"Radiance." Image credit: Matt Elson
"Radiance." Image credit: Matt Elson

How One Artist Is Using Mirrors to Create Perception-Shifting 'Infinity Boxes'

"Radiance." Image credit: Matt Elson
"Radiance." Image credit: Matt Elson

An Infinity Box built by Los Angeles-based artist Matt Elson isn’t complete until people duck inside. Once they cross the threshold, the interior transforms into an immersive kaleidoscope flecked with candles, colored lights, and paper flowers. Whether the viewers laugh at their own reflections or gawk in wonder, the walls respond with endless variations of their shifting expressions—and if one person decides to stay inside while his or her viewing partner leaves, another spectator will pop in and transform the exhibition into something totally new.

Sticking your head into a cramped, dimly-lit box probably seems like it would be an isolating experience, but Elson, 59, insists his work is all about fostering human connection. Most pieces are built to fit two to four people's heads at a time, and once they pop their heads inside, they embark on a shared journey through the artist's psychedelic landscapes. “It’s really about being present with another person,” Elson tells mental_floss. “And it’s about being in the moment right here, right now, not distracted with anything else.”

Jason Ralph, actor, The Magicians (SyFy) inThe Delta of Venus

Menage a Trois

Elson has come a long way since his first try at an Infinity Box, which he built as an art student at the Pratt Institute. The foamcore sculpture had eye-holes for viewing two fields of mirrors at once. It was designed in such a way that it was impossible for the viewer's eyes to rest on a single focal point. "There were several different experiments going on at the same time," Elson says. "[It caused] massive confusion for the brain with a sort of seasick feeling afterward."

After he graduated from Pratt in 1982, Elson transitioned from physical art to computer graphics, receiving a Masters of Computer Applications at the New York Institute of Technology in 1987. Three years later, when he relocated to Los Angeles with his wife, he left the experimental box from his art school days behind.

Elson spent the next two decades working for some of the entertainment industry's biggest companies. He was at DreamWorks during the studio’s launch and assisted in Disney’s transition from 2D to 3D animation. But even after all his successes, the artist felt out of his element in front of a monitor. “I was tired of making things in small dark rooms by myself,” he says. So he went back to making fine art paintings like he’d learned to do as an undergraduate student.

And then a trip to Burning Man made him reconsider mirrors as a medium.

Infinity Box No. 1

Every year, tens of thousands of people participating in Burning Man build a temporary community in Nevada's Black Rock Desert and hold a week-long festival of art, electronic music, and "radical self-expression," all leading up to the symbolic burning of a towering, wooden effigy of their namesake mascot. Elson attended in 2010, and while wandering through the desert displays, he came across a piece created by artist Manu Kaleido. KaleidoAct used moving lights, shadows, and puppetry reflected in a large mirrored space to alter the viewer's sense of reality.

Inspired, Elson went home and started playing with the materials on a much smaller scale. One of the first things he did was hold two mirrors back-to-back and bring them up to his face. “That bifurcates the field of view,” he explains. “You get all this anomalous information that's in conflict and your brain’s trying to make sense of it.”

Using that concept as a starting point, Elson began construction on a full-sized box in April of 2012. Unlike creating something in a computer program, putting a box together required a true physical connection to his work. His decades of tech experience did come in handy, however. Since building his first box as a student, he'd learned geometry concepts from animating computer graphics that made planning out 3D structures a lot easier. He used that knowledge to design pieces that were as coherent and seamless in their final forms as they were when he envisioned them.

He was so eager to show off the first box in the Infinity Box series—appropriately titled Infinity Box No. 1—that he put together a quick version made from plywood and Gatorfoam within a month to display at a Thai massage parlor in Santa Monica. He finished an updated model of Infinity Box No. 1 made from wood and masonite a year later.

Elson has built 14 boxes in the years since, and that’s not including the replicas of his original designs. They’ve been showcased at Burning Man, the Science Museum in London, and most recently at the Hall of Magic in Brooklyn during an exhibit promoting the Syfy series The Magicians. According to Elson, more than 220,000 people have experienced his creations at his shows alone, and he has noticed similar patterns from the people who view them.

