Walking down Magnolia Street between 3rd and 2nd, a yellow glow spills out of Sheherazade, marking the gallery’s location. Inside, the light illuminates a black steel gift box topped with a matching black steel bow. Behind The Gift, a projection depicts two transparent hands unwrapping never-ending layers of gift wrap. Together, the mournful black gift box and the yellow glow create an eerie mood—heightened by the unnerving patterns featured on the gift wrap and the familiar sounds of tearing wrapping paper.
This is the set-up of Veils, the current site-specific exhibit in Sheherazade, featuring two pieces by artist Dominic Guarnaschelli: Endless Time for End Times, the looping unwrapping video, and The Gift, the steel black gift box centered in the gallery.
As the text for the exhibit contends, Veils has arrived just in time for the Hanukkah and Christmas season—i.e. the heaviest shopping season of the year. The exhibit offers a critique on the popularity of online unboxing videos--a trend that has gained immense popularity on social media platforms such as YouTube and Instagram, and features individuals (or just their hands) unwrapping and reviewing products that have been sent to them by various retailers--as well as the consumerist practice that defines the month of December.
Unlike the popular videos on YouTube or Instagram, in Endless Time for End Times there are no brightly colored patterns ending in product surprises or gifts pleasantly wrapped in craft paper with sprigs of rosemary. Here, we are offered no conclusion to the tearing and tearing of paper, though we are gifted with Guarnaschelli’s custom printed patterns that feature everything from entwined snakes, rams, trumpet blowing angels, and a deer with a beard (Satan?). His patterns are detailed and the attractive hand-made drawings pull from a host of references including Botticelli’s 15th century illustrated manuscript of Dante’s Inferno and the 1920 book Dispensational Truth by Baptist Clarence Larkin. Drawing from these sources, Guarnaschelli allows his patterns to serve as a reminder of the history and lure of our culture that has for centuries guided our values and morals. Both Dante’s Inferno and Dispensational Truth were hugely influential in their own time—and have continued to serve as sources of inspiration in contemporary media and culture.
To unwrap Sheherazade’s Veils we begin by considering the original inspiration for the exhibition—the holiday season it critiques and the popular unboxing videos. The YouTube unboxing videos offer a kind of live and detailed product review, giving viewers an opportunity to watch their favorite YouTubers open new, popular, and high-end products. Implementing video effects, excellent lighting, and high-end equipment, the videos also offer a pleasing cinematic display while the unboxers discuss the product’s benefits, uses, and compare them to similar items. There are even child-unboxers who open and play with toys for the benefit of children around the world. As we watch, it is easy to imagine ourselves as doing the unwrapping (the disembodied hands frequently presented in the online videos and in Guarnaschelli’s work could easily be our own.) Similar to the curated and well-thought-out images we endlessly swipe through on Instagram, the unboxing videos serve as their own substitute for reality. They offer glimpses into products we are made to believe we need and want while also giving us the false sensation of being the ones to open them.
This simulation of the real1 feeds our culturally produced desires to become alternate and improved versions of ourselves. The title of the exhibit, Veils, then becomes a reference for the parade of images that construct our reality and understanding of how that reality should be. Guarnaschelli’s persistent unwrapping in Endless Time for End Times become hands (ours or his) seeking to tear at the layers that have crowded our sense of culture and self, pulling apart our media saturated brains to find a unique image or unique understanding of the world—one separate from this simulated reality. The gift-wrapping, however, is a never-ending loop, and offers no reward to the imagined labor the viewer has participated in.
As an installation, Veils lives in its own reality. The ominous environment it crafts serves as a false representation of gifts and unboxing videos, while offering a dark look at the social media that serves as its referent. The heavy, black, and un-openable gift box, offers a somber reminder of the temporality of the gift-giving season. The yearly rush of stress and shopping that abruptly ends with hopes for the new year. Centered in the back of the gallery near the garage door, The Gift anchors our eye to the floor. Glossy and pristine, the gift is emblematic of the perfect holidays we all strive to have— and for the consumer (viewer), becomes a replacement for the real, unattainable thing.
Veils asks us to reflect upon the idea of revelations—something this exhibit strictly holds back from us. In a less tangible sense, however, Veils is full of smaller revelations found in the details Guarnaschelli has applied to his work—as the exhibit critiques our culture it offers us the rewards of well-drawn patterns, and a finely crafted bow. Within the drawings Guarnaschelli offers hints and clues that reflect on pagan and Christian myth, tying the various histories of our society’s beliefs together. Considered together, Guarnaschelli’s patterns tied with the influence of the contemporary unboxing videos reminds us that the desire to conform with others and adapt to our society is nothing new. Before social media, humans lost themselves in myths and stories they used to guide their internal image of how their lives should unfold. Similar to the unending layers of Endless Time for End Times, today we become lost in the layers of videos and images we encounter through social media, and rely on those to guide our ideas of self and reality.
VEILS is on display at Sheherazade through January 13th.
Sheherazade is viewable 24/7, from the sidewalks of West Magnolia Avenue, in the garage behind 1401 South 3rd Street, Louisville KY, 40208
- 1. See: Jean Baudrillard in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company Inc. 2010), 1553-1566
- Dominic Guarnaschelli
Jessica Oberdick, Contributor to Ruckus