The boxes are made from thick pine board; simple, homemade, and built to last. They are divided into four sections, each one holding a couple hundred or so plain paper tablets. Rubber stamped at the top of each tablet is a question – one to each section – that broaches a central theme. For example, the Gender Parity Box, exhibited four times since 1985, asks the questions: What did your mother tell you about men? What did your mother tell you about woman? What did your father tell you about women? What did your father tell you about men? There is a pen with a long string attached to the box and a card nearby, inviting you to look though the stories already gathered and to feel free to add your own. The boxes usually sit on a sturdy table large enough to accommodate a chair or two.
Edelson started making the story–gathering–boxes in 1972, at the same time as her early body art and public performances. The impetus behind making them derived from frustrations she had with the way art was being presented in gallery exhibitions. In her own words the story-gathering-boxes were in part her “… rebellion against the implied message of art galleries that you are to look but not touch; you are welcome to breeze through the exhibit but not linger; you are to stand but not to sit; and that the exhibiting artist is a know-it-all and you are a know-nothing.”
The boxes are an invitation to touch, to linger, to sit down and be counted. And more than this, they allow participants to actively broaden the focus the of the exhibition by adding something of their own, something the story-gathering-boxes are consistently successful in eliciting: raw personal material.”
“Raw personal material” refers to all of the component parts of human expression that are usually edited out of public exchange. Think of all the forms and occasions of communicated meaning that sense can’t really hang on to, and, like noise, never form a repeatable pattern, but even so, reveal more of the moment’s complexity than pattern could ever convey. That’s raw personal material.
In documentary surveys of contemporary feminist art history Edelson is often represented by two different bodies of work. The first is the 1970-75 series of goddess incarnations. These were based on black and white photographs of herself naked, facing the camera in private ritual postures, which she drew and collaged over, recasting her image in different projections of female divinity, from an ancient cat-headed Bubastis to a thoroughly modern Wonder Woman. The second is a series of feminist agitprop posters produced intermittently over a span of ten years.
The best-known example is her 1972 Some Living American Women Artists, a collage parody of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, recontextualized with an all-woman cast of eighty-two. Her early body art was a personal, largely introspective form of visual practice based on Edelson’s conviction that “women’s lives, psyches and sexuality was positively multiple, and that the release of this multiplicity was a political act.” The poster series was part of a political, community-based process of public outreach intended to “undermine invested authority and replace it with an ecology of connections.” The first originated in the realm of private subjectivity, the second in the realm of public agency. Two different ways of knowing in–practice, as well as two different practices; art and activism running in parallel course. And then there’s a third running somewhere in between: these are the Story-Gathering-Boxes.
The presentation of the box, table, and seating is always designed with an eye toward comfort and private focus within the restrictions of a public space. The size of the paper tablets and their random-file organization in the boxes allow for anonymity. The story topics are neutral in tone and straightforward even when they are clearly provocative. It is a simple combination of elements, but start delving through a box of tablets and it’s immediately clear how much expressive energy is liberated. Permission is granted to speak ones mind and that is exactly what happens in tablet after tablet. Vignettes, memories, tall-tales, confessions; wisecracks, innuendos, exaltations; laments, obscenities; obituaries, prayers and hieroglyphics—the list of story-forms is probably as endless as the tablets. But even describing them as story-forms is misleading; they’re too immediate, extemporaneous, and often to hastily scrawled to be decipherable.
For instance, one response from the 1974 box What is the responsibility of an artist? is printed in a careful hand: Daniel Putnam, 110 Mulberry Street, New York, NY10013, 2/4/77. Another in a loopy style that telescopes precipitously downward: “the RESponsibilityof an ARtistss the IRReponsibility0fvall auksorUND…” then spirals into scribble.
There is no formal beauty to them, no art. However, in tablet after tablet the authors reveal themselves—whether intentionally or not–so candidly, remorselessly, and in such unexpected variations that the cumulative effect is to compress all of the tablets into a single unruly congregation of experience, an ecology of connections, with all the noise left in.
Edelson has made over thirty story–gathering–boxes since the first one was exhibited in 1972. There are many thousands of story tablets gathered thus far. She still deploys them with the original promise in mind; to make room in an art exhibition for some give and take; to offer a way for the viewer to reciprocate by taking part in a kind of informal participatory research that is never intended to draw conclusions or even comparisons, or just more descriptions—more story tablets.
Edelson has never made a claim to the status of the story–gathering–boxes; are they re-framing devices, time capsules, or works of art? She told me she has never thought about that, never had a reason to.
This essay was originally published in The Art of MaryBeth Edelson (Seven Cycles, 2002).
Paul Bloodgood b. 1960, Nyack, New York. He received a BA in painting from Yale University in 1982. He moved to the Lower East Side in 1986 and or five years worked for an artist-owned art moving company. In 1990 (along with his fellow art-movers) co-founded and was the curator of New York’s influential AC Project Room, an artist-run commercial gallery that introduced the work of many significant young artists such as Byron Kim, Doug Aitken, Luca Buvoli, Josiah McElheny, Jane and Louis Wilson, and Anne Chu, as well as unrepresented artists such as Mary Beth Edelson, Kim Jones, Robert Breer, Michel Auder, and Isa Genzken. His recent exhibition of new works, Object in Pieces that exhibited at Newman Popiashvili received an Art in America review (April 2012). He currently lives and works in New York City.