Objects 1. A tangible and invisible thing. 2. A person or thing shown as a focus or thought for feelings, thoughts etc., an object of affection. 3. Grammar. A noun, pronoun or noun phrase whose referent is the recipient of the action of a verb. 4. Grammar. A noun, pronoun, or noun phrase that is governed by a preposition.
I was looking for something not so long ago; the only thing I have ever inherited which is a floral patterned, broken cup and saucer from the mantle shelf of my father’s mother’s clutter dating from the 1950s. I knew it had no particular value except for the fact that its existence reassures me that she once lived. This lowly cup and saucer is present to perception and an analogue of another object; a living being that is not present but remains in memory, partial and unreal. Why was I looking for it? I had intended that it would be my contribution to Alinah Azadeh’s The Gifts, part of ‘the shape of things’ exhibition at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery in February 2010. I never found it amongst the many unpacked boxes which have remained tied up since moving house in May. I gave Alinah another object, one which had no particular significance to me at all. I liked Alinah’s call for gifts that expressed a letting go of stuff that is ‘…past its emotional sell-by date for you, i.e. it somehow represents some experience, memory or association you are prepared to lay to rest’. The aim is to have a collection, a physical database of exactly 999 donated objects. Alinah has a special relationship to the number nine. The first 99 are those from her own life – such as her (broken) wedding shoes, her daughter’s birthing clip, her son’s first babygro, a poetry book from school, and everyday things left by her mother who tragically died in the Asian tsunami of 2004, following the birth of Alinah’s first child, Delia, at which she had been present. Alinah wraps and binds her own objects and those that we have donated using a palette of fabrics and recycled sari yarn. In Mother Tongue (which will be on show in Bristol) Alinah has used kilim wool from her mother’s village in Iran. Accompanied by a silent blessing Alinah provides a closure, a final farewell to the remaining vestiges of not only her mother’s life but also to certain chapters of her experience which she wanted to acknowledge as meaningful but in the past. As participants in the project and by analogy our donations allow us to have endings and new beginnings. We can all move on to live on.
It is often said in colloquial conversation that people who live in a secular society lament the fact that they have no rituals, no cultural markers that signify crossing a threshold, passing from one stage of life to another. The Gifts operates in this space, not least because the process draws on another cultural heritage that believes in self-disclosure and public displays of grief. How very different to a version of Englishness which keeps its secrets to the grave and skeletons in the cupboards. Alinah was inspired by Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, so I think it is worth quoting an extract here:
The Gifts we give at times of transformation are meant to make visible the giving up we do invisibly. And of course we hope that there will be an exchange that something will come towards us if we abandon our old lives. The tokens we receive at times of change are meant to make visible life’s reciprocation. They are not mere compensation for what is lost. But the promise of what lies ahead. They guide us towards new life, assuring our passage away from what is dying.
Objects, particularly those that are part of everyday, material culture are things we carry with us, and it is in this sense that they take on the cultural markers of memory and of time as well as performing the rituals of our everyday. Remember the first security blanket of childhood and the swaddling cloth of birth. Objects can be ‘possessed’ by the self in many surprising ways. This ‘possession’ is, according to Susan Stewart, a guarantee of the presence of the absent other. The power bestowed on such objects, implies Stewart, is precisely dependent on the fact that they are a possession, an extension of the self but one which also reminds us of the threat of loss. This leads me to propose that objects regarded as personal memorabilia can be addressed in relation to memory, absence, grief, anger and remembrance, and are ‘supplemented by a narrative discourse’ through the language of longing. This supplement further contributes to a surplus of significance with its reference to the past, rites of passage and ceremony in so far as it permits objects to conjure a kind of magic aura and phantasms of fictional histories beyond any objective reality.