“What I really love is when I see people ... put their heads in a box and they’re there for 10 or 15 minutes just having a conversation,” Elson says. “The average length of time a person spends in front of a painting or a sculpture in a museum is on the border of a few seconds. They’re very short experiences, [but] people tend to really take their time with these [boxes].”

Different boxes evoke different themes. His sixth box, Radiance, is based on the story from the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu scripture in which Krishna reveals his universal form to Arjuna. “Arjuna saw the Universal Form of the Lord with many mouths and eyes, and many visions of marvel, with numerous divine ornaments, and holding divine weapons,” the passage reads. “Arjuna saw the entire universe, divided in many ways, but standing as (all in) One (and One in all) in the body of Krishna.”

The spirit of this story is what Elson aimed to capture in the box, which is a consistent crowd-pleaser. Viewers are treated to one of two perspectives, depending on which side they enter: One side, representing order, is covered with flowers and electric candles; the other side, representing chaos, is shot through with swirling rainbow lights. The mirrors are positioned in a way that slices the occupant’s face into 11 separate reflections.

“It takes a beautiful picture, and I think that’s one of the things people like about it,” Elson says. “But for me, it’s a deeper metaphorical layer of looking at the person and seeing the many aspects of them.”

Radiance—the "chaos" side.

Radiance—the "order" side.

Matt Elson at "The Magicians" exhibit.

After working on his Infinity Boxes for five years, Elson is now planning to turn them into something even more engrossing in partnership with Joe Jaroff. For his next project, he’s fully embracing the carnival funhouse concept and building pieces out of full-sized shipping containers. Participants will be able to walk inside the boxes and see reflections of their whole bodies scattered across the walls.

By completely enveloping the senses, Elson hopes the boxes will compel viewers to slow down and live in the present. “That’s the real goal,” he says. “Creating a space for people to be aware of their lives.”

Gryphon's Lair

Delta of Venus

The Unforeseen Consequence of Circumstance

Besos del Corazon
All images courtesy of Matt Elson.
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Boston's Museum of Fine Arts Hires Puppy to Sniff Out Art-Munching Bugs
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Some dogs are qualified to work at hospitals, fire departments, and airports, but one place you don’t normally see a pooch is in the halls of a fine art museum. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is changing that: As The Boston Globe reports, a young Weimaraner named Riley is the institution’s newest volunteer.

Even without a background in art restoration, Riley will be essential in maintaining the quality of the museum's masterpieces. His job is to sniff out the wood- and canvas-munching pests lurking in the museum’s collection. During the next few months, Riley will be trained to identify the scents of bugs that pose the biggest threat to the museum’s paintings and other artifacts. (Moths, termites, and beetles are some of the worst offenders.)

Some infestations can be spotted with the naked eye, but when that's impossible, the museum staff will rely on Riley to draw attention to the problem after inspecting an object. From there, staff members can examine the piece more closely and pinpoint the source before it spreads.

Riley is just one additional resource for the MFA’s existing pest control program. As far as the museum knows, it's rare for institutions facing similar problems to hire canine help. If the experiment is successful, bug-sniffing dogs may become a common sight in art museums around the world.

[h/t The Boston Globe]

Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.
Mütter Museum Showcases the Victorian Custom of Making Crafts From Human Hair
Palette work from the collection of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley
Palette work from the collection of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

During the Victorian era, hair wasn’t simply for heads. People wove clipped locks into elaborate accessories, encased them in frames and lockets, and used them to make wreaths, paintings, and other items. "Woven Strands," a new exhibition at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, explores this historical practice by featuring dozens of intricate works culled from five private collections.

According to Emily Snedden Yates, special projects manager at the Mütter Museum, hair work—as it’s called today—was common in England and America between the 17th and early 20th centuries. The popularity of the practice peaked in the 19th century, thanks in part to Queen Victoria’s prolonged public mourning after her husband Prince Albert’s death in 1861. People in both the UK and U.S. responded to her grief, with the latter country also facing staggering death tolls from the Civil War.

