Author Archive


May 14, 2009

BH1-00026_01_BT_Nov2007_overallPlease allow me to introduce Object number BH1-00026— the accession number for the decorative fireplace surround in the Claude Room of Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina.  I spent 12 intimate weeks treating the fireplace surround for my job as an Art Conservation Technician.  Conservation deals primarily with the materials of objects, so I thought of the treatment of the fireplace surround while reading on the topic of materiality, specifically Tim Ingold’s article “Materials against Materiality” and Martin Heidegger’s article “The Thing.” Ingold stresses in his article that people should be more aware of the material makeup of objects.  What about Art Conservation? What about fields of study that are already concerned with materiality, that do not need to read articles advising the use of placing a stone nearby in order to remember that what makes up an object may be important.  I decided to take a closer look at the treatment of BH1-00026.

 Professors in the interdisciplinary field refer to Art Conservation as a three-legged stool, with each leg of the stool representing art history, studio art, and chemistry.  A good understanding of how materials work on a chemical level is highly important because one must know how substances will react with one another.  The Hippocratic oath of “do no harm” is only possible in conservation if one knows information like how certain materials will deteriorate over time, or which solvent will dissolve dirt, but not paint.  The academia provides a foundation of knowledge, but the hands-on aspects are learned while one is a conservation technician, like an apprentice.  Hours upon hours of conservation work under the guidance of a trained professional conservator teach the proper techniques and common tools and methods.  To be a conservator, one must have the appropriate coursework, minimum number of hours of technician work, and pass a grueling interviewing process to secure one of the 28 spots available each year in the U.S. in the main conservation programs.

 (For more information on Art Conservation, consult each school’s website: The University of Delaware, New York University, and Buffalo State College, or the website for the American Institute for Conservation.) 

 On my own lowly journey to become a conservator, I worked for two years at Biltmore Estate, the largest privately owned home in America that was built by George Vanderbilt in 1895.  I was hired, appropriately enough, in the “Objects” Conservation Department to assist with a restoration project to open a suite of four rooms that previously had not been on the public tour.  Each room included a fireplace and Object BH1-00026 was dirty and needed treatment in order to fit in visually with the other lavish decorations of the restored room, as well as stabilization to prevent further deterioration.  One of the biggest concepts of conservation is the use of documentation.  The whole treatment process is documented so future museum staff will know what kind of work the object endured.  The object description for the fireplace surround was written following the appropriate terminology and investigation that is taught in conservation.  It is described as follows:


“Object is a carved marble fireplace surround with gold leaf and/or paint installed in the Claude Room.  The mantle and columns are white marble, while the inner marble is mottled orange with a brass trim lining.  The gold along the mantle is believed to be gold paint, while the gold along the columns is believed to be a gold leaf.  This object is very similar in style and design to the fireplace in the Damask Room (BH1-00027), although the decorative elements in the carvings differ between each room.  For example, the statues atop the columns flanking the sides of the Claude Room fireplace are eagles, while the statues are lions in the Damask Room.  Both fireplaces were “antiques” when George Vanderbilt bought them.”

 If the same object were described by an art historian, curator, or anthropologist, its description would probably have less to do with the intricate details of its materials and more to do with the history and context of the piece. 

 BH1-00026_13_BT_Nov2007_PR detailThe condition of the object is then described:BH1-00026_07_BT_Nov2007_PR detail

“The object is in fair condition.  The surface is covered with a layer of dark dirt and soot, from years of use in Biltmore House and use prior to purchase by George Vanderbilt.  Several crevices, especially the beading spanning across the top of the mantle, were filled with soot ash. Also in crevices and carvings along the sides of the mantle are patches of white plaster that have adhered to the surface and will not wipe off, but require mechanical removal.   The marble itself is in good structural condition, but there are small areas of loss along the bottom edges of the columns.  The gold painted area on the top portion of the fireplace, however, is in poor condition.  The proper right half of the painted area is friable and actively flaking off of the marble.  There are areas of complete loss throughout the painted surface, although the Claude Room mantle is in better condition than the Damask Room mantle.  The gilded background on the sides of the mantle also has areas of loss, but is in good condition overall.”

