The air is crisp and I have a book to read. A book about material memory – the backbone of my artistic practice.
I reflect that this book is itself an object. A treasure sifted from the internet. I often go prospecting online. It suits my brain. Sifting is soothing and over time has proved richly rewarding.
For example, a tweet lasts for 18 minutes (I’m told) before it sinks under the volume of subsequent contenders. So you have to sift carefully, scroll and click, scroll and click.
Repeat and repeat this action often enough and either you’ll find something useful in the archive, or suddenly you’re there in the moment when a fleck of gold sparkles live.
Such was the case with, Material Memories, Design and Evocation, (Ed Marius Kwint, Christopher Breward & Jeremy Aynsley) Berg, 1999. It appeared in a tweet by the Art Historian Marius Kwint, who I’ve been following for some time.
My copy is ex library and I’m indebted to my fellow object artist Elena Thomas for tracking it down. It has a yellow 7 day sticker on the spine, and a white label which reads Gen. Lit. B—0.5 KWI. A Leeds University Library sticker (green print) on the inside cover has been stamped WITHDRAWN in black. A further loan record slip on the opposite (and otherwise) blank page confirms (in blue print) that it was a 7 day loan book. It bears one stamp – 15 JUN 2009 and a further black WITHDRAWN stamp. The slip also says in bold, Edward Boyle Library. For a second I play detective – withdrawn in 2009 this book has lived another life and known other hands.
Another layer of consciousness? A separate gear? I am suddenly transported to all the libraries I have ever known (as in falling down a rabbit hole) – but to one library specifically. The library of my undergraduate university days on the Sussex University campus, as a student of art history. A sensation no doubt egged on by two familiar names. Contributors to this book include tutors from my degree course – Marcia Pointon and Nigel Llewellyn.
Further good augeries are contained in this book’s colour. Ah, it is orange (the colour of my wedding dress). The right orange (positive vibes ++/ like a duracell battery lasting longer, longer, longer). Warmth and vitality are promised – a dose of intellectual vitamin C.
The pages are smooth and weighty.
Each section or chapter bears a rectangular back and white photograph of a dissected nautilus shell top right. Further visual interruptions (a fine right-angled line at the top corner of each page) signal, I feel, that our subject is visual culture. I like it all.
Willem van Aelst Still Life with Fish, Bread and Nautilus Cup 17th century (detail)
The nautilus for the art historian (one who wrote her dissertation on Dutch still life certainly) subliminally signals vanitas genre at each turn of the chapter heading; the allusion to natural history museums is not missed either (I even make a stab at fibonacci in the far reaches of consciousness).
Now I am in all the galleries and museums I have bodily experience of. But quickly (as before) specifics take over and I find myself in the Oxford Natural History Museum which, like a museums Russian doll, houses the Pitt Rivers (a museum displaying the archaeological and anthropological collections of the University of Oxford ). I hover between them.
As sometimes in a dream, I break the 4th wall to ask myself a question. When images or objects transport us, when memory is embodied thus, are we floating I wonder? And does this have a steering wheel? But I’ve broken the spell too and I don’t have an answer.
Marius observes (p4) this kind of involuntary memory is,
“…not the symbolic realm of the Freudian unconscious, but something wholly sensual and hence physiological. Here memory connects with the entire body and the full complexity of the world around.”
It’s this power of the object to bodily transport us (or bring back to us visceral memory), which has stuck me most in my work. It was my beginnings with my grandmother’s handbag in 2013, by which I mean to say my formation as the object art practitioner I am today.
It was also the genesis of first incarnation of The Museum for Object Research blog. The extraordinary evocation of a childhood, tinged with the grief of war through this household object, led to my subsequent work on the Spanish Civil War as a postmemory experience – but it also begged some more general questions.
How can an object contain ‘lost’ or hidden worlds (of memory) and restore them bodily to us? By what mechanism; and how as artists can we convey such experiences to our audiences?
In my practice I moved sharply from making objects or distorting them, to conserving them and keeping them whole. I no longer wanted to create objects from found materials or paint over them – a different form of assemblage emerged where bringing objects together or framing them made it possible to be as specific as I needed to be in my allusions to an actual history. I did not want to mark them in any way. And in doing so I opened the door to the viewer’s imagination to sense the atmosphere and fill the gaps (although all the contextual material is available in my blogs).
You could say that I found my subject. But I found my objects too. Yet I was hungry for knowledge, for a framework to understand this work by. I sought to share these thoughts and findings with other object artists and widen the investigation.
The joy of the blog was in finding colleagues and revelling in the richness of their object art practices. In pooling resources we created community, which now seeks expression in offline spaces and is currently in development.
Marius’ book (it turned out) is actually a talking book – as Twitter proves again to be a catalyst for connection and also conversation. By the magic of this digital age I could read and tweet my observations directly to him. Further sorcery – Marius could respond!
How gratifying and instructive to be able to talk about some of the concepts behind this rich collection of writings on material memory, and also be joined by Elena Thomas my MfOR collaborator in chief.
This is honestly the best of Twitter for artists. Making accessible the thinkers who can bring your practice on through their insights, and who you instinctively feel from their writing will get what you’re about. This can only happen when people are open and generous with their time. Thank you Marius!
What a perfect antidote to the current negative trends this lucky find has proved to be.