Objects, like people, argued Ivan Kopytoff and Arjun Appadurai, have life cycles, in the course of which they age and move in and out of economic circuits of exchange and appreciation. When this happens, we learn something different about not only what these things are but about how we value them, and about the changing meanings that we give them over the course of their lives. Objects are never just things in themselves, according to this point of view, and cannot be dissociated from bodies of knowledge and values. Objects tell stories of our relationship to the world; they change context and we change them. They offer a material base; not just in terms of production – hand, industrial or even digital media – but also in relation to how we consume them, long for them and obsessively collect them.
Even if possessions are principally thought of in modern societies as commodities and, in other more traditional contexts as items for ceremonial exchanges, we can be sure that the imagination is brought into play in both cases; that stories are told. Who tells the story and to whom? Stories are everywhere. As Roland Barthes famously asserted in 1966:
The narratives of the world are numberless … All classes, all human groups, have their narratives, the enjoyment of which is very often shared by men with different, even opposing cultural backgrounds.
The point is that possessions draw their power from biographical experiences and from the stories told about them. And this power depends on how we listen and pay attention to them in order to understand something of the metaphoric modes of their enunciation and the shifting of our own subjectivities within their telling.
Now what happens when we have donated our objects, received our blessings, written down our stories and seen them wrapped up? Can we only identify wrapped shapes, loosely recognised forms? What can we read as samples of accompanying texts about our donations around the gallery walls? I believe we are re-engaging in a process of communicative interaction and a dialogic art practice which began when we responded to Alinah’s call and donated our objects. The concept of a dialogical art practice is derived from the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, who argued that the work of art can be viewed as a kind of conversation; a locus of differing meanings, interpretations and points of view.
The Gifts is a kind of conversation between ourselves and the objects we have donated, between the objects and their bindings and blessings and their re-staging in a space shaped itself by a shift in recognising that audiences are now performers engendering human communication different to normal daily life and yet connected to its everydayness. We have also become collaborators in the production of the artwork, The Gifts. I would contend that the pragmatic, physical process of collaborative production of The Gifts helps generate empathetic insight, interpretations and points of view through the workshops held at Bristol Museum, art centres and schools, that also shaped the collection.
At one and the same time a discursive exchange that acknowledges the nonverbal, the haptic, the experiential and the sensual come into play through the use of textile processes and materials in the artwork’s production. Such empathetic insights can be produced along a series of axes. The first occurs in the rapport between Alinah and the ways she works with people in the workshops or by the generosity of her call for donations, especially in those situations in which she works across boundaries of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class and cultural diversity. The second is that as an artwork, The Gifts can be seen as a contemporary arts practice that operates within the social interstices, producing a ‘specific sociability and encouraging an interhuman intercourse’. Alinah’s experience of social media and dialogic electronic art informs The Gifts enhancing its interrelationship and connectivity through material improvisations, textile wraps, bindings and silent blessings. These two terms are not metaphors. Interrelationship and connectivity refer to real processes that enable the emergence of dialogic artworks. For Nicolas Bourriaud, relational aesthetics consists of ‘judging artworks on the basis of the inter-human relations which they represent, produce or prompt’. Building on this theory, Grant Kester proposes a ‘dialogical aesthetic’. Dialogical and relational aesthetics expand upon previous formal aesthetic assumptions, which were based upon a conception of what is beautiful or artistically valid. Each aesthetic theory is based on a foundation of certain value systems. Kester, like Bourriaud, proposes an aesthetic theory based on a value system that prizes forms of dialogue and interaction over, or in addition to, the visual quality of physical forms. As a result Kester advances that ‘the evaluative framework for these projects is no longer centred on the physical object … it resides in the condition and character of dialogical exchange itself’. Kester also emphasises the importance of the provisional status of dialogical art, in which each reciprocal interaction between an artwork and a viewer or what I describe in the Gifts as the viewer as a collaborative performer is a step toward ‘mutual understanding’ rather than toward a fixed meaning. This is what happens when art and life get close and we all have a chance to shake hands with the ancestors through dialogue, as open conversation, in which one listens and includes other voices.
Janis Jefferies is an artist, writer, curator, and Professor of Visual Arts in the Department of Computing at Goldsmiths College, University of London.
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