CURATING THE S(H)ELF: COLLECTING AND DISPLAYING OBJECTS IN TIMES OF UNCERTAINTY
Marion Endt-Jones, Institute for Cultural Practices
Marion Endt-Jones reflects on collections created by artists in times of personal uncertainty and crisis, as reconstitutions of self and identity through objects. What can these private ‘museums’ tell us about ways we engage with objects and collections at home during lockdown?
Working from home comes with challenges: finding a space, mustering the motivation, minimising distractions (think pets, children, neighbours…), maintaining a routine, overcoming loneliness, accessing technology, balancing work and play, and, perhaps on a more lighthearted note: creating the right backdrop for zoom meetings. I can’t help but wonder, moments before a video call or remote teaching session, if colleagues and students have adjusted the angle of their screens or even moved objects around, carefully considering which slice of private life to showcase.
A noticeable increase in social-media-led scrutiny of #shelfies, #deskies and thoughtfully curated ‘gallery walls’ since the COVID-19 lockdown started suggests the importance of personal objects and collections in how we construct and project identity to the outside world on the one hand, and in how we cope with an existential crisis on the other. Alongside this extraordinary public spotlight on domestic objects and collections (see also the recently formed Twitter accounts Bookcase Credibility and Room Rater; blauwerke Verlag Berlin tweeting a daily historical photograph of writers and artists in their workspaces surrounded by books, keepsakes, pets and children – a series begun on the 19th of March; and a proliferation of virtual zoom backgrounds, ranging from the professional to the funny and ironic), other lockdown phenomena that emulate practices of collecting and curating to overcome adversity have materialised. For those fortunate enough to have the space and resources, they include a general rise in creativity (from gardening and baking/cooking to crafting/DIY and replicating famous paintings using household props), and a nation-wide effort to create window and community displays of rainbow drawings, stuffed animals and similar objects signalling gratitude, encouragement and hope.
From psychoanalysis and postmodern theory to consumer research, objects and collections have been widely interpreted as extensions of self and identity (Stewart 1993; Baudrillard 2005; Belk 1995). The acts of acquiring, organising and displaying objects consolidate the collector’s sense of self and imply a sense of control. These aspects of collecting become even more pertinent in times of personal and global uncertainty and crisis. The German Jewish writer and thinker Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) wrote his famous essay on collecting, ‘Unpacking My Library’, in 1931, at a time when his life was marked by divorce and economic strain. For Benjamin, emptying boxes upon boxes of books becomes an exercise in unpacking his own life story, told through reflections on the passion of acquisition and the pleasure of possession. At the same time, Benjamin is acutely aware that the relationship between objects and self-security is tenuous: ‘any order is a balancing act of extreme precariousness’ (Benjamin 1999, 62).
Benjamin committed suicide in 1940, when an attempt to flee across the border between France and Spain failed because he didn’t carry the correct paperwork. The court in Figueras inventorised his personal possessions as follows: ‘a leather briefcase like businessmen use, a man’s watch, a pipe, six photographs, an X-ray picture, glasses, various letters, magazines, and a few other papers whose content is unknown, and also some money’ (Demos 1992, 8). Of course, collecting formed a crucial part of Benjamin’s practice as a writer and cultural historian at large, and so one of his enduring legacies, the Arcades Project (1927-1940) – a collection of quotations and fragments assembled to form an alternative history of the nineteenth century told through its material remains – outlasts a briefcase full of scattered belongings carried into exile.
Perhaps paradoxically for this current period, which is characterised by personal confinement and travel restrictions, experiences of flight and exile seem to condense the impulse to confirm identity through objects. The artists Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp, for example, left France for New York in 1941 and 1942 respectively. At a time of great physical and emotional upheaval, marked by displacement, dispersion and disintegration of self, both men created a portable collection of objects – miniaturised versions of their past works – as an attempt to reconstruct their identity through processes of collection and containment. Duchamp (1887-1968) began working on his Boîte-en-valise (‘box in a suitcase’) in 1935, a collection of 69 reproductions of his own artworks in miniature, which eventually got serialised in an edition of over 300 mini-collections, 20 of which were placed in leather suitcases. This ‘portable museum’, as Duchamp called it (Demos 1992, 13), represented a gesture against institutionalisation and the cult of the original, but it also provided the artist with a sense of reassurance in displacement. The miniaturised reproductions of his own output, neatly assembled in portable format, became a means of compensating for loss, finding refuge in the past, and containing the fragments of his shattered identity.
