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Portrait of the viewer

"Infinity Boxes" by Matt Elson 

Portrait of the viewer

For a limited time, Memorial Art Gallery is hosting several installations starring your face and mine. Peer inside each of nine "Infinity Boxes," created by L.A.-based artist Matt Elson, and your countenance temporarily becomes part of a kaleidoscopic, optical illusion created by carefully positioned mirrors, lights, flowers, candles, and other bits of pretty interest.

Four of the boxes are positioned within a room in the Grand Gallery, with the rest dispersed throughout the MAG, in order to encourage visitors to explore the rest of the museum. This is Elson's first museum show with the boxes, which have traveled across country from the west coast to the east by way of a few stops at art fairs and Burning Man.

click to enlarge Matt Elson's "Infinity Boxes" installations, currently on display at Memorial Art Gallery, create kaleidoscopic, optical illusions that include reflections of the viewers. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Matt Elson's "Infinity Boxes" installations, currently on display at Memorial Art Gallery, create kaleidoscopic, optical illusions that include reflections of the viewers.

The Infinity Boxes are compact works of beautifully crafted wooden furniture, tall with wood panels closed in by decorative frames. As viewers approach each work, they will notice face-sized, rectangular or triangular openings emitting soft glows of lights or the shimmering reflections of those lights on glimpses of mirrored surfaces.

When peering inside, the almost entirely-mirrored interiors offer the illusion of infinite corridors winding and twisting away into obscurity. The impression is so effective that I have to admit I stepped back and gently, gently stretched my hand forward to test the actual limitations of the seeming boundlessness— while being careful not to touch and leave smudges, so that I didn't destroy the illusion for the next viewer. As my fingertips approached the surfaces and their own reflection, the illusion collapsed, and the snug quarters revealed themselves.

Depending on the positions of the mirrors within, the effect of looking forward, up, down, or off to the side is that the box becomes populated by a fascinating or unsettling sweep of your face from different angles. I say "fascinating or unsettling," because it's akin to the discombobulating feeling of being in a fun house, or catching a view of yourself in a many-mirrored dressing room and experiencing what you look like from various non-frontal views.

Eight of the nine boxes require at least two people in order to experience the box to the fullest. Usually, one person is required to poke his or her face into one opening, while another person stands at the opposite portal, experiencing an entirely different view of their friend's face — and their own — in the kaleidoscope. This is where photography comes into play, too. The artist invites creative engagement by encouraging viewers to photograph their friends' faces as part of the installation, and having a friend help is the only way to get a photo without your phone or camera in the shot. Plus, there really isn't room for your face and your camera in the gaps.

Only through a friend's photographs can you experience what their view of you is, but the photographs cannot full capture the optical illusions involved in these works. The experience is essentially temporal and fleeting.

One of the boxes, "Mènage á Trois," has room for three people to peer in at once, and provides a disorienting and then "magic eye," hallucinatory experience for those with the patience to relax their gazes. "Radiance" in particular lends itself very well to photographing different expressions in one shot to those who have mastered the use of the panoramic feature on their smart phones. In some boxes, I saw my face as a many-headed goddess in a Hindu temple, surrounded by flowers and candles left by devotees. Accordingly, I flashed alternating benevolent and fierce looks.

This level of interaction involved with the artwork is rare in a museum, but growing in this social media age. Even if the installations aren't your thing, you have to hand it to Elson's clever sense to take advantage of our desire for an ever-fresh, interesting selfie, or in this case, almost-selfie. Include the audience through such an invitation, and your viral success is almost guaranteed.

The Infinity Boxes "are a form of contemporary portraiture that is tuned to social media," Elson says. "Typically, two people will walk up, look in from each side, put their heads in the box, be surprised, get happy, then spontaneously take out their phones, photograph each other and publish those pictures via the web."

It's a smart tactic. The Whitney Museum of American Arts's recent Jeff Koons retrospective appealed directly to how we currently interact with technology by passing out cards — to teen visitors — with an invite to snap selfies on the reflective surfaces of Koons' sculptures. The cards included the hashtags and other info the kids should use on social media to ensure that the art house staff saw their selfies, and The Whitney promised to regram or otherwise share the best ones.

But Elson also junks all of that noise with "Thankful," the sole box built for one, which provides the intimate meditation of a solo encounter with countless views of your own face, unfolding like the petals of a flower amid twisting ropes of colorful and buzzing lights. Here, he returns our focus to the true aim of the boxes, which is to meditate upon the concepts and experiences of "self" and "other." There is no way to accurately photograph this one and share what you're experiencing with others; this one is just for you and your own reflection.

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