The designers had constructed hundreds of white cardboard boxes, which they had fitted with a Velcro-like adhesive base and into which they had placed an object, each box a different object. A candy bar in an Obama-for-President wrapper. Hair curlers. A rubber duck. A miniature bottle of gin. Banal trinkets of everyday life. Visitors were invited to open and look inside the boxes, find one with an object they thought beautiful or ugly and then put the box up on a wall which was divided down the middle with a slash that separated the “beautiful” from the “ugly”.
When I arrived at the studio there were already dozens and dozens of boxes on the wall, and an equal number laid out on a large table waiting to be “judged” and to find their place and one side of the slash. I started with the boxes on the wall, opening one after the other: an empty can of tomato paste (beautiful), a tampon (ugly), a set of sapphire-blue swizzle sticks in the shape of naked sylphs (beautiful), a keychain in the shape of red cowboy boot (beautiful), a miniature fake-gold Jesus on a pink crucifix (ugly), a lollipop in the shape of a penis (guess which).
I found a car freshener decal on the ugly side, only to discover it later on the beautiful side. Yes, we could revise the aesthetic decisions of others. I moved a fat gold heart from beautiful to ugly. And put up a box with a couple of big cheeze-puffs on the beautiful side. Not that I eat them anymore—this is one case in which I give into my latent orthorexia—but they so remind me of happy days in my childhood.
But however engaged visitors (and I) were in deciding which side of the beautiful/ugly divide to affix a particular item to, G’s boxed objects were neither beautiful nor ugly: they may have been alternatively kitschy, cute, tawdry, cheap, amusing, imaginative, useful or useless but in the end they were too inconsequential to be either. True beauty and ugliness engender strong, near visceral feelings of awe or repulsion, and they call forth a desire to possess or hide from the object in question. These objects, like inaudible sounds or ultraviolet light, did not even register in our senses.
For some the contents of the boxes set off lively discussions about how “totally” subjective our sense of what is beautiful. I thought this a bit of an oversimplification—I imagine they meant “relative” and not “subjective”—since most would recognize that there are at least some characteristics common to what we consider beautiful – even if these are dependent on culture and history and particular circumstances. It can’t be coincidental that when people are asked to choose among a series of photographs the men and women they find the most attractive, the faces they tend to select abound in proportions that are golden sections — width of the eyes to the width of the mouth, width of the two center teeth to those next to them, width of the nose to the distance between the eyes and eye brows. Granted, works of asymmetry and dissonance can be eerily beautiful as well but not only because they are asymmetrical or dissonant.
For other, G’s objects were an occasion for visitors to share stories, memories and associations that these objects had for them. One was my dentist, whom I met by chance at the studio and who told me she had moved a surgical glove from the “ugly” to “beautiful” side: “I put these on more than a dozen times each day, how could I think of them as ugly?”.
So the boxes succeeded in evoking some thinking and much talk, even if they triggered no wonder or revulsion. They also made for a good deal of fun. Bravo, paidia.