After these observations, a treatment method for cleaning was outlined and carried out.  Listed are but a few of the steps in the process: lab_images_001

  1. Mixed the cleaning solutions for the treatment in the conservation lab.  The (Wolbers) marble cleaner is an aqueous solution containing chelating agents TEA and Citric acid, with ammonium hydroxide to adjust the pH level, and Triton XL80-N to act as a surfactant.  The pH of the marble cleaner was adjusted to 8.5-9.0.  The (Wolbers) 102.7 cleaner also is an aqueous solution containing a surfactant (Triton XL80-N) and a chelating agent (ammonium citrate), adjusted to a pH of 8.0.  In addition to liquid form, each solution was made into gel form by adding Methyl Cellulose.
  2. Removed loose ash and soot in crevices using wooden skewers.
  3. Mechanically removed plaster using dental tools and wooden skewers.
  4. Applied marble cleaner in gel form to the white marble around the gilded surfaces.  Using a gel allowed us to focus on cleaning a specific, controllable area.  The marble cleaner was gentler on the gilded surface, not removing any gold as long as the cleaner was rinsed off the surface immediately.  The gel was removed using sponges and water.
  5. Rinsed the surface with water using sponges to ensure no cleaner remained on the surface.  Although the pH level was adjusted to ensure the cleaner was not too acidic to etch the marble, care was taken to rinse all cleaner from the mantle to ensure none would remain to etch the marble over time.
  6. Applied 102.7 cleaner in gel form to the white marble around the painted surface.  The painted surface was more likely to dissolve if in contact with the marble cleaner, but not the 102.7.  Therefore, marble around the painted surface was cleaned using 102.7.  The gel was removed using sponges and water.
  7. Cleaned painted and gilded surfaces using cotton swabs dipped in liquid 102.7 cleaner, and rinsed with sponges and water.
  8. Mechanically removed stubborn staining on the white marble using a scalpel.


BH1-00026_27_DT_Nov2007_brass removed

BH1-00026_24_DT_Nov2007_PL detail

Other types of objects were treated at Biltmore in a similar manner-by inspecting the materials of the object, then selecting other materials to carry out treatment.  Surfaces, varnishes, paint layers, corrosion, etc. are analytically tested to discover the exact materials as closely as possible.  All treatments are reversible (with the exception of cleaning) so that if alternative materials/adhesives/epoxies are discovered in the future that are better, the old treatment may be removed and the new one applied. 

Because of this experience in treating the fireplace surround, I did not agree with Ingold’s quote on page one of his “Materials against Materiality” article that “anthropology and archaeology literature that deals explicitly with the subjects of materiality and material culture seems to have hardly anything to say about materials” (3).  Although art conservation is not explicitly anthropology and archaeology, the fields cross and intertwine, as I am sure many archaeologists would agree with when trying to conserve finds from an excavation.  One must know how corroding metals or fragile ceramics will react to different solutions in order to stabilize or clean them, especially when the environment is unstable.

Ingold stresses that people have become too preoccupied with the materiality of objects, that the “concept of materiality, whatever it might mean, has become a real obstacle to sensible enquiry into materials, their transformations and affordances” (3).  We have taken the materiality of the objects for granted, forgetting that the object is what it is because of its materials.  “Thenceforth it is the objects themselves that capture our attention, no longer the materials of which they are made.  It is as though our material involvement begins only when the stucco has already hardened on the house front or the ink already dried on the page” (9).  Although we see the house as a whole and not as a sum of parts and materials, these materials continue “to mingle and react as they have always done, forever threatening the things they comprise with dissolution or even ‘dematerialization’. Plaster can crumble, and ink can fade.” (9).  Ingold even points out that curators and “conservationists” (he uses the imporper term- conservationists deal with the environment) are constantly struggling with this fact, as indeed we are.  Conservators are fully aware that “Materials always and inevitably win out over materiality in the long term” (10).   Conservation differs from restoration in that the main objective is the stabilization of the object.  Conservators wish to slow down the battle of materials over materiality. 

putti front before

clean putti

An important way to slow deterioration is to monitor and control the environment, establishing a stable temperature and relative humidity.  Ingold discusses the environment as a

“world that continually unfolds in relation to the beings that make a living there.  Its reality is not of material objects but for its inhabitants.  It is, in short, a world of materials.  And as the environment unfolds, so the materials of which it is comprised do not exist– like the objects of the material world- but occur. Thus the properties of materials, regarded as constituents of an environment, cannot be identified as fixed, essential attributes of things, but are rather processual and relational.  They are neither objectively determined nor subjectively imagined but practically experienced.  In that sense, every property is a condensed story.  To describe the properties of materials is to tell the stories of what happens to them as they flow, mix and mutate.” (14) 

Ingold concludes this article in saying that “properties of materials … are not attributes, but histories” (15). 

