, hopefully accessible to all.” And exciting and fun for all, as well.
The Box runs through March 23rd. Go unpack.