Do objects speak?
They do to me, particularly garments, or domestic items. But do they say the same thing to me that they do to other people, other artists?
This weekend I found myself (with my family) among “LOST” by Issam Kourbaj at the Museum of Classical Archaeology, University of Cambridge. The pieces were set among the museum’s permanent display of over 450 plaster casts of classic sculpture. It is, quoting from the museum website “…an exhibition of plaster dipped items of clothing belonging to (Syrian) refugees who were lost at sea whilst attempting the perilous journey to the island of Lesbos.”
So the plaster-dipped clothing is from children who have died. The textures and features of the garments are intact, and have been split along the side seam and sleeve in order to open them out. They are not casts, as the surrounding sculptures are, the original garments are still inside the plaster. They are hung from pins and nylon wire.
The things that I treasure garments for, are not there. There is no softness. It is a hard memorial. I recommend that you watch the video of the artist here:
These garments and the words on them are final. What I use in my work is the life, the continuation, growth and memory…and these garments are the death, the premature halt… There isn’t a name. Just an approximated age, boy or girl. They are heartbreaking. The splitting of seams to me seems unnecessarily brutal… And that upset me…
The text, although I couldn’t read it, I knew what it was. The terrible way these children died was reduced to a cataloging… A list? There was no way of knowing anything about them (I presume DNA was taken for future reference?). The placing among plaster casts of classical Greek sculpture was poignant, and I approve of the material links, but it felt a little cold. These “stone” memorials hung from breezeblock walls with nylon didn’t seem quite appropriate, it wasn’t tender in any way. I swing between thinking that tenderness would be inappropriately manipulative of my emotions, and thinking that memorialising in this way is more appropriate, as after all, I’m bringing my own brain-full of sentiment… hmmm…
So, then, these are no longer garments. The seam splitting and dipping renders them non-garments and takes the one piece of soft humanity away. Having the same starting point of a discarded item of clothing, I understand that the manner of their discarding, and the manner of their finding means that they are very different to the garments I use. You could hang them un-dipped, un-labelled, next to un-worked garments I have collected and wouldn’t know that. The work of the artist then, is to take that garment, and it’s story/history and say something else, draw attention to its difference.
This then, is an interesting point for me to think about when looking at the garments I collect.
What does it say before I start, and how has its life changed it before I get there? What do I do with it?
I suppose the story starts for me when I get the item, and work on it.
But these “LOST” garments have had their story, and Kourbaj has drawn attention to the stop?
Is there then a moment at which these two garments worked have a common point of contact? The point at which they leave their place of manufacture labelled “Age 4-5 years” …is it only at that point when the two say the same thing? Or is it even then?
I look forward to the research happening with The Museum of Object Research, and hope to find a little clarity for my thoughts…