Similarly, Max Ernst’s (1891-1976) painting Vox Angelica (1943) consists of 51 clearly separated rectangles, each representing one of the artist’s past works or techniques. Ernst assembled his personal mid-career retrospective on canvas, a neatly compartmentalised collection of his past creative output, shortly after emigrating to the US. This composite self-portrait can be seen as the artist’s attempt to reject institutional authority in favour of curatorial autonomy, but also, more importantly, to rescue ‘disparate fragments from a personal/cultural catastrophe’ (Hopkins 1992, 720). Both men were recovering and reconstituting their identity through personal collections, were performing a re-collection of self in times of crisis.
Telling stories of identity loss and retrieval through objects is a practice frequently employed by artists engaging with the current refugee crisis, too. To highlight just one example, Iranian-Canadian artist Anahita Norouzi has recently begun work on a project documenting objects treasured by immigrants from Algeria, Jordan, Syria, Afghanistan and other countries through photographs and audio recordings, demonstrating the importance of holding on to objects in times of uncertainty and crisis. Artists have assembled private collections and museums for different reasons (Putnam 2001), but what they might be able to show us right now is that ‘museums’ as personal collections and displays hold meanings for ourselves that can even become, in some circumstances, lifesaving. Emotive, subjective storytelling through objects matters.
Both the physical displacement of migration and exile and the current coronavirus crisis result in a perceived fragmentation and dispersal of self. In both instances, deriving comfort from material things becomes a survival strategy. During the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak, our self-integrity has come under threat by a tiny virus, a contagious microbe that is not yet fully understood, invisible to the naked eye, a mutating entity. It ignores boundaries and ultimately cannot be grasped physically or figuratively. We have to come to terms with the fact that we are what scientist Lynn Margulis calls ‘holobionts’ (Haraway 2016, 189), assemblages of humans and microbes, including viruses and bacteria. With the supposedly clear outlines of our identity becoming porous, we resort to the materiality and perceived solidity of things we can grasp, group and rearrange. While our lives, livelihoods and identities are threatened by an invisible, intangible particle, we can derive comfort, stability and pleasure from touching, seeing, making, smelling and tasting concrete things.
Collecting and owning objects has negative connotations of materialism, filling a void, living in the past, hoarding and narcissism. What we should prioritise are relationships with people; care and compassion for loved ones, neighbours and members of our communities. And hopefully we may find solace beyond objects: in connections, nature, exercise, reading, writing, or simply trying to exist. But at a time dominated by fear and uncertainty, when most of what we know has been turned upside down and thrown into doubt, who will blame us for holding on to familiar objects, for absentmindedly fondling a stone, picked up while travelling in Berlin, or for focusing attention on the carefully curated pictures on the wall behind us? The inflationary use of the term ‘curating’ in popular culture has drawn much criticism (Balzer 2015), but perhaps engaging objects with passion, care and curiosity – while acknowledging emotions and subjectivities – is a practice relevant to both private and institutional contexts.
Balzer, David (2015) Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else, London: Pluto Press.
Baudrillard, Jean (2005) The System of Objects, trans. James Benedict, London and New York: Verso.
Belk, Russell W. (1995) Collecting in a Consumer Society, Abingdon and New York: Routledge.
Benjamin, Walter (1999) ‘Unpacking My Library’, in Hannah Arendt (ed), Walter Benjamin: Illuminations, trans. Harry Zorn, London: Pimlico, 61-69.
Demos, T.J. (2002) ‘Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise: Between Institutional Acculturation and Geopolitical Displacement’, Grey Room, 8, 6-37.
Haraway, Donna J. (2016) Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Hopkins, David (1992) ‘Hermetic and Philosophical Themes in Max Ernst’s “Vox Angelica” and Related Works’, The Burlington Magazine, 134 (1076), 716-723.
Putnam, James (2001) Art and Artifact: The Museum as Medium, London: Thames & Hudson.
Stewart, Susan (1993) On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Dr Marion Endt-Jones is Lecturer in Arts Management and Museology at the Institute for Cultural Practices. She has been thinking and writing about objects and collections since 2004. As she doesn’t have a desk or designated workspace at home, her zoom backgrounds have varied between the collection of fridge magnets, souvenirs and photos behind the kitchen table, her daughter’s Playmobil toys and the (empty) wall behind her bed.