An Engagement with ‘The Emotional Life of Objects’: Curators, Teachers, Students and an Artist

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Writings and objects from exhibition and workshop participants.

‘It ought to be obvious that the objects that occupy our daily lives are in fact the objects of a passion, that of personal possession, whose quotient of invested affect is in no way inferior to that of any other variety of human passion.’[1]

The Curators

Kate Richards and Penelope Lee

I hadn’t given much consideration to the expression ‘indwelling’, but it came up in conversation when Kate and I were reflecting upon the exhibition, ‘The Emotional Life of Objects’. While a familiar term, I connected it to invasive medical procedures or devices. Kate, on the other hand, was aware of its association within the psychological space, whereby someone reflects deeply and immersively for a period of time, allowing them to become conscious of the process of ‘experiencing’.[2]

The word ‘indwell’ appeared in late MiddIe English, finding its origin in the Latin term inhabitare – to inhabit, live in and occupy. It now seems apt to use the term when thinking about what took place over the duration of ‘The Emotional Life of Objects’. This exhibition was a recent collaboration between The University of Melbourne and the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. Bringing together creative artworks, artists, curators, academics, students and the broader public enabled us, as Stephanie Downes suggests in her essay accompanying the exhibition, ‘to think about how we remember “things” that are no longer there as well as how we remember with things, whether it be an experience, a person or a place that we cherish’.[3]

View the “Emotional Life of Objects” catalogue here.

Over 10 days, seven artists, 440 members of the general public, 21 Interactive Composition students, 101 Creative Writing students and 15 workshop participants immersed themselves within, and contributed to, the exhibition through a reflective process of being ‘present’ with their significant objects, personal histories and memories. Through embodied processes of writing, sonic sounds, improvised music, sand casting and audio recordings, a suite of new ‘objects of attachment’ materialised and was shared by willing accomplices. It was clarifying and beguiling to behold.

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Workshop participants excavating plaster mould castings of their objects.

Collectively, everyone who shared in the exhibition, whether passively or actively, witnessed and validated, as did Kate and I, the importance and reciprocal nature objects have in our lives. The idea that an inner spirit or force could be encountered through a relationship with an inanimate or remembered object, shifting a lifeless material form into an unsettling or comforting emotional experience, was fascinating. Fuelling this transformation was the affecting space of the gallery, where individuals reignited or revived memories and histories of the time, place, person or experience through which they encountered their respective treasured object.

Correspondingly, and akin to the phenomena of experiencing a meaningful object of one’s own, the gallery-based conversation between sound, written words and visual or digital representations of objects, and between tangible objects and absent objects, enabled emotions to be powerfully felt and interrogated rather than merely articulated. 

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Sandcast objects from the ‘Emotional Life of Objects workshop

The Teachers

Dr Maria Tumarkin is a writer, cultural historian and lecturer in Creative Nonfiction Writing in the School of Culture and Communications at The University of Melbourne.

This was in many ways an experiment. More than a hundred second-year students enrolled in Creative Nonfiction at The University of Melbourne attended the ‘The Emotional Life of Objects’ exhibition at the George Paton Gallery and subsequently wrote a piece in class about an object of enduring emotional significance to them. Students’ writing was then fed back into the exhibition, showcased in two special display books until the exhibition’s closing. Students could choose not to have their writing exhibited.

So, an experiment.

First, the idea that we should invite our Creative Nonfiction students into the gallery space to listen to co-curators Penelope Lee and Kate Richards speak about the exhibition, but not so that the students would respond in their own writing – not to individual artworks, nor to the exhibition’s overall mission. No, we wanted students to bounce off the artworks; to be spurred by the ideas that various works in the exhibition were inspired by or sought to address. We were hoping trails of thought, sensations, questions and half-formed ideas generated in the moment of encounter between students and the exhibition might inform and enlarge students’ thinking and the pieces they eventually wrote.

BLURRED BOOKS IMAGE DSC_0147The class discussions following the exhibition tackled the big stuff. Can objects stand in for a person who is gone? How, and with what effect, are emotions, meanings, memories and power transferred between people and objects? What is the psychological role of collecting, especially in childhood and adolescence? How is it that objects can simultaneously embody permanency and fragility? Does art always respond to the absent object?

But, also, we talked a lot about writing. Clara Bradley’s Sapphire generated discussion about the power of simultaneously revealing and concealing. Robyne Latham’s two sculptures made students think about subverting certain historically loaded literary forms, in the same way that Latham subverts the colonial, monumental history of bronze as a material. Linda Judge’s raw and affecting work reminded some students of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, a seminal exploration of grief we read earlier in the semester. Didion writes unforgettably of her inability to throw away her late husband’s shoes – if he comes back, what will he wear?

