Outside the Box

Joseph Cornell felt trapped – by boxes, by chaos, by time. In his lesser-known films, we see his attempts to escape.

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“You don’t know how terrible it is,” Joseph Cornell once told a gallerist who praised his work, “to be locked into boxes all your life.”

Boxes were Joseph Cornell’s obsession. He collected everyday objects and photographs and arranged them inside wooden shadow frames. Often he placed glass panes over the boxes, which makes them feel like windows. The names of the boxes are both solid and surreal: Observatory, Soap Bubble, Space Object, Pink Palace. The boxes are about objects but they are also about time. Cornell’s boxes are time contained. In them, history — which normally presents itself as solid, continuous and progressive — is shown to be an accumulation of shifting memories and questionable evidence. A Cornell box is chaos preserved in one silent eternal moment.

Inside Habitat Group for a Shooting Gallery are paper cut-outs of two cockatoos and two parrots. The paper birds are standing on perches and have numbers on their bodies. Red and blue splotches of paint surround them. French phrases like “Au Bon Marché” and “Comptoir Spécial de Gants” are pasted in the background. The phrases evoke the Paris Joseph Cornell would never see, with its little shops and arcades. The birds are alive, and they are almost dead; they don’t understand they are about to be shot. In this box, as in all Cornell’s boxes, random moments of time collide. Wild nature and zoos, shops and dreams, life and death, symbols and physical objects greet one another, but remain strangers. The birds are protected from time by the box. Or are they prisoners of it?

In one of the ancient myths, time begins when Woman opens a box. She knows it is forbidden to open this box, but she opens it anyway. Pandora is like the child whose parents give her a toy that plays music when cranked from the side. She doesn’t understand that the music will end and release a horror show of snakes and clowns. Out of Pandora’s box flew disease and death and toil and age and memory. These are things that create history from eternity, that make us incurably human. Death and disease gave us knowledge of time, which was perhaps the greatest punishment of all. And for all the days since, people have been trying to get the snakes back in the box.

How can we make time eternal again? This is what the boxes are asking. Other collage artists wanted to break apart the image of a unified world, to show the chaos behind the so-called calm. Cornell thought history gathered together could equal eternity, chaos collected could make peace, Madness could become Beauty when carefully framed, just as the individual colors of the rainbow mixed together became one. Cornell believed that no thing, no idea, no image, is ever complete on its own. He made box after box, chasing eternity with each one. Cornell put it this way: “collage = reality.”

By Night With Torch and Spear from One Surrealist a Day on Vimeo.

Less known are Cornell’s films; they are Cornell’s boxes in motion. The films are collages of industrial, scientific and home movies purchased from fellow collectors or pillaged from the trash bins of New York. In By Night With Torch and Spear upside-down men toil away upon their metal fire machines under the watch of silent clouds. Their factory is dark and the machines spit fire — they move in a pagan dance of industry. Titles flash throughout. But the words are backwards and the messages move too fast to read. All at once the men disappear; the machines no longer need them. The factory men become a tribe, marching in the night with arrows and drums, back and forth before a mass of smoke. The word ‘Shepard’ and something else flash in front of a young man blowing into a reed instrument of some primitive kind. He wears a robe and a turban. The word “Egyptian” flashes and “purpose.” We are in the desert with camels. The camels morph into caterpillars that writhe on a leaf. The glowing effect of the negative film turns the caterpillars into amoebic angels. Maybe the caterpillars are a return to a lost primordial state. The caterpillars lead once more to the men, who walk by night, with torch and spear. Finally, we are left with pulsating blobs. Another cycle of history is complete.

By Night With Torch and Spear was never shown publicly while Cornell was alive. It was found several years after Cornell’s death, among the reels and cans of footage he had given to Anthology Film Archives in New York City. Cornell stopped showing his films after a screening in 1936, when Salvador Dalí publicly accused Cornell of plagiarizing his unconscious mind. Dalí knocked over the projector with his umbrella, traumatizing the quiet Cornell. After that, Cornell continued making his films in secret.

I’m frightened of infinity, Cornell once told his sister, I’m frightened of many things. Cornell found comfort in the writings of Mary Baker Eddy (the founder of Christian Science), which told him that time was unreal. Through Eddy, Cornell came to see history as a jumbled invention of man. Real time was eternal. The stuff inside Pandora’s box was eternity broken in pieces. Collage = reality. Joseph Cornell tried to take those broken bits and fit them together again. Each time he tried, the result was another beautiful failure.

The very first thing we see in By Night With Torch and Spear is a pencil without a hand. The handless pencil taps at a mass of red splotches that evoke blood and the cosmos and art. As the pencil lightly points it traces the splotches too. Then it disappears from sight.

Art points to chaos, follows the chaos, tries to make sense of the chaos, and retreats before trying again. • 1 October 2014

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.

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