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The Man in the Box

A conceptual artist encounters a heat wave.

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The box is 46 inches high and 35 by 31 inches square. It was originally constructed to house a small refrigerator, a fact noted on the outside of the box in several languages. The cardboard has been reinforced with duct tape and glue and waterproofed with layers of latex sealant. Inside, lashed to the top, is a two-inch-thick foam sleeping pad and a waterproof tarp. There are also wire hangers that hold a flashlight, a thermometer, and other supplies. On Monday, July 16, Matthew Weddington lowered the box down from his back porch onto Superior Street and stepped inside.

Weddington, who's 25, moved here from Lexington, Kentucky, at the beginning of July; he's starting an MFA program at the School of the Art Institute this fall. He planned to live inside the box for a month, making weekly scheduled appearances at Navy Pier and outside the Museum of Contemporary Art, where he would emerge at 10 AM, August 14. The rest of the time he'd be on the move, walking around the near north side and the lakefront. The box has handles inside, so Weddington can walk around without taking it off, and he sees through a six-by-one-inch slit cut at eye level. He intended to eat and drink only what he could carry with him in the box.

He's performed The Box Project once before--last year, in Lexington. That time it lasted one week, which he says wasn't that hard. "I didn't really feel like I was pushing the limit. It didn't seem effective at all. So 30 days going without food--or very little food--little water, in the heat...it's an endurance test."

Back home, while studying art at the University of Kentucky, Weddington made something of a name for himself as a conceptual artist. The Lexington installment of The Box Project, in April 2000, was his first performance piece. For his second performance, Human Street Sweeper, he dressed in a protective jumpsuit, rolled two-tenths of a mile down the middle of the street, and nearly got run over by a LexTran bus.

He followed that project--which left him with bruised shoulders and a swollen left elbow--with a series of prankish public installations that were less hazardous to his health. He posted large signs on roads leading into Lexington that read "Welcome to Fayette County, Home of Matthew Weddington, Conceptual Artist." He followed those with parking signs ("Reserved Parking for Matthew Weddington, Conceptual Artist--Violators Will Be Towed") and signs reserving stalls in several public rest rooms. The series culminated with "Matthew Weddington Day," which was celebrated at the University of Kentucky's Commonwealth Stadium on November 11.

"I sent out these fake publicity things to see who would bite," he says. He solicited a local sorority for volunteers and got ten women to wear T-shirts that spelled out his last name. "[The university] threw this gigantic bash at a football game. They had those foam 'number one' fingers that said 'Matthew Weddington.'...It was on the news; it was on the JumboTron!" The alternative newspaper Ace Weekly dubbed Weddington "one of the most creative people on the planet" and one of seven Model Citizens of the Year.

The Box Project was inspired, he says, by Kobo Abe's The Box Man, which tells the story of a nameless Tokyo man who drops out of society to join a subculture of nomadic "box men." Abe's novel is a fable about identity and alienation. "A box man is hardly conspicuous," he writes. "He is like a piece of rubbish shoved between a guardrail and a public toilet or underneath a footbridge. But that's different from being inconspicuous or invisible....If you were to wear dark glasses at night or put on a mask, you couldn't help being considered some very timid creature or if not that, someone up to no good. All the more so then with a box man, who conceals his whole body; one can hardly object if he is considered suspicious."

"After reading the book," says Weddington, "I interpreted the box as being a metaphor for a camera. Because the box man lives in the box and he's looking out--projecting out on the world....Typically in the arts, if you look at something--say, a painting--it's not going to look back at you. While I am inside the box, I become the art object. I then look at you. So the art object in this instance is interacting with the viewer."

In his backpack he carries a change of clothes, a towel, a can opener, a toothbrush and toothpaste, matches, soap, ear plugs, toilet paper, and lots of water. He eats, sleeps, and eliminates in the box, saving and cataloging his piss and shit in Ziploc bags and empty water bottles. "I smell horrible," he says, "but I've got everything sealed up tight." He also shoots "surveillance" photos and video footage of people outside the box, and every day he takes a Polaroid of himself, noting the date and time on the wall of the box. All the documentation--the photos, video, and "relics," as well as the box itself--will be included in a show next year at the Museum in the Community in Hurricane, West Virginia, where a homeless shelter is also sponsoring a performance of The Box Project.

To a certain degree, he says, "everything has to do with property and ownership. The Box Project is about having a home--having a place to be, a place to dwell." Through the surveillance photography, he adds, he's symbolically protecting his property.