So… that’s all well and good.  Pat yourselves on the back, conservators, for thinking of the materials of things, not just the materiality, and how that relates to the environment.  But wait, isn’t there more?

What about those objects that have more value to them than their materials? What about sacred objects?  Should they be treated simply as materials? The efforts to preserve sacred objects enacted by museum professionals are not viewed in the same exalted manner by the indigenous people to whom the objects originally belonged.  Quite the contrary, these efforts are viewed as harmful to the objects and disrespectful to the cultures because of a lack of understanding of the power residing in the objects.  

Native American George Horse Capture expressed his sadness over the display of objects in museums at the 1980 American Association of Museums by stressing the importance these objects hold in his culture.  George Horse Capture stated that “Indian people utilize special items to help communicate with the One Above,” and that these items have a “vital function” for native religion (Ferguson 1983: 2).  An article in the Journal of the American Institute for Conservation entitled “Ethical Considerations in the Conservation of Native American Sacred Objects” calls for conservators to reconsider traditional conservation practices in light of native views.  The authors recognize that “the very process of handling, documentation and treatment could constitute interference with the integrity of the objects and destruction of its functional and spiritual value” during the “modern, scientific conservation treatment” that conservators practice (Wolfe and Mibach 1983: 1).

Without an understanding of the meanings and values placed on these objects, a conservator may treat the materials while disrespecting the materiality.  Perhaps there is more to an object than the materials.  It was on this point that Heidegger’s article “The Thing” was significant.

When determining what makes the jug a jug, he states that “the jug’s void determines all the handling in the process of making the vessel.  The vessel’s thingness does not lie at all in the material of which it consists, but in the void that is holds” (169).  While examining the jug—

“To learn what nearness is, we examined the jug nearby… at that moment, in fact, when the illusion intruded itself that science could reveal to us the reality of the jug … conceived in terms of physical science, that is what the void really is; but it is not the jug’s void… We had given no thought to how the containing itself goes on… We failed to give thought to what the jug holds and how it holds.” (171)

Perhaps my marble/gilded/painted fireplace is more than materials and surface dirt and surfactants and chelating agents.

 “The jug’s jug- character consists in the poured gift of the pouring out.  Even the empty jug retains its nature by virtue of the poured gift, even though the empty jug does not admit of a giving out.” (174) 

Heidegger ends his article with “Things, each thinging from time to time in its own way, are heron and roe, deer horse and bull.  Things, each thinging and each staying in its own way, are mirror and clasp, book and picture, crown and cross.”  (182)

Although this fireplace surround did not have a religious function, perhaps it should be investigated further.  Perhaps there is more to its thingness than its parts.  Perhaps Latour was correct in his encouragement to stop reducing. 

Museums are structured institutions that allot specialized jobs to different departments.  Conservators act on the materials, while the curators are in charge the knowledge of the context of the object.  Curators know more of how the objects are used, for what purpose, the life history of the object, etc.  The source communities from which those objects came will know even more.  Curators, communities, and conservators should form a three-legged stool of their own and should all be in collaboration to investigate the many aspects of an object, in order to discover how the thing is a thing.  In an article on “Conservation and Meaning,” the author Douglas Greenberg stresses the importance of conservation, but also the importance of consulting communities.  He states that “this is not a theoretical matter either; in a culturally diverse society whose institutions of art and memory are multiple and occasionally conflicting, those that fail to accompany the conservation of objects with a conservation of meaning will themselves fail from their own stupidity and irrelevance” (44). 

This semester has helped stress the importance of all characteristics of objects and things; that many aspects of BH1-00026 contribute to making it an object.  We should heed Ingold and study the materials, while remembering Heidegger’s investigation of the importance of the materiality of things.  It is acceptable for an object to have materials and materiality, and we should recognize that, especially conservators.


 Ferguson, T.J.  1990.  “The Repatriation of Ahayu:da Zuni War Gods:  An Interview with the Zuni Tribal Council on April 25, 1990.”  Museum Anthropology. Vol. 14, No. 2: 7-14. 

