A Guide for Living
When I was a child I was taken to the Art Institute of Chicago, where I came upon the dimly-lit room of work by Joseph Cornell. This must be a common origin story: making that first pilgrimage to Cornell’s box-sized theaters, emerging from the room a disciple. I took this journey many times after. I then went to school in the city, in part to be close to the boxes. There was something so mystical about their construction, like an altarpiece at which one stands.
Now I find myself in small-town Ontario, waiting out the chaos, peering at one Cornell box in particular: Untitled (Forgotten Game), on digital view at the Art Institute. It is a box I have seen many times in person. Like the others, it hangs in partial darkness. Like the others, it makes magic of the ordinary. The box is constructed like a birdhouse, with a wall of holes behind which small birds perch. If the box were in your hands, you could use a trapdoor to roll a ball through the hidden space. I look at this box to remind myself of what goes unnoticed: a creature like the bird, its habitat, in the case of the ball, the mysterious vibrations of the larger world. Cornell captures what sits just outside our windows and invites us to spend a moment in quiet reverence of it. For me, this box has always had enormous healing powers. It tells me to look around and try to notice.
In a time of crisis like the one we’re in now, when existence is compressed, even threatened, when we might have only a window to look out of, Untitled (Forgotten Game) is a guide for living.
Anna Foran is a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her writing can be found at Hyperallergic and Cagibi Express.
Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) was an American artist and filmmaker. He is best known for his assemblages and boxes. Untitled (Forgotten Game) is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago.