1. Toilet paper, tea tree oil shampoo, avocado saplings, a Robert Irwin book, red pepper flakes, unpaid bills…
2. A bathroom full of notes and fliers collected from the streets, outsider art, insider art and random ephemera.
3. A found note pinned to a bathroom wall.
4. Pirated images of the mythic Rhode Island artist collective Fort Thunder, found online.
I must confess that this is my first true writing assignment. Ever eager to impress, but falling victim to the triple threat of over-thinking, coffee-guzzling, and self-doubt, I had an object lesson in panic at the prospect of ‘a written response to an object’ assigned by The Highlights. In a world so bloated with objects, how could I choose just one? I was suffering from an abundance of choice, my darting eyes grazing nearly everything as potential fodder: toilet paper, tea tree oil shampoo, avocado saplings, a Robert Irwin book, red pepper flakes, unpaid bills… (image 1).
Out of control, my inner mantra repeating the word object, object, object, object—I left the house, found a park bench, and sought refuge in a book. It occurred to me as I found my place among the pages that in my hands I grasped a particularly analytical book, whose author was Susan Sontag, whose title was Against Interpretation, whose subject in that particular essay was style, and within which I found the following insight: “namely, that persons are also things, and that things are not persons.” Pondering that statement, I thought I’d found some sort of catalyst for my written response.
But now, sitting down to write, I realize a flaw. I had referred to Sontag’s book, a non-human object, using the possessive adjective whose. If Sontag found it true “that things are not persons,” why was I able to ascribe a possessive adjective onto a lifeless book, a book I was equating with Sontag herself, as if the book were her personality, embodied? How is it possible that this third printing of a paperback from 2001, reprinted from the original publication in 1961—a paperback version Sontag might never have encountered—could somehow stand in for the writer herself? Even as she was telling me “things are not persons.”
Intuition tells me that the opposite is true: though things are not persons, persons often are made individual by their things. It is, however tragic, our accumulation of objects that defines our humanity. It is the singular right to have ownership of objects, the singular right to call something mine that is the foundation of a mercantile democracy, the basis of all cultural production as we know it.
As a part-time hanger of artworks, I’ve been in the homes of the very wealthy, and often it seems that simple ownership is not enough to endow an object with life. I have also been inside the homes of those who not only own, but also actually seem to inhabit their possessions. I’ve seen, and envied, hardcore possessors that find pleasure in things that no one else has, that no one else has even considered having. I’ve seen killer record and book collections; art collections that looked affordable because they were comprised of stained or damaged masterpieces hung salon-style next to historical ephemera (imagine a teenage homage to the 20th-century avant-garde); bathrooms filled with strange flyers and notes found on the street (images 2 and 3). One place, through the fog of memory, strikes me a particularly possessed. In the late ’90s, in a parking lot in Olneyville, Rhode Island, behind a Dunkin’ Donuts, I saw again and again a place so full of candy-colored objects that it seemed nearly alive with cultural detritus. The place, the now-mythic Fort Thunder, a cartoonish artist collective living and working in a cavernous loft, was like an eviscerated Wunderkammen full of Ritalin-relics and Care-bears in a sci-fi garbage temple. Entering Fort Thunder filled you with the kind of upward-gazing awe you get when you enter a cathedral (image 4).
Even as an atheist, you can have a spiritual experience inside of a cathedral. A place of worship is in essence a space filled with symbolic objects that function as real-world examples of things unseen, incomprehensible, ethereal. Objects, throughout time, have been endowed with sympathetic magic. Some spaces, because of the mysteriousness of the reverent objects contained within, convince the beholder that indeed objects are possessed with spirit. Feeling defies logic, and it is exactly in this nether-region that the term possession takes on heavier connotations.
5. Gravestones in Sunderland, Vermont.
6. Gravestone in Barre, Vermont.
If sympathetic magic allows us (as with Sontag living on through her writings) to resurrect the dead, then maybe things are also persons. The impulsive creativity invested in structuring a physical marker for the dead is a testament to existence, and is unarguably worthwhile, even to strangers of the deceased (images 5, 6, and 7). Any monument-building or cultural adornment, as long as it strives to be overtly personal, can produce objects so uniquely full of voice.
And yet object possession can reveal a much darker impulse. When object possession is met with a counterweight, an attempt at re-possession, a macroscopic view of the power struggles of human cultural warfare can be glimpsed. Both the creative act and the act of negation are locked in a sort of embrace, feeding off one another. This is the cultural whirlpool in which “lifeless” objects enter, two sides arguing for and against the object’s continued right to exist. I may be an artist who, according to my position as part of the 21st-century American creative class, believes that objects should be additions to this world. Yet there exists an opposing force that finds abhorrent certain cultural artifacts I align myself with. They believe in their very souls that only the effacement of these objects will solve the universe’s spiritual malaise. And oddly enough, sometimes those who favor negation do the most fascinating things.
7. Roadside memorial in Maui, Hawaii at the sight where a woman and her child were killed.
8. Dennis Heiner defaces Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary. Altered scan from the book Visual Shock by Michael Kammen.
A fellow artist, Jesse Berkowitz, recently told me of a moment from his formative years in the rural South, at one of those crossroads of adolescence, where he’d been urged by some deeply religious friends to gather up his records (Dio, Motley Crue, AC/DC, Black Sabbath) for a bonfire because, as Berkowitz recounted, “it was rumored you could see demons in the flames, similar to cloud watching, Fatima, and the Man-in-the-Moon.”
Another ghastly episode I discovered was the 1999 defacement of Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary. Angered by the depiction of the Virgin Mary as a spectral black woman with breasts of elephant shit, devout Catholic Dennis Heiner walked into the Brooklyn Museum (with photographer in tow) and painted a white veil over the image of Mary. Although my rational mind opposes what he did, and even though anecdotally I find it sensationalist schlock, the image I discovered in this book (image 8) struck me somehow as better than Ofili’s work itself. In the image, a man passes by a transparent blockade of Plexiglas, defies all rational notions of what can be proved in the world; defies the law; believes so whole-heartedly in the power of objects that he feels possessed enough to efface or veil (a traditional act of possession of another human, a woman) a painted image, so that he might protect it, or more accurately, protect US from it. Equilibrium restored. Insane, maybe. Inspiring, definitely. The way we treat objects is mighty, mighty strange.
David Kennedy Cutler is an artist who lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. His solo exhibition, No More Right Now Forever, is currently on view at Derek Eller Gallery
in New York. See Nice and Fit Gallery
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