Greenberg, Douglas.  2004.  “Conservation and Meaning.”  In Stewards of the Sacred.  Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums.

Heidegger, Martin.  1971.  “The Thing.” In Poetry, Language, Thought.  Translated by Albert Hofstadter.  New York: Harper & Row.

Ingold, Tim.  2007.  “Materials against Materiality.”  In Archaeological Dialogues.  Cambridge University Press.  Vol. 14, no. 1.  Pp. 1-16.

“Treatment Report- BH1-00026.”  2007.  Personal document by Fran Ritchie.   

Wolfe, Sara J. and Lisa Mibach.  1983.  “Ethical Considerations in the Conservation of Native American Sacred Objects.”  Journal of the American Institute for Conservation.  Vol. 23, No. 1: 1-6.

Dead Matter(s)

May 14, 2009


Humans: We’re the brains of this operation.  We’re the subjects in this subject-object equation.  But what happens when we’re not?  How do humans become the object?  The dead body/human cadaver, seems to be the ultimate example of Bill Brown’s reasoning–that we are most aware of the thingness of things when they break down.  As Brown states, “We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us: when the drill breaks, when the car stalls. . .” (Brown 2001:4). When the human body “breaks down” by dying, we are able to view it in a different way; we are able to objectify it.  This corpse does not talk like us- the living humans.  It does not think, eat, dance, etc.  It does not have a say on what happens to it.  In fact, we are able to talk about the cadaver as an “it,” rather than “he” or “she,” and not feel guilty because the cadaver will never know.  This type of objectification concerning dead bodies is crucial for some people, mostly the researchers and doctors who spend their time around cadavers, performing tasks that would be unthinkable upon living bodies.  The research on cadavers may be gross (literally), but it has had many contributions to the society of living people and is a necessity. 


This topic is prominent in the book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach.  Roach examines different fields that use cadavers as study objects, from surgeons to safety inspectors.  The author adds humor to her writing in hopes of lessoning the shock of the experiments done to the cadavers, to help the reader transition into the objectification of the human body.  This is evident in the headings of the chapters of the book, which include:

A Head is a Terrible Thing to Waste: Practicing surgery on the dead

Dead Man Driving: Human crash test dummies and the ghastly, necessary science of impact tolerance

Beyond the Black Box: When the bodies of the passengers must tell the story of a crash

The Cadaver Who Joined the Army: The sticky ethics of bullets and bombs

Holy Cadaver: The crucifixion experiments

Eat Me: Medicinal cannibalism and the case of the human dumplings

Out of the Fire, Into the Compost Bin: And other new ways to end up


While collecting research for her book, Roach interviewed the living people who do the gruesome, smelly, and often times weird work with cadavers, frequently asking them how they are able to perform their jobs with a dead person sitting in the room.  From the chapter “A Head is a Terrible Thing to Waste: Practicing Surgery on the Dead,” the author observes a facial anatomy and face-lift refresher course for “face-lifters”.  The heads of cadavers have been cut off directly below the chin and placed in aluminum trays, similar to those used for cooking a Thanksgiving turkey.  The trays are laid on long rows of tables covered with lavender table cloths.  When a cadaver is dissected, the head and genitals are usually covered to help the dissector focus on the task at hand.  When the head IS the part of the body being dissected, how do the medical professionals react?  The woman who sets the heads upon the tables responds “What I do is, I think of them as wax” (21). 

The chapter “Life after Death: On human decay and what can be done about it” features the “Body Farm” at the University of Tennessee where anthropologists study the rate of decay of human bodies under various conditions.  Roach asked one employee what it is like to conduct his research at the farm.

 “What do you mean? You want a vivid description of what’s going through my brain as I’m cutting through a liver and all these larvae are spilling out all over me and juice pops out of the intestines?  I don’t really focus on that.  I try to focus on the value of the work.  It takes the edge off the grotesqueness.” (63)

As the bodies decay, they become discolored, bloated, eaten by insects, foul-smelling, and messy, to name a few characteristics.  Despite this change in appearance, a worker must still overcome the fact that these were once living humans, to get over their “humanness.”  Although the worker at the Body Farm did not admit it at first, he later commented that he used to turn the bodies over onto their stomachs so that he would not have to think about the fact that they were humans. 

