Space Jam

At night, Pilsen is bathed in a kind of urban yellow. The light slides over buildings, all either half-lit or dark. What makes Roxaboxen Exhibitions striking, then, are the red letters hanging in the window; “COME IN,” they read, in a font vaguely reminiscent of prison blocks. The venue opened an exhibition on Sunday called “Potentialities,” which showcases two performance-oriented artists–Milcah Bassel and Teruko Nimura–affiliated with Artists’ Cooperative Residency and Exhibitions (ACRE), an artists’ residency program based in rural Wisconsin.

The theme of the exhibition–possibilities–is tied to the venue itself. When Bassel conceived of the exhibition, she took Roxaboxen into account, even drawing on its former function as a funeral home. In particular, “Intimate Boundaries” utilized what is referred to as the “Coffin Chute,” a hallway that descends into a basement-like room from which coffins were ostensibly lifted before funerals. “Intimate Boundaries” situated spandex sheets of cloth along the hallway that visitors were encouraged to walk through; the spandex was blue on the descent and brown on the ascent. Bassel filmed visitors as they reached the bottom of the hallway, interacting with them as the camera rolled.

“The cloth is meant to split one space into two, with the possibility of a third,” Bassel said. “The body is the third, really. The spandex recalls clothing, skin.”

Bassel’s other piece, “Reconfigurations,” consisted of 100 photographs arranged in a rectangle on the wall, each held up with four thumbtacks. A woman dressed in black positions her body in a variety of inventive ways within a similarly rectangular box. What is most surprising is that it is unclear which side of the box is the top and which is the bottom; the viewer is forced to question his or her sense of direction, particularly when the woman is positioned so it appears she is lying on the ceiling of the box. The work emphasizes possibilities in a limited space. “I love that an image can re-orient and disorient us, making us question gravity, even,” Bassel said.

While Bassel’s work is focused on confined space, Nimura’s deals with open space. A series of photographs taken during her summer residency at ACRE line the walls of Roxaboxen, directly across the gallery from Bassel’s “Reconfigurations.” Nimura’s photographs, entitled “Ceremony at ACRE,” depict what appears to be a succession of rituals, involving, for instance, a large group sitting in a circle. The physical configuration of the gallery meant that the community evident in Nimura’s photographs was juxtaposed with Bassel’s lone woman in black. There’s also a vastness to nature that is addressed in Nimura’s photographs, a vastness that seems worlds away from the confines of Bassel’s boxed woman.

This theme carries over into Teruko Nimura’s primary work: a series of twelve wax hummingbirds ascending into pale yellow origami lilies, hung on the walls and the ceiling with yellow string. The lilies were predominantly made not by Nimura but by middle school students, whom she taught through a series of workshops. The hummingbirds are arranged so that they appear to rise to the ceiling and almost (though not quite) touch the origami lilies.

“It’s really about the moment before contact, about what can happen in that space, good or bad,” Nimura said. “I had events where children made the lilies and we talked about Japanese culture, so community was also important. I was really interested in the potential for all the positive interactions that can happen when people come together, all the energy that results.”

The emphasis on community carried over into the evening as well. A table, small and white, and covered in translucent origami paper stood in the back corner of the gallery, where Nimura taught guests to make the same lilies that hung from the ceiling. She then collected them to utilize in her next installation, generating that same energy that comes from collaboration.

The sheer size of the works on display–the hummingbirds occupied much of the main gallery, and visitors were encouraged to walk through the “Coffin Chute”–forced viewers to contend with issues of space; the art is unavoidable and, by extension, viewers are forced to reckon with and react to the work, thereby engaging with the themes. “The physical size of the pieces is important,” curator Brian Gallagher said. “You have to really be in it.”

Roxaboxen Exhibitions, 2130 W. 21st St. Open hours Saturday, January 26, noon-3pm. Through February 1. Hours by appointment through Free.