Cyberpunk’d: Cornell’s Boxes are Gorges

cornellSo a few months ago went all nerdcore and ordered $3 paperbacks of all of William Gibson’s old books. You know, guy who coined the word cyberspace, was writing about “the matrix” in the 80s, imagined we “jack in” to the internets through literal sockets in our skulls.

Anyway, we’re reading Count Zero at the moment, and a nodal point in the plot references Joseph Cornell boxes. Being embarrassingly unversed in art history, we looked ’em up–little boxes of composed ephemera and second hand objects–french maps, cut outs of birds, newsprint–it’s like this guy is channelling an inner aesthetic we could never quite put our finger on. Here’s a little write up on a nice meta-collectors blog that we came across in our digging. We are amazed and inspired.

Little Boxes on the Hillside

souvenir

This will come as a shock to regular readers of this column, but I have done some ill-advised things in my time. I have bathed in plaster, shaved Charlie Brown’s zig-zag shirt pattern into my hair, and let two crack dealers named—I am not making this up, Pimplenose and Trouble—make a series of calls from my cell phone one long night in Birmingham.

I have eaten more than one insect on purpose, and worn more than one pair of pleather pants. I played rhythm guitar in a band called “The Alarm Cock.” I have also purchased, and it pains me to write these words, no fewer than three ICP albums. Purchased, not pirated.

Among my biggest blockheaded boners was participating in a little ritual we dreamed up in college called the Trifecta. The Trifecta was designed to get you as far from sobriety in as little time as possible, using only–get this–tobacco. In retrospect, I don’t know why we didn’t just huff gasoline or something, because the Trifecta was viiiiile. To do this properly, one needs to pack a “double horseshoe” of chewing tobacco, stuffing the upper and lower lips with about a handful of Peach-Flavored Skoal for each cavity. As the juices begin to flow and you feel like you’re about to pass out, the discerning Trifecta-er will take a massive drag of an unfiltered mentholated cigarette and hold it. The final component is a hefty line of snuff—powdered tobacco. After releasing the smoke, the trifecta has been acheived, and the resulting buzz is more or less guaranteed to make you vomit, or at the very least tilt lazily from verticality and start frowning at the earth, which will have suddenly betrayed you by roiling violently.

Snuff. Like Steve McQueen said, it seemed to be a good idea at the time. My snuff came in a blue plastic box covered with German writing that probably said something to the effect of, “Do not do snuff. It is terrible and will make your snot brown. The inside of your head will burn and taste like cigarettes. Seriously, cocaine is better for you. Throw this away and go smoke varnish or something.”
snuffbox3
I bring this up because the Met has a small gallery in the European wing consisting mostly of snuffboxes from pre-revolution France (that’s called a segue, kids). The gallery itself is as far as I can tell nameless, and it’s really nothing more than an eight-foot wide alcove filled with precious boxes. Needless to say, I thought it was awesome. Only a museum with a collection like the Met’s can take what would otherwise have been an overlooked span of wall facing the bathrooms, and turn that into a delightful little revelation.

The snuffboxes are no more than a few inches on a side, usually gilt, and often covered with porcelain or inlaid mother of pearl. The vitrine also has other kinds of objets de luxe, including étuis, which the wall text defines as “any small portable container, case, or box that conforms to the shape of its contents” which could include “ear spoons” and “tongue scrapers.” Um.

There’s something appealing about a box that conforms to the shape of what’s in it, rather than just idly sitting box-shaped, regardless of what someone wants to put in there. One-use boxes made of precious metals. Ah, France. And you wondered why a mob of malnourished malcontents stormed the Bastille!

snuffbox

Also, another discovery: “souvenir” denotes not only a chintzy replica of the Empire State Building, but also a tiny notepad in an ornamented case (souvenir=to remember; writing=an act of memory; me= a linguist). They were usually decorated with portraits or little allegorical scenes and contained little baby pencils. Adorable.

The Snuffbox Gallery

Highlights: Blinged-out boxes for ear spoons (seriously, what are ear spoons? A prize to the SD reader who can answer).

Memorable Quote: “In France, snuff was praised for its power to bring on a healthy and hearty sneeze, but it was not until the last quarter of the seventeenth century that it became socially fashionable—despite King Louis XIV’s disdain for the habit.” From the wall text, Definition of Terms.

Next Week: We travel to South America and see a skull-shaped jug.