Essential Beige. A few images from the exhibition in Copenhagen 2009
After years of looking inward into the human condition for inspiration, I have recently stepped back and spent more time observing my surroundings and environment in an attempt to reconcile my own existence and artwork within the context of modern life.
In many ways, I have found discarded cigarette boxes to be the perfect paradigm of Western consumer society, encapsulating themes of conspicuous consumption, political and economic convergence, planned obsolescence, and lost eras.
Growing up in the US, artistic life always conjured up images of artists sitting in cafes in Paris drinking a glass of absinthe or wine while cigarette smoke curled around their conversations. While absinthe disappeared years ago, smoky cafes are also becoming a thing of the past as smoking is no longer allowed in cafes in New York and many countries around Europe including France.
For the past six years, I have collected over ten thousand cigarette boxes from bars, cafes, streets, parks, and friends during travels and at home in Budapest. Like the cod which once littered our oceans, cigarette boxes are also becoming an endangered species. Having become almost extinct in places like New York City, London, and Madrid, I only wonder how long it will be until cigarette box strewn grounds such as Budapest and Naples also become barren, smoke free expanses of concrete.
On a more intimate level, my obsession with cigarette boxes has given me certain insights into individual cultures regarding color preferences (Hungarians tend to prefer blue boxes, while Danes seem to prefer red boxes) and migration patterns (several years ago in the center of London, Polish boxes outnumbered English boxes by at least two to one). Another observation is the emphasis on American taste, American quality, and American blend as the cigarettes get more inexpensive and the locales become more remote.
I see my current cigarette project of consisting of two intertwined parts, collection and unification. The first is the story or lack of story behind each box as I collect disparate materials from around the globe. While many boxes come from friends or acquaintances encountered in a bar or restaurant somewhere in Europe or Asia, most are found after being discarded, having passed through someone’s life riding in a purse, witnessing an intense conversation or argument, or sitting next to a bed. Regardless of their origins, these anonymous boxes wend there way to my studio as depleted, worn, somewhat homogeneous patches of color and disparate bits of form to be added to my palette and unified into a final collage.
When I find a cigarette box, I see it as a thing of beauty, like a lost feather from an exotic bird. Protected by a prophylactic plastic casing is a multi colored box which is the product of some of the world’s top graphic design minds. Reassuring words such as “soothing”, “essential”, “trust”, and mild flavor, all in strong blues, reds, and gold exude prestige and luxury. Inside each box is the glint of gold or platinum leaf which once encased the precious cargo. With the precision of a veteran crab picker, I am now able to dismantle a box into its separate usable parts in a matter of seconds: the plastic sheath is discarded, inner cardboard supports are separated and recycled, health warning are excised, graphics are separated, and silver and gold foil is also saved for future use.
It is my hope that these cigarette boxes once seductive and/or reviled are revealed in a new context that is apolitical, contemporary and aesthetically provocative.
As a side note, I do not smoke and never have.