Manifesting the Box Out of Which We Should Think

loading Absinthe Garden – Her (top) and Absinthe Garden – Him (right) by ERYN.

Dreamer Series – Constitute by Low Chee Peng.

Boxed In I (top) and Boxed In II (bottom) by Aboud Fares.

WANTING TO THINK “outside the box” suggests some high degree of mental disquiet at being boxed in. By many accounts, that is the point at which creativity and imagination originate.

Boxed In (one foot at a time) was an art exhibition that attempted to make this phenomenon obvious. It was a project many months in the making. In fact, its original showcase was fixed for early 2020, but Covid-19 happened and plans for its big reveal had to be postponed.

It was finally – and proudly – put together and hosted last December at Hin Bus Depot, gathering an impressive range of Penang-based artists from diverse art practices. These included Aboud Fares, bibichun, Carey Junior, ERYN, Esther Geh, Fuan Wong, Hungry Goat, Jakob Zuyten, Jonathan Yun, Jose Ilao, Lijynn, Low Chee Peng, Lusy + Vatsn, Maizul Affendy, Mandy Maung, Marianne Klerk, Mawar, Nasir Nadzir, Rebecca Wilkinson, sumidik, Thomas Powell, Tiffany Choong, Tina Lee Degreef, Tommes and White Bones.

“It is interesting to see how the project has evolved, despite my not having the slightest clue about the pandemic when first putting it together. In its current form, Boxed In reflects on our reality today, where borders remain closed and social movements restricted,” says curator Ivan Gabriel, who himself is an artist, during the exhibition.

Boxed In expanded on the oft-used cliché “thinking outside the box”, derived from a 1970s brain teaser, the nine dots puzzle, that encourages lateral thinking for the game’s solution.

The artists were challenged to think beyond the realms of reality, but to have their artworks confined within 12" x 12" wooden boxes. These were displayed precisely one foot apart to maintain “social distance”, while some were intentionally left “empty” – these represented artists who had to opt out because of the pandemic.

One of the featured artworks included twin sculptures of the human form, with each entrapped in a small cage-like box. The Syrian artist Aboud Fares created these from a mix of cement, plaster and iron rods on wood, and is a nod to our present “quarantine” lifestyle. 

There was also the “Absinthe Garden” by ERYN. The subjects in her piece were seen to be without “hearts” and to fill the void, were shown reaching out to winged paper hearts instead. These were fashioned from cutouts from glossies.

ERYN’s work has been described as “illusionary and hallucinatory”, exploring mankind’s insatiable desires and shedding light on the importance of being who we are intended to be, while chasing ambitions and life aspirations. As a whole, “Absinthe Garden” was an encapsulation of the distorted familiarity we have come to know in this age of New Normal.

Also displayed was Low Chee Peng’s “Constitute”, moulded from imaginations and thoughts of the dream world. A pair of pensive eyes observes the unusual state of the world from an abstract, deconstructed face, surrounded by a complex composition of squares. The floating cloud in the box above is a metaphor for the imaginations and thoughts that occur in dreams, an infinite space where possibilities are realised and calmness sought.

The sprightly artworks “F*ck COVID” and “Art to the Rescue” were Mandy Maung’s contributions, using a diverse range of materials on wood. They visualised society’s frustrations with Covid-19’s effects on livelihoods. More importantly, Maung also sought to emphasise the significance of art as an outlet for expression during these troubled times.

“Internal Monologues”, a set of interactive artworks by Tiffany Choong, aimed to start transparent conversations on mental health – a subject that is still a taboo in this part of the world – without the need to hide behind masks for fear of being ridiculed or ostracised. Her work depicted a man and a woman, and viewers were invited to rearrange the boxes in any number of ways to figure out the narrative and to make a connection: What’s their story? Are they friends or something more? Maybe they are the same person?

Last but not least, German chef-turned-artist Tommes, who is best known for his long-running TV show “Chalk and Cheese” on the Asian Food Channel, painted “Love” and “Jealous”; two mouths symbolising our struggling desires to love and yet be jealous with equal intensity.

Internal Monologues by Tiffany Choong.

Love and Jealous by Tommes.

F*ck COVID by Mandy Maung.


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