With loss of life at the forefront of public consciousness, elaborate mourning customs developed in both nations, and hair work became part of the culture of bereavement. "[The 19th century was] such a sentimental age, and hair is about sentiment," exhibition co-curator Evan Michelson tells Mental Floss. That sentimental quality made hair work fit for both mourning practices as well as for romantic or familiar displays of fondness.

Palette work culled from the collection of Evan Michelson and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Palette work from the collection of Evan Michelson
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Most hair artworks were made by women, and created solely for the domestic sphere or as wearable trinkets. Women relied on multiple techniques to create these objects, fashioning wreaths with hair-wrapped bendable wires—a process called gimp work—and dissolving ground hair into pigments used to paint images of weeping willows, urns, and grave sites. Watch fobs, necklaces, and bracelets were woven using an approach called table work, which involved anchoring hair filaments with lead weights onto a table and using tools to twist them into intricate patterns through a hole in the furniture’s surface. Yet another technique, palette work, involved stenciled sheets of hair that were cut into various shapes and patterns.

Hair work remained popular until World War I, according to Michelson, who co-owns New York City's quirky Obscura Antiques and Oddities shop and organized "Woven Strands" along with 19th century decorative arts expert John Whitenight.

“Women hit the workforce, and death occurred on such a huge scale that it really swept away the old way of mourning and the old way of doing things,” Michelson says. By the early 20th century, tastes and aesthetics had also changed, with hair work beginning to be viewed “as something grandma had,” she explains.

The Mütter’s exhibition aside, people typically won’t see hair work in major museums. Being a craft primarily performed by women at home, hair works were usually passed down in families and often viewed as worthless from a financial and artistic perspective.

“A lot of hair work was discarded,” Michelson says. Many owners repurposed the shadowbox frames often used to display hair work by removing and tossing the artworks within. Works stored in basements and attics also frequently succumbed to water damage and insects. Antique dealers today typically only see hair jewelry, which often featured semi-precious materials or was encased in a protective layer.

Sepia dissolved hair culled from the collection of Jennifer Berman and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Sepia dissolved hair from the collection of Jennifer Berman
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Yet examples of hair wreaths, palette work, and other delicate heirlooms do occasionally surface. They’re prized by a small group of avid collectors, even though other connoisseurs can be grossed out by them.

“People have this visceral reaction to it,” Michelson says. “They either gasp and adore it—like ‘I can’t get over how amazing it is’—or they just back away. There are very few other things where people are repulsed like this … In the 19th century no one batted an eyelash.”

“It’s a personal textile,” Snedden Yates explains. “It’s kind of like bone in that it doesn’t really decompose at the same rate as the rest of our bodies do. It’s not made of tissue, so if you keep it in the right environment it can be maintained indefinitely.”

Table work culled from the collection of Eden Daniels and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Table work from the collection of Eden Daniels
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

“Woven Strands” features examples of gimp work, palette work, table work, and dissolved hair work. It’s often hard to trace these types of artworks back to their original creators—they typically don’t bear signatures—but the curators “really wanted to find hair that you could connect to an actual human being,” Michelson says. “We chose pieces that have provenance. We know where they came from or when it was made, or who actually donated the hair in some cases, or what the family name was. We also picked out things that are unusual, that you don’t see often—oddities, if you will.”

Woven hair culled from the collection of Jennifer Berman and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Woven hair from the collection of Jennifer Berman
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Displayed in the Mütter Museum’s Thomson Gallery, “Woven Strands” opens on January 19, 2018, and runs through July 12, 2018. On April 7, 2018, master jeweler and art historian Karen Bachmann will lead a 19th century hair art workshop, followed by a day-long historical symposium on the art on Sunday, April 8.

Michelson hopes that “Woven Strands” will teach future generations about hair art, and open their minds to a craft they might have otherwise dismissed as parochial or, well, weird. “We hope that people see it and fall in love with it,” she says.


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