The second part of the experiment involved putting students in a different space – the physical space and the headspace – and asking them to think about where they write. This attention to place was part of a bigger gambit of getting students to recognise writing as an embodied, physical, material practice, existing in a decidedly physical world and producing material traces and artefacts. For this reason, we asked students to use pen and paper – something that some students embraced and others didn’t (‘This reminds me of high school!’; ‘I hate handwriting!’; ‘I felt like I wasn’t free because I was writing by hand!’).

The experiment’s third phase extended the conversation on materiality. Students were asked to contribute their writing to what was ostensibly an art object to be located, albeit temporarily, within the gallery. We hoped students would enjoy the complexly fun nature of what they were doing – their writing about a significant material object would now play a part in the creation of an absolutely new material object, one we hoped might accrue significance over time. How about zat?

We also thought students may end up incorporating some new strategies into their own writing practices – eg. putting themselves in a different space before or during writing, engaging with different artforms as a way of tuning themselves in to a particular idea or sensibility, shaking themselves up at the research stage, or moving between typing and writing by hand.

I later asked one particularly lively group of students for a word to describe their experience of writing about an object. They said:

Clarifying

Relieving

Nostalgic

Sad

Surprising

Solidifying

Confusing

Not all students in all classes liked writing in class then feeding their work into the exhibition. Some said they wrote ‘absolute garbage’ and wanted their contribution destroyed in a ‘ceremonial fire’.

We asked students what we should do with the two books containing their writing. Many wanted a digital archive; some suggested augmenting the archive with audio material of the students reading their pieces. An exchange student thought inviting students from other universities to contribute their own writing about objects of significance would give the project an ongoing life. Quite a few students liked the idea of their writing being preserved in a digital archive, and the books themselves being turned over to an artist to be transformed into yet another artistic object: a papier-mâché sculpture, wallpaper, etc.

Dr Anthony Lyons is a composer and lecturer in Interactive Composition at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, Faculty of the VCA and MCM at The University of Melbourne.

After an inspiring initial visit from Professor Jane Davidson and one of the curators, Penelope Lee, the Interactive Composition students from The University of Melbourne were introduced to the exhibition, ‘The Emotional Life of Objects’, and invited to make their own contribution. Their enthusiastic involvement in the exhibition took place over a three-week period and resulted in the creation of 20 new composition sound works.

The cohort’s immersion began in earnest when they visited the exhibition on its opening day and experienced the tangible artworks as objects themselves. Penelope Lee and Kate Richards spoke of the artists’ intentions and the personal stories underpinning each work – stories of love, loss, comfort and hope. These narratives and the emotions they embodied were conveyed through the objects represented in the artworks. The resultant exhibition used quite different, yet strongly linked artworks to create a poignant experience.

Students were given compositional criteria for their project, initiated by either introducing their own personal object or choosing an exhibition artwork to creatively engage with. They were asked to produce electronic works for playback within the gallery, limited to no more than five minutes in duration. Importantly, all students needed to embed their own ‘sonic object’ into their work. This sonic object was ideally their own field recording, found sound or a recorded sample that was personally significant to them. It was to be clearly audible at some point in the composition.

Dr Anthony Lyons and students at The George Payton Gallery listen to compositions in response to works in the exhibition.
Dr Anthony Lyons and students at The George Payton Gallery listen to compositions in response to works in the exhibition.

When thinking about an object, we may define it as having materiality – possessing a physical shape and form, and so, by that definition, the notion of a sonic object might seem somewhat peculiar. However, in its own way, sound too possesses shape, form and conveys history – particularly when creating works using recorded or sampled sound. Even to the non-musician, a guitar sound from the 1960s or a sung vocal from the 1950s are instantly read, understood, contextualised. Over 100 years of recorded music has created a huge repository and sensitivity to sound, and the histories attached to it.

In this way, sound can act as an immediate conduit not only for emotions, but for history, memory, time, place and space. It is arguably the glue between our senses, simultaneously abstract and concrete. As a composer these considerations are both consciously and unconsciously part of my own creative process, and as an educator I wanted the students to explore these considerations in developing relationships with their chosen artwork or object.