There are several of those types of coping mechanisms throughout the book that allow people to saw bodies apart, shot them, place them in crashing vehicles, and study them.  People imagined the cadaver as something different, something fake, found humor in the situation, such as picturing the dead body as a cartoon, and focused on the importance of the work at hand, in order to ignore the fact that the cadaver could have been a friend of yours if you had meet a few months prior.

Roach points out these workers are

“practicing a time-honored coping method: objectification.  For those who must deal with human corpses regularly, it is easier (and, I suppose, more accurate) to think of them as objects, not people.  For most physicians, objectification is mastered their first year of medical school, in the gross anatomy lab, or “gross lab,” as it is casually and somewhat aptly known.  To help depersonalize the human form that students will be expected to sink knives into and eviscerate, anatomy lab personnel often swathe the cadavers in gauze and encourage students to unwrap as they go, part by part.” (21)

Objectification is so necessary because cadavers

“look so much like people.  When dealing with our meat selection, we don’t say we’d like a slice of pig, but we say we’d like a slice of pork.  Dissection and surgical instruction, like meat-eating, require a carefully maintained set of illusions and denial.  Physicians and anatomy students must learn to think of cadavers as wholly unrelated to the people they once were.  Dissection requires in its practitioners the effective suspension or suppression of many normal physical and emotional responses to the willful mutilation of the body of another human being.” (21)

Cadavers must turn from the human subject to the nonhuman object.  They must lose their humanness.  Just as Roach stated in her book, it is important for medical students to go through this transition, to see bodies as objects.  The use of technological equipment is quickly replacing the use of cadavers, but many in the field recognize the importance of the real thing.  In a New York Times opinion article on the topic, the writer Christine Montross recognizes that the issue deserves the attention.  She discusses:

“But what kind of doctors will they be, these students who have never experienced human dissection? They would have been denied a safe and more gradual initiation into the emotional strain that doctoring demands.  Someday, they’ll need to keep their cool when a baby is lodged wrong in a mother’s birth canal; when a bone breaks through a patient’s skin; when someone’s face is burned beyond recognition. Doctors do have normal reactions to these situations; the composure that we strive to keep under stressful circumstances is not innate. It has to be learned. The discomfort of taking a blade to a dead man’s skin helps doctors-in-training figure out how to cope, without the risk of intruding on a live patient’s feelings — or worse, his health. We learn to heal the living by first dismantling the dead.” (“Dead Body of Knowledge”)

When a person dies, it is easier to regard them as something else, such as the hull of the former person, because the body becomes inanimate.  The cadaver loses the agency it once had as a living person; it can no longer defend itself when someone wants to dissect it, no longer has a say in the decision to include it in crash tests.  With medical students, forensic anthropologists, and other professionals examining the cadaver, the materiality of the human becomes even more apparent.  Once able to talk or gesture, the cadaver is now only able to relate to others through its materiality.  The agency of the human takes another form when dead, similar to the agency given to other inanimate objects.  The agency is there, even if it cannot be explicitly observed.

As Peter Pels points out in his article “The Spirit of Matter,” “the fetish functions to question the boundaries between things and the distinctions they are held to delineate” (92).  When a human cadaver is objectified, it is able to be viewed as a fetish. Like a fetish, the dead human body blurs the line between subject and object.  The human form reminds the living of the subject, but the materiality of the dead and the fact that its agency is no longer explicit makes the body more like an object. 

Even after death, the agency of the person may be enacted by following of their will.  Perhaps the family members do not want the body of their loved one to be cremated, but carry out wishes anyway to please the person (who may or may not even know that their wishes are being enacted, depending upon your beliefs of the afterlife).  Such was the case for Roach’s father, who requested to be cremated and placed in a white pine box.  Her mother complied, but felt guilty for not burying him, and was even chastised by members of the community who wanted a memorial service. Leaving requests for what happens to your body after you are dead is a way of asserting control and influence over the living.

Organ donation is another way dead bodies may have agency, as Roach editorializes upon her in book.

