Esther Windsor

The Social Lives of Objects

Castlefield Gallery, 2009

Essay by Esther Windsor

Hilary Jack, Lisa Penny and Dallas Seitz use lost, found and broken objects in sculpture, collage and photography to examine the moment objects loose their use, order and meaning. Hilary finds broken royal Dolton figurines, umbrellas or shoes and by mending, making good and returning makes a reparation and tribute to lost and broken objects: Dallas uses anthropological objects to represent  and remake myths, including revisions, mistakes and stories. Lisa makes collaged, low relief sculptures, representing lost history and hopes, questioning pastiche and post modern borrowing, a feature of a strong trend for nostalgic and ‘retro’ styles in recent contemporary art.

All these objects are found in charity shops, eBay or from personal history and are often the detritus of life left behind, of death, divorce, loss of a home, family breakdown, moving from a family home to retirement or other institutionalisation, like prison, hospital or hostel. Encountering these objects can provoke anxiety of matter out of place and of people and objects not mended anymore but required to function in an ever changing and confusing order of things.  It is not only royal Dolton touchingly mended here but coherence grappled with in a world of signs that have lost their signifiers.

In these works it is not just objects recycled but concepts reworked. The artists’ emotional investment, the act of transformation, the imaginative entering into the life of objects, the story, the confusion and loss allowed a stage and place to be, this is what gives meaning to these objects that have become art.   

When I look at things, I always see the space they occupy.  I always want the space to re appear, to make it comeback, because it’s lost space and there’s something in it…The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. (Andy Warhol: 1975:144)

It is the absence, the space the objects do not occupy or that they vacated that is crucial. These works are about the obsession with objects and the meaning that resides in them and the very careful reworking of layers of meaning. Lacanian psychoanalyst, Darian Leader, in his latest work on melancholia and mourning says that

In fantasy and dreams, narratives and stories are changed, revised, slowed down, and focused on in intense detail, to allow reordering of experience to resolve inner conflict.  In mourning there is the desire to hold time still, to recapture the past and the loved one.  Moments are relived. Photos and objects not let go. (Leader: 2008)

In his book, The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia and Depression he says

The mourner must constitute his object by separating the empty place of the fundamentally lost object from the images of the people who go into it.  But the melancholic is faced with a difficulty here for the precise reason that there is no difference for him between the object and the place it occupies.   If mourning will not be allowed by early internalisation not of an object but of an objects absence, in melancholia the loss and the object are equated. (Leader: 2008)

Darian Leader points to examples from contemporary art of this melancholic transformation of an absence into something real and present: Bruce Naumans’ cast not of a table but empty space the table bounded; Rachel Whitereads’ casts of empty interiors of architectural interiors; Cornelia Parker engraving rings with the eleven days once lost from the English calendar.  These practices share a concern with giving absence a physical presence, a negative space turned into something real and substantial. (Leader: 2008)

The works in The Social Life of Objects do something very similar by evoking what is abject, ugly, and uncomfortable in discarded objects and unifying the past meaning with present loss. Hilary Jack most pointedly gives life and love to lost and abandoned objects, restoring them and most interestingly often returning them to where they became lost.  A quiet sadness, dignified by compassion exists here and the possibility of failure after repair, tolerated.  Broken Figurines repaired, shoes found at a bus stop mended (when its cheaper to buy new ones) polished and embossed with golden letters, trousers cleaned and pressed when they had been discarded in disgust in the road, a tennis racket repaired with macramé.  The thought, the space occupied and vacated here is sophisticated and impressive, the more so for allowing successful reading in another cultural context, that of contemporay art in a public realm.

Lisa Penny enters the place of simulacra, of collaged meanings and signs, with motifs and wood cut out shapes linking images, experience and emotion.  Here the mourning is of lost rituals and rites of passage: family; work and home, which provide the individual with unity. The promises of the 60’s: homes, machines for living in; feminism, liberating women’s work and sexuality; civil rights giving access to opportunities; technology giving the freedom of time.  Her disregard for a very established trend of ‘retro’ within contemporary art , can confuse momentarily, as this work may look ‘retro’  but close inspection shows attempts to ‘marry’ actual fractured social and psychological states within a made object. Sourced from 60’s and 70’s domestic supplements the collages and structures link figurative and abstract images, with titles like ‘Lone thoughts’ and ‘waiting for something to happen’. ‘No Space’ deals with concepts of personal and physical space, governed by state and idealistic architectural visions of the 60’s.  There is a parody and mourning active in this work, at disappointed promises and experience emptied of meaning with only an image remaining.

Mark Cousins in looking at stories and fantasies of destruction in modernity said ‘behind the optimism of the enlightenment has fallen the shadow of a distinctly modern relation to destruction, one which defines a contemporary melancholy’.  He proposes to oppose such melancholy as well as guarding against optimism.(Cousins: 2008: Architectural Association lectures) Lisa’s vulnerable wood and cork built structures, contain I think, a similar proposal.

Dallas Seitz’s representation of myth in his objects is perhaps most straightforward. Using objects found or retrieved from family history, they bravely and sometimes elegantly take ugly objects and make sculptures that are totemic of stories or myths often taken from popular culture or National Geographic. For example a model used to imitate the Loch ness monster. His sculptures look like and borrow from anthropology and folk art and refer often to elements of nature, dead animals and body parts for example. Very physical emotions are evoked, revulsion at false teeth, discomfortable nostalgia for a politically incorrect doll (a voodoo princess from his grandmothers’ bathroom) a mermaid, a cannibal head found in a children’s hospital and recreated to be a hunter, a logman troll, from the myth of a woman so desperate for a child, she had a log child.

From Descartes mind body split to a late capitalist 21c world of intense materiality and signs with no signifiers: economic failure, social and personal depression, environmental concerns, beliefs of magical realism, hold in common a crisis in materiality.  The need for there to be more than desire redirected to objects. Lack, uselessness waste must be reconstituted.

There should be supermarkets that sell things and supermarkets that buy things back, and until that equalizes, they’ll always be more waste than there should be.  … People should be able to sell their old cans, their old chicken bones, their shampoo bottles, their old magazines. The Philosophy of Andy Warhol.   (Andy Warhol: 1975:145)

Mary Douglas, in her book Purity and Danger, makes an analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo in classification, which, reinforced by rituals of purity and impurity, create unity in experience.  By these means, symbolic patterns are worked out and publicly displayed.  Within these patters disparate elements are related and disparate experience is given meaning.’  (Douglas:1966:3)  The works in this exhibition deal with loss, waste, abject bodies and myths that challenge the rational. In their different ways the artists take these lost and found objects and constitute a transformation that reminds us the meaning and lives of objects are themselves lost and found, bound, as they are, by unconscious processes and that their absence is as powerful as their presence.