The noble art of boxing

The box is the perfect metaphor for the gallery - an enclosed world mag ically endowing its contents, however banal, with significance. Adrian Searle p eers cautiously inside There's a box of Ku Klux Klan dolls, an unassembled chipboard coffin, a box of old hair, a coronation tin and a drawing of an aardvark: this show cannot fail
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The Independent Culture
Stuck for ideas about what to buy the kids for Christmas? Can't bear the irritating warble of Nintendos or the clash of futuristic plastic weaponry? Why not rush now to the Whitechapel Art Gallery and check out The Little Arsonist, a perfect gift for thejuvenile pyromaniac in your family. It's got everything - matches, lighter, petrol, kindling materials and a full set of instructions. For once, it comes complete - no hidden snags, no tiny labels saying "batteries not supplied" - and the whole t hing is guaranteed flammable.

The Little Arsonist is one of two boxed works by the poet and surrealist Maurice Henry featuring in "Worlds in a Box", a show of art in boxes, and of artworks which are boxes. This compendious, though by no means exhaustive, show contains over 130 works by more than 70 artists, many of whom are seen all too rarely in this country.

"Worlds in a Box" is full of wit, strangeness, and macabre ephemera. It is by turns touching and alarming. "Scoop out one of your eyes five years from now," reads a small card scattered among the memorabilia and hypothetical artworks in the Fluxus Collective's Flux Kit BA, 1965, "and do the same with the other five years later."

There's a box of fetishistic Ku Klux Klan dolls by William Christenberry, and Johanes Zechner uses an unassembled chipboard coffin in one of the hybrid constructions. There are skeleton hands, bird skulls, a box of old hair, a souvenir coronation tin featuring Queen Elizabeth II and a drawing of an aardvark: this is a show that cannot fail.

The keystone of the exhibition is, of course, Joseph Cornell. For most of the artists here, the arrangement of found and invented elements within the bare Euclidean space of the box was but an artistic side-show. Many of the works here were the impulsive, one-off result of an inspirational moment: Yoko Ono's all-white pacifist chess-set, for example, or Cesar's cardboard box, crushed inside a clear perspex container. But for Cornell, the small, contained construction represented the world.

A self-taught, burrowing bibliophile, Cornell never travelled further from his home on Utopia Boulevard, Flushing, than to Manhattan. Yet his glass-fronted boxes, with their arrangements of stray objects and pasted papers were time-machines, enabling himto travel to the imaginary, empty hotel rooms of Europe of the mind. With their advertising bills from Ostende, street maps of German towns, Victoriana, liqueur glasses, star-charts and configurations of wooden balls, his works display a fastidious retentiveness that makes you want to smash them. The lapidary, enclosed worlds he assembled took delicacy and enigma to the edge of violence.

From Man Ray's vanity-case with gold lips embossed on its cover, to Susan Hiller's taxonomic, punctiliously labelled boxes of earth, water and arrow-heads; from Clive Barker's casket containing the ashes of an incinerated work by Richard Hamilton, to Duchamp's valise, housing a portable museum of reproductions of Duchamp's own works, many of the pieces play on the sexually insecure psychology of the collector. The cabinet of curiosities becomes the Freudian nightmare. One of the most ridiculous and appa rently innocuous works, George Maciunas's Smile Machine, a spring-loaded device to be worn in the mouth, produces in its wearer an artificial, frozen rictus.

Surrealism, French Nouveau Realism, Fluxus and a kind of poetic conceptualism form the heart of "Worlds in a Box", and the show is a great reminder of how anarchic, humorous, accessible - and how essentially European - much of the most radical art from the 1920s to the 1970s actually was. The best works here are like Pandora's box - filled with ulterior meanings. But a great deal of the recent work by younger artists is psychically empty. It's a pity to carp at omissions, but it would have been interesting to have included some "slacker-generation" object-based work by the artists who have shown in Sarah Staton's Supastore installation. These playful, sexy and psychologically thr-eatening pseudo-commodities would have undercut the potential precariousness of the show's concept and would have demonstrated that Fluxus is alive and well in young British art. And where is Joan Brossa, the Catalan grand-master of the object-poem?

There are enough homespun snuff-boxes and portentous gewgaws, knocked up in garden sheds, to give an otherwise excellent show a bad name. Too much, too, could be taken for the wreckage of a school's nature-table: there are an awful lot of trite references to things that flit and crawl. Cornell gives us a glimpse of a pair of long-eared owls; Jir Kolr has built a bird-box, replete with giant egg and decorated with images of our feathered friends. More successfully, Avis Newman allows us to inspect the world from the bird's point of view, through the circular aperture of a nesting-box, suggesting that birds are as much involved in watching us as we are in them. This peep-hole view of the world is, of course, voyeuristic, as the late Marcel Marien's School for Voyeurs ably, and hauntingly, demonstrates. But where surreal wit declines into whimsy (a particular British trait), the tension and drama of the show collapses.

While Robert Morris's 1963 untitled cabinet intends to keep us forever locked out - its padlocked lid demands "Leave Key on Hook Inside Cabinet" - the frustration of an exhibition like this is that one can't actually handle works which were intended to be manipulated, unwrapped and opened out. We are not given the opportunity to probe the insides of Japanese Fluxus artist Ay-O's tactile boxes, or open the tins of Cesar's canned polyurethane goo to watch the contents expand and solidify in front of us. The Fluxus movement called for a more democratic, anti-elitist and anti-museological approach to art (Ben Vautier - one of several artists to pursue the arsonist's theme - presents an ordinary box of matches whose cover bears the instruction "to destroy all art") but inevitably met its apotheosis by being enshrined in the museum. This is the fate of all anti-art.

There is only one work in the exhibition that one can actually enter - Lucas Samaras's Room No 3 from 1968. A mirrored cube, it is ornamented inside and out with dangerously spiky pyramids. You have to crawl in on hands and knees, to enter a darkened space filled with fractured, multiple reflections. The vertiginous effect is compelling, but there's a real threat that one might impale oneself. Samaras's room is as much a model of a perilous world as any of the others in this exhibition of dangerous and poetic packages.

n At the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London E1, until 12 Feb. Open 11am-5pm (exc Mon); free.

The exhibition is sponsored by BT