In an era when we are being asked to question consumption practices and when people are encouraged to throw out those things that don’t bring them joy, is there a place for a practice of collecting? Surely we have too much stuff in our lives already and what we should be doing is getting rid of things rather than amassing more. But compulsive accumulation of daily detritus is not what collecting is about.
Consumer culture, with its focus on quantity and short life cycles, is actually making us less aware of the material nature of the things in our lives. The things that we own and use have less value because we can just throw them away and get something else. As political theorist Jane Bennett says ‘too much stuff in too quick succession equals the fast ride from object to trash’ (Bennett 2004: 351). So what happens when we slow down and think in detail about the things in our everyday life?
Social psychologist Sherry Turkle argues that objects can be companions to emotional lives as well as provocations to think about the world around us. Turkle highlights that focusing on specific tangible objects allows us to ‘bring philosophy down to earth’ (Turkle 2011: 8). All objects have a history, a journey, and sometimes it is a personal journey that makes the objects special for us. An object can embody poignant emotions by holding memories of a place, an experience or a person.
These relations between people and the things they are surrounded by are influenced by the memories of a specific time or place that is enmeshed within an object. They could be influenced by the history of how an object was made, the imprint of the craftsperson who made it. They could be influenced by the cultural complexities surrounding how the object was produced. Our affinity to these networks of relations possibly results in the sense that certain objects calls to us. Perhaps when our eye is drawn to a particular object, or when a collector instinctively knows what will fit into a collection, we are listening to this subtle call from the objects around us.
Researcher of collecting and craft movements Leah Dilworth observes that ‘collecting is a narrative activity, a practice where objects are signs for referents and require a…collector…to make meaning’ (Dilworth 2003: 7). This narration exists in our own, everyday objects. One example from Dilworth’s book describes an avid collector who kept the broken string of his violin that he played at his mother’s funeral. It highlights that ‘its power lies in the tension between its inert thingness and the memory of the process it carries within it’ (Dilworth 2003: 233). On the one hand, without knowledge of the story behind it, it’s just a broken string. On the other hand, the object holds the grief of that day, the letting go of his mother and even the song that he played. In this context the humble object is imbued with poetic meaning and weight.
Collecting isn’t just an accumulation of stuff. Rather, collections are an embodiment the mysterious appeal of objects. Collecting is a conscious act, each purchase involves a consideration of whether this object fits with the category of the collection, whether it calls out to the collector as being a valuable contribution. The personal collection allows us an insight into how one person encounters the world and their reception to the objects in it.
Until 18 July Craft Victoria in Melbourne is holding an online exhibition showcasing eclectic objects and artworks from makers’ personal collections, with accompanying stories that provide a glimpse into each object’s significance. Exploring objects as vessels of emotion and meaning, The Meaning of Things presents pieces that are either handcrafted or connected to handmade practice.
What stories do your objects tell?