In the creation of their works, the students grappled with a number of questions: how do you respond to another person’s artwork when it is about their objects, stories and emotions? Is your response your own emotional reaction to the work? Do you find your own correlation to the work, or larger themes and explore them? Is your work about you, or the artist, or both? The resulting compositions were a rich layering of ideas, sonic materials and emotional stories – all underpinned by the focus on personal objects

In Howard’s Records, Finnian Langham responded to the three-part work, Howard’s Shoes, Books and Records, by artist Linda Judge. In this artwork, Judge documents the personal impact of her partner’s death by painting his belongings, including selections from his record collection. In Finnian’s response he used samples from these records, giving new expression to the recorded excerpts by electronically manipulating fragments, allowing certain words and phrases to be recontextualised and to seep through into his largely textural soundworld. In doing so, he found emotional resonances with Judge’s story and with Howard’s objects, framing them abstractly yet poetically. Towards the end of Finnian’s piece his own sonic object – a recording made of birds singing, was the only non-manipulated sound in the composition. This acted as an offering, a grounding, an acknowledgement of sympathy, the sharing of Judge’s work and its emotional states on him. Judge was present to hear Finnian’s work, and to respond and converse with the Interactive Composition group, which was a moving experience.

Julia Webster’s work, Tender Leaf, was a response to her own personal object – a ceramic teacup from her childhood that had stayed with her, unbroken, all these years. The work starts with the sounds of pouring tea and the recorded gentle tapping of a teaspoon against the cup – this became an underlying loop throughout the piece while a song emerged from the sounding of the object. Julia’s song lyrics were reflections on her family during childhood, and how these memories were bound up for her in the cup that had shared the journey with her. This was a beautifully sensitive work made more impactful with the object, the teacup, being shown to the group in the gallery session.

My own contribution, Phosphorescence, began by engaging two personal objects – a music box and a Tibetan bowl, a gift from my Mother – which were used in correlation with Elizabeth Rich’s artwork, When Darkness Falls. The resulting work was a reflection on both the memories that my own objects held for me, and the ideas in Rich’s work. The music box and Tibetan bowl were electronically manipulated alongside recorded samples of my mother talking, waves washing on the shore and rocks moving against each other. The layered soundworld attempts to draw on shifting emotional moments of light and dark, not unlike the molded stones of the artwork and their representation of different transient emotional states. The title, Phosphorescence – a light emitting substance found in darkness – reminded me of youthful moments spent staring at night waves, pondering life and occasionally witnessing phosphorescence in the dark water. Again, like the student works, my composition weaves together various layers of sound that are fused with strong memories of time, place and emotional states.

The finished compositions were all highly individual responses and unique expressions, however, collectively there emerged a strong sense of artistic purpose and interconnection between the artwork, objects and sound. ‘The Emotional Life of Objects’ became a true convergence of multilayered emotions, stories, histories and memories bound up in past objects and bringing them into the creative present. The Interactive Composition students are grateful for the opportunity to have been involved with the ‘The Emotional Life of Objects’ exhibition.

Listen to Interactive Composition audio works.

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“Howard’s Records.” Image courtesy of the artist.

The Artist

Lindy Judge is an artist and curator, and is the painter of Howard’s Shoes, Books and Records.

When Penelope asked me if I would be involved with ‘The Emotional Life of Objects’ I was happy to find a context for three paintings I had made without ever considering their exhibition. The paintings document my deceased partner’s shoes, records and books. I hoped that they would enable me to part with his things, and to some extent they did, but in the context of the exhibition the pictures resembled a portrait. Howard was brought back to life through these glimpses into his body, mind and heart.

Galleries are mostly quiet spaces. And exhibitions from an artist’s perspective can be lonely affairs. Friends want to be kind, and strangers leave without trace. The lack of dialogue after exhibition can sound like criticism. Arriving at the gallery for the first time I found it full of people and sound, as each Interactive Composition student shared their musical response to the artworks. At the end of the three-hour session I wondered if words might just be inadequate when talking about art.

Finnian and Victoria, both second-year students, responded to my paintings using samples gleaned from snatches of life that effortlessly joined with voice and text to create soundscapes that told their own story. Finnian’s composition painted its own soulful picture of Howard as a lover of both Mendelssohn and The Rolling Stones in a composition that reflected a seamless melding of opposites. As I listened and remembered Howard through the eyes of someone who is the same age as our children are now, I understood that art is born from sensitivity, and that the future is in safe hands.

 

[1] Jean Baudrillard, ‘The System of Collecting’, in The Cultures of Collecting, ed. John Elsner and Roger Cardinal (Harvard, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), p. 7.

[2] Warren Lett, An Inquiry into Making Sense of our Lives (Eltham: Rebus Press, 2011).

[3] Stephanie Downes, ‘The Emotional life of Objects, Past and Present’, The Emotional Life of Objects: Exhibition Catalogue (Melbourne: George Paton Gallery, 2016).

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