The elusive pull of objects

by Claire Rosslyn Wilson

My first foray into collecting was stamps. I was given the yearly stamp books produced by Australia Post, which my grandparents were convinced would be a great investment for my future. Although I quite liked the stamps and appreciated their beauty, I was not particularly drawn to this collection. I only really looked at them once then put them on a shelf and forgot about them. It was not something that I would choose to collect, rather it was something that was collected for me.

When we think of collecting we perhaps imagine furtive stamp and coin collectors, gathering hundreds of rare examples over a lifetime commitment. But collecting is carried out in as many ways as there are individuals, and there are a range of motivations that inform collections.

So what is collecting? Journalist and critic Joseph Alsop proposes the following general definition of colleting: ‘to collect is to gather objects belonging to a particular category the collector happens to fancy…and a collection is what has been gathered’ (Alsop 1982: 70). It is the statement ‘happens to fancy’ which is important here, and Alsop expands on this point to distinguish how this fancy develops into an aesthetic which drives what art a collector chooses to acquire. This attraction to certain objects over others it what makes collecting such a varied activity.

I might not fancy stamps, but my hand is often drawn to teapots. It’s not for their usefulness that I like them (I don’t drink all that much tea), but there is something about their shape, the not-quite-perfect surfaces you can find in hand-made teapots, the diversity of expression within a common form. Or perhaps it’s the experience embodied in the teapot that leaves its mark: the short yet concentrated ritual of making the tea or the experience of sharing with family and friends.

In an era when we are being asked to question consumption practices and when ideas of minimalism are taking off in popular culture, one might wonder where a practice of collecting fits in. Surely we have too much stuff in our lives already and what we should be doing is getting rid of things rather than amassing more? But compulsive accumulation of daily detritus is not what collecting is about.

Consumer culture, with its focus on quantity and short life cycles, is actually making us less aware of the material nature of the things in our lives. The things that we own and use have less value because we can just throw them away and get something else. As political theorist Jane Bennett says ‘too much stuff in too quick succession equals the fast ride from object to trash’ (Bennett 2004: 351). So what happens when we slow down and think in detail about the things in our everyday life?

One study does exactly this by looking at the social lives of handmade things in South Africa. Researcher Louise Green traces the trajectory of two hand-made objects that she owns – a pottery bowl and a resin spoon – and explores their meaning in relation to their history.

The context in which people first encounter an object plays an important role in how they then make sense of what that objects means. Green demonstrates the importance of this context when she traces the relationships between people from the communities who made the items to the journey they took to then be sold, one in a museum shop and the other in a shopping complex. In buying the bowl in the context of the museum shop, Green argues that it faintly holds ‘the aura associated with authentic archaeological artefacts’ (Green 2008: 178). Because of this context, it carries with it certain perceptions and values, such as judgements (and perhaps stereotypes) of what traditional South African craft is, the evocation of a western tradition of studying “the other” and a perceived value given its placement in a recognised cultural institution.

Taking the object back a step in its journey, the bowl was sourced from a local market (where it entered the city) and was originally made by Venda women. Green describes the market as an interesting site of contestation in contemporary Johannesburg, where there is a tension between ‘lived experience of a resident community’ and ‘an exotic but also generic ‘oasis’ of Africanness’ (Green 2008: 179). It could be argued that the bowl carries all these social connotations with it as it now sits in Green’s house.

The act of exchange, where something is bought and who is involved, is a significant feature of the way objects move. Green comments that ‘the relation of ownership that masquerades as a relationship between a person and object is, in actual fact, a relationship between people’ (Green 2008: 176). So the fact that the bowl travelled through local community, contested market space and an established cultural intuition is not just about a supply chain. Each of these moments of exchange involved relationships that impact the way the object is perceived. In a way, even though this object is new, it already has a complex history.

The history embedded in an object involves not just its production trajectory, but also the stories of the people who have owned it, such as in the case of objects that have been passed down through generations. This older object, an antique item or a respected artwork for example, has rich stories of past owners that add to its value. The material, construction or provenance of an item might change it from a utilitarian table to a collectable item of great worth. It is the complex layering within the object that gives it meaning, and being able to read this history adds value and enchantment.

All objects have a history, a journey, and sometimes it is a personal journey that makes the objects special for us. An object can embody poignant emotions by holding memories of a place, an experience or a person. As researcher of collecting and craft movements Leah Dilworth observes,

Collecting is a narrative activity, a practice where objects are signs for referents and require a narrator (collector or curator) to make meaning. Thus collections become sites of cultural memory and reproduction (Dilworth 2003: 7).

This narration doesn’t just happen for things owned by famous historical figures or items of fine art, it also exists in our own objects that tell a more personal story. In Acts of Possession: Collecting in America one example describes an avid collector who kept the broken string of his violin that he played at his mother’s funeral. The study highlighted that ‘its power lies in the tension between its inert thingness and the memory of the process it carries within it’ (Dilworth 2003: 233). On the one hand, without knowledge of the story behind it, it’s just a broken string. On the other hand, the object holds the grief of that day, the letting go of his mother and even the song that he played. In this context the humble object is imbued with poetic meaning and weight.

An object can also draw our attention for no particular reason other than we just happen to like it. This could be described, in the words of Bennett, as the thing-power of an object. Bennett hypothesises that all things have the power to call out to us. She describes this thing-power as ‘a force exercised by that which is not specifically human (or even organic) upon humans’ (Bennett 2004: 351). But this power does not act in a vacuum, rather it is a result of the interaction of things between each other and between humans.

Assemblages, or the way things interact with one another, can influence how we pay attention to them. We sometimes feel this in a window display that stops us in our tracks and makes us stare, or in an exhibition where a collection of artwork displayed in a certain way makes take notice. There is something about the objects together, the way they interact, that can draw our attention more than they would have as individual pieces.

We are not in a world divided between subjects and objects, but rather we are part of an ecology where materialities are constantly engaged in a network of relations. These relations could be in the memories of a specific time or place that is enmeshed within an object. They could be the history of how an object was made, the imprint of the craftsperson who made it. They could be the cultural complexities surrounding how the object was produced. Our affinity to these networks of relations possibly results in the sense that certain objects calls to us. Perhaps when our eye is drawn to a particular object, or when a collector instinctively knows what will fit into a collection, we are listening to this subtle call of thing-power.

Collecting isn’t just an accumulation of stuff. Rather, collections are an embodiment the mysterious appeal of objects. Collecting is a conscious act, each purchase involves a consideration of whether this object fits with the category of the collection, whether it calls out to the collector as being a valuable contribution. The personal collection allows us an insight into how one person encounters the world and their reception to the objects in it.

References:

ALSOP, J. 1982. The Rare Art Traditions: The History of Collecting and Its Linked Phenomena Wherever these Have Appeared, London, Thames and Hudson

BENNETT, J. 2004. ‘The Force of Things: Steps toward an Ecology of Matter.’ Political Theory, 32.

DILWORTH, L. (ed.) 2003. Acts of Possession: Collecting in America, New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press.

GREEN, L. 2008. ‘The social lives of handmade things: configuring value in post-apartheid South Africa.’ Social Dynamics, 34, 174-185

Claire Rosslyn Wilson is a nonfiction writer and a poet who has had her work published in journals in Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong. She is a regular writer for Art Radar and Culture360 and has co-written a book on Freelancing in the Creative Industries (Oxford University Press).