He didn't spend a lot of time psyching himself up before starting this year's performance. "I'm just going to go," he said before he went. "But every day I think about it and I don't sleep, because every day I'm thinking about 30 days in the box. So I'm very aware that I'm going in. I'm not really doing anything special, other than just telling myself that I've got 30 days."

On Wednesday, July 18, three days into the project, he was camped out in the shade in Washington Square Park. Temperatures in the city hovered in the mid-80s, and a light breeze cut through the zillion percent humidity. Inside the box it was 95 degrees and very still. Heat pulsed out through the surveillance slit in the front, and Weddington was sweating. A lot.

"The first day was hard," he says. He wasn't used to the heat and he threw up, "but I think that was just kind of nerves." He stopped by the MCA on Monday ("because that thing seems like a platform for art--at least I hope it is") and a staffer there came by the box to chat with him. He gave her a press release.

In Lexington the box once got jumped by three guys. So far nothing like that has happened in Chicago, says Weddington, but he's had some rough moments. "[Tuesday night] was bad. I had a guy follow me. At about three in the morning I figured out that this guy was kind of stalking me....He never got really close--he would get within like 15 feet, I'm guessing, because I could hear his footsteps. And then when I would stop, he would stop. And then I would spin the box to see if he was still there, and he was still standing there....I'm still disillusioned by the whole idea that this guy is stalking a box."

After he ditched the stalker with the help of a security guard at the Moody Bible Institute, he hunkered down with some other boxes in an alley in the gallery district. There a prostitute solicited him. Then, in what was either the ultimate indignity or the highest compliment, a homeless man squatted next to the box and relieved himself. Weddington cleaned it up, but "I had to lose a sock over that one."

Still, he's not that fazed by the perils of living on the street. He's done it before, he says. In his early 20s, before he went to college, he spent most of his time hitchhiking around France and the States and rock climbing. He's more worried about the weather.

"April in Lexington," he says, "was a lot different from here. In the seven days I had snow, rain, two days of 90 degree heat, and then hail."

Now, he says, "I can see going--what is today, Wednesday?--two weeks would be fine. Three weeks? I would be really proud of three weeks. I don't see making the fourth week just because physically I don't think I can do it. I'm losing so much water. I could see 21 days. I guess that's my personal goal."

He's trying to drink a liter of water a day. So far his diet has consisted of tinned meat, Little Debbie snack cakes, and whatever contributions passersby have brought him. It hasn't all been bad, he says. After some cops showed up to investigate a report that there was a suspicious box in Washington Square Park, possibly containing a stray animal, he explained his project. They responded by saying "Oh, you're one of those kids" and asking what his name was.

"Once they interact it's fine," says Weddington. "Because I'm personally not threatening. It's just this box is, I think, a little bit threatening, because you don't know what's inside."

Tina Hall, 15, and Jasmine Clark, 11, who were hanging out in the park on Wednesday, "thought it was weird," said Tina. "At first I'm just thinking it was somebody in the box that needed help. And I was looking to see if somebody needed help."

"When we saw him peek out through that thing," added Jasmine, "he looked like he was scared or something."

Susan Aiello, who lives near the park and was walking her dog, asked, "What's the point? Just to do it? Like the guys in the windows and the guy in the ice?" But Carmela Cordero, mother of two-year-old Mitchell, was impressed. "That's just amazing that he would be able to do it," she said. "I think it's kind of neat. Something different. And my son really enjoyed watching him walk around."

The best comment, says Weddington, came on day one. "This lady kept going, 'He's not hot in there--it's a refrigerator box!' That was my favorite. I thought that was totally ironic. I was like, oh jeez, I didn't even think about that."

Last Saturday, day six, it was 95 degrees, and Weddington said he didn't think he was going to last three weeks. He set Sunday, July 29, as the new date for his emergence. That morning he made an appearance outside the MCA as originally planned, but since then he appears to have abandoned his schedule. He didn't turn up at Navy Pier on Sunday, nor did he return to the MCA on Tuesday, and several hours of biking around the area have turned up lots of cuboid garbage cans, mailboxes, park benches, utility boxes, and some actual cardboard packaging, but no conceptual artists. He's not in the hospital, he hasn't been arrested, as far as can be ascertained he's not at the morgue, and if he's at home he's not answering the phone. So he's probably still out there somewhere. If you see him, give him some Gatorade.

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