Inspired by the ways in which COVID-19 has limited and transformed our in-person access to and experience of galleries, festivals, museums, and other designated art spaces, Brief Encounters with Art investigates the power, potential, and complexities of encountering art in passing moments and unexpected locations. If you have suggestions, ideas, or feedback, feel free to contact us at [email protected].
On a quiet, tree-lined street, across from a lush green park, standing front and center in a residential lawn, resides a unassuming white box. But, to paraphrase René Magritte, quelquefois c’est nest pas une boîte (sometimes, a box is not a box). Or perhaps in this case, a box is not just a box. On Instagram, Blacklight Box describes its mission as “Hosting artistic creations that embrace the optical experience of UV lighting.” But there’s more to it than that.
Blacklight Box connects to multiple histories and legacies: art-in-place, Blacklight art, little free libraries, found object art, feminist and queer art, and pop culture. It also has the modus operandi of a superhero. Unassuming by day, magical by night. And while it makes a fine candidate for a Brief Encounter with Art, to quote a certain now-streaming musical, “this is not a moment, it’s the movement.” Which is why you’ll be hearing more about this space, its founders, artists, and its important role duing the pandemic. But for today, I’ll focus my lens on this month’s installation, Salem Turchan’s Mommy Needs Her Medicine.
Location: Blacklight Box, 2204 S Lynn Street, Urbana
Installation format: Rectangular white box receptable containing multimedia and found objects set with UV light for optimal viewing at dark.
Artist: Salem Turchan (@salem.turchan)
Curator: Elizabeth Horan
Mommy Needs Her Medicine is the story of a skeleton named Kelly Blue Book, whose favorite sauce is fluorescent Mountain Dew.
Blacklight Box can be seen from all directions. Its location encourages both up-close and distant viewing.
There are two possible ways one will find oneself at Blacklight Box: by accident (e.g., a stroll or drive through the neighborhood) or, with intention,most likely at dusk or after dark, having been clued in by the initiated. In the first case, one will likely encounter the installation by day, when it remains in its dormant or mundane (non-magical) state. This is not to say that it can not be appreciated as such. It is a taste, a tease of what awaits upon return. It provides enough information to spark the imagination. To begin to spin one’s own narrative about Kelly Blue Book and her magic elixir.
My brief encouter, in brief:
My initial daytime viewing was on the Sunday following the September 18th socially-distant opening. These days, I tend to prefer to encounter my art (and most everything else) with as few people possible. After marvelling at the box’s pride of place, I took my time regarding the individual components, as well as the full power of its composition. The vertical field is surprising at first, but I appreciate how it encourages unexpected compositional choices (the Banquet frozen dinner, floating in the sky like a cloud or a dream). And taking center stage in the white box is the word “SNART” spelled out in vinyl letters. A reminder to be wary of first impressions. A coded message of trans rights just waiting to be reflected back in a mirror. A reference to a Leo Snart, the LGBTQA+ Arrowverse character. Or perhaps both.
Beside the big white box resides a smaller, real-estate-pamphlet-style box, which hold the words and thoughts of one Talem Surchan, the artist’s alter ego of sorts. Whether these words are meant to clarify or complicate Mommy Needs Her Medicine and its myriad meanings is a good question. But perhaps not the question. After all, we can not ponder the depths of this work while the sun shines.
After dark, Mommy Needs Her Medicine reaches its full glory. A flourescent, subterranean world of filled with the sickly-green artifacts of Kelly Blue Book’s world. A world where food and drink appear far to toxic to consume let alone to provide the remedy Blue Book seeks.
Like Kelly Blue Book, we the viewers of Blacklight Box find ourselves immersed in an increasingly toxic environment. And yes, it may sound strange to say this my brief encounter made me feel less alone. Yes, I had missed the socially-distanced opening night and the opportunity to feel connected to others passionate about art. But I could feel their laughter, their questions, just as I could feel the precise hand of the artist at work.
Reaching out to curator Elizabeth Horan, my sense of Blacklight Box’s importance mid-pandemic was confirmed. It has been a gathering place, a touchstone, and a source of inspiration for those who have the good fortune to live with it in their tree-lined neighborhood.
“I think the purpose of the box has really amplified given our current life circumstances. Somehow a box out on the street with art in it holds so much more value when one is walking the same route for months and months during a pandemic and a revolution. Neighbors have given such enthusiastic feedback and whenever I’m there switching out shows, people always stop by to see what’s next and remark upon the outgoing artwork.”—Elizabeth Horan