Thursday, January 7, 2010

Collecting: Art vs. Memorializing

Another aspect of this blog is to examine the act of memorializing the dead. Is it to dampen our fear by surrounding ourselves with reminders of our own mortality? It's inevitable, so get over it. The memento mori will be a future topic, but it may tangentially relate to the following collections.

The broad topic of accumulating a collection of artifacts can span interests as far reaching as art-making to archaeology; from hobbies to archives; from obsessions to instinct. The collections of artist Barton Lidice Beneš fit all of these categories. His 2003 book, Curiosa: Celebrity Relics, Historical Fossils, & Other Metamorphic Rubbish (Abrams) is a fascinating journey through his life-long obsession (art?) (archive?). Exploring it make it our obsession as well. Here we find a huge collection of artifacts and specimens, each displayed in its own little wooden cubicle with a hand-written notation on a paper card. Most seem to have more power by their association with someone or something we often recognize, or with the items in the surrounding cubicles. Each item provides a physical "touch-stone" to a world of people and places we may never actually experience. One has to accept the provenance, but the book's essay seems to indicate that it is trustworthy.

One particular piece is entitled Death Museum and consists of 56 little compartments, each containing an item that relates to mortality or the dismal trade. Individually, many mean nothing, but the collection has power and poignancy.

A detail (below) of items related to our topic. The book does reveal something of his collecting process, but not enough to fully appreciate how amazingly difficult it must be to make collections like these. I am amazed that Beneš has a circle of friends and acquaintances that are so "prolific" and connected to so many other well known people and events. The sheer mass of items-of-note almost begs credibility. But then his international reputation as an artist provides many more opportunities than we mere mortals could hope for.

Another page (below) shows a thematic collection related to artists and the personal items that were once physically connected to them. Is this a form of memorializing? Or does that happen only after the artist is deceased?

I get a little shiver when I look over these pages. I feel like I have been given something intimate, private, special. Even the most mundane item becomes important in this context. How is it that a lost button, a burnt match or a nail clipping can become so charged when we relate it to a person or event? There is a psychological link between this collection and the relic in a monstrance. I can empathize with the pilgrim who sees the fragment of a saint's bone. It must be a powerful experience for a believer.

I think this book could be a good jumping-off point for me to produce some new work with the ever-growing collection of detritus that fills my studio. I will post the results if they materialize.

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