“Is it plastic? Is it wood?” A group of 6-year-olds from Osmani Primary School in Tower Hamlets, London, is standing round an abandoned shoebox, and wondering what it’s made of. “No!” cries one of them, finally. “It’s cardboard!” But the eureka moment is fleeting. Seconds later, one of them wants the answer to a more urgent question: “What’s the box doing here?”
And well might he ask. For our shoebox is not nestling on the carpet of a shoe store. Rather, it’s gracing the floor of a gallery within Britain’s most significant collection of contemporary art: the Tate Modern.
It’s also not just any old empty shoebox. This is Empty Shoe Box (1993), the work of Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco, a sculptor known for his treatment of “found objects.” For the past two weeks, this plain, white box has formed part of the UK’s first full retrospective of Orozco’s career. It is being exhibited alongside a selection of tires; a lift ripped from a Chicago tower block; a knot of four entwined bicycles; a ball of melted inner-tubes; and a vintage Citroen that Orozco has reduced to half its original width.
But it’s the box that is attracting all the attention — or none, depending on your point of view.
Unlike other items on show, the box is not surrounded by “do not touch” signs, or otherwise marked as an artwork. Gallerygoers either don’t see it in time, and kick it over — or they notice it, presume it’s not part of the exhibition, and give it a prod just to make sure. As Jessica Morgan, the exhibition’s curator, tells me: “The box is a confusing thing. It’s intended to make you pause and think about what it might be doing there.”
At the Venice Biennale, where the box was first shown in 1993, people reacted by leaving money in it. At New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where it was last shown, the box was apparently often roughly handled. But how is London taking to it? And could an 8-year-old make something better? I spend a day with the box to find out.
Box-watching initially proves uneventful. A lot of people simply don’t notice it, and breeze past. Some clock it vaguely, but — with that weary-yet-unwavering shuffle peculiar to gallery visitors — they drift on, apparently uninterested. In a room that also contains an abandoned lift, a screwed-up car, and a knot of bicycles, perhaps a simple box is unremarkable. Nevertheless, a few do crouch next to it, squint, reassert that, yes, this is a box — and then move on. Some look around frantically for a descriptive placard, eventually finding it on a wall 3m away.
They also then leave immediately, satisfied at this perfunctory explanation.
But no one commits an outlandish act such as stamping on the box or wearing it as a hat — and so I ask for anecdotes from the Tate’s various visitor assistants. On the exhibition’s opening day, one tells me, a cleaner thought the box was a bit of rubbish and left it on a pile of debris. “It’s a shame you didn’t come at the weekend,” another assistant says. “It’ll be kicked all over the place.”
But finally, on the stroke of lunch, carnage strikes. Nanna Neudeck, a 27-year-old artist, charges into the box, kicking it several centimeters. She gets a stern ticking-off from an attendant, but claims she didn’t realize the box was part of the exhibition. Only afterwards does Neudeck admit she thought “it might be an artwork.”