“It is astounding to me, and achingly sad, that with eighty thousand people on the waiting list for donated hearts and livers and kidneys, with sixteen a day dying there on that list, that more than half of the people in the position of organ donor H’s family was in will say no, will choose to burn those organs or let them rot.  We abide the surgeon’s scalpel to save our own lives, our loved ones’ lives, but not to save a stranger’s life.  H has no heart, but heartless is the last thing you’d call her.” (195)

Using human cadavers as the ultimate example of Bill Brown’s definition of a thing only works depending upon one’s belief of the spiritual world and what happens after death.  However, as Roach’s research shows, professionals working with dead bodies typically had to objectify the bodies in order to perform their tasks.  The cadavers lost their explicit agency they held as living humans and blurred the line between subject and object. The fact that living family members carried out the transformed agency of the cadaver through wills and organ donation places the cadavers in the realm of the fetish; the human is the object.   



Brown, Bill.  2001.  “Thing Theory.” In Critical Inquiry.  Vol. 28, no. 1. Pp. 1-22.

Montross, Christine.  “Dead Body of Knowledge.”  In The New York Times.  March 26, 2009.  On-line.  <;

 Pels, Peter.  1998.  “The Spirit of Matter.” In Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces.  Ed. Patricia Spyer. New York: Routledge.

Roach, Mary.  2003. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.  London: W. W. Norton & Company.

Cadaver photographs from:


April 28, 2009

Heidegger’s discussion of nearness was a little confusing last week, but I think that reading Harmon’s interpretation of Latour’s thought on the matter helped clear it up for me (or at least added further thinking on the topic). It seems as if both thinkers were conceptualizing nearness in a similar way. My reading of Heidegger, as he states that “near to us is what we usually call things,” is that objects that are near us are able to be verbing (2). The thinging of the thing occurs when we are able to interact with it (pouring the jug, flying the kite, seeing the grasshopper jumping). 

Harmon interprets Latour’s position on nearness by stating that “action also means nearness, since to act on something is to affect, touch, or interfere with it in some way” (41). This action is a point of translation, it is “how actants communicate,” actants “need interfaces in order to touch, and this requires labor” (42). I don’t think that actants need translation to exist in general, like the restaurant example– that “a restaurant becomes real when it stops being isolated and when the number of people engaged in eating there are many and explicitly engaged in eating there and passing the word along” (61). This does not mean that the restaurant did not exist before people were eating in it, but its strength as an actant is dependent upon its alliances, its connections and interactions with other actants. Am I correct in interpreting action and nearness as the same thing? Of course, I feel as though I’m setting myself up, as we come back to the question of “if a tree falls in the wood and no one hears it, did it really fall?” so perhaps I need to hear more discussion on nearness.

I really enjoyed reading the first section of Harmon’s book. It felt like a cliff’s notes to four of Latour’s major works and going over key terms (like black boxing and time) was helpful for me.

Connecting Latourian philosophy (I’m allowed to call him a philosopher now, right?) with the Museum Anthropology program… When we read We Have Never Been Modern in class, I mentioned that Latour’s idea of a spiral model of time and history would be a different way of presenting information in museums. To my delight, an article for our Museum Anthropology class this past week, “Thinking and Doing Otherwise: Anthropological Theory in Exhibitionary Practice” by M. Bouquet, explicitly discussed Latour’s theories in exhibitions. I don’t have the article in front of me at this time to state the museum, but the author described an exhibit that utilized a spiral staircase on which the visitor ascended and descended while viewing the exhibit, to show that history can overlap. I think that the spiral may have been a little too literal for the exhibit, since Western thinking equates going “up” as a form of evolution/something good, like going up to heaven vs. down to hell. It would be interesting to think of other ways Latour’s works may change the way we think of presenting culture/history/science.

April 21, 2009

(I thought about hiding my repost as a reply to someone else’s post so that it would not stand on its own–what could I possible say that would be interesting enough after Easton’s posting on jugs??)

Heidegger’s article seems as though it could fit in to many of the weekly topics we’ve discussed in class so far.  I kept thinking of Ingold’s stance on materiality in particular while reading “The Thing”.  After reading Ingold’s thoughts, especially in “Materials against Materiality” I thought “ohhh ok, I got it, don’t forget to examine the materiality of an object and that will help discover its thing-ness, help give the object the respect and attention it deserves.”  Ingold urges us to “take materials seriously, since it is from them that everything is made” (14).  Enter: Heidegger and his jug.  When investigating the thingness of the jug, or what makes the jug a jug, Heidegger points out that it is the void, not the impermeable surfaces (walls and bottom) that make it a jug, saying “The vessel’s thingness does not lie at all in the material of which is consists, but in the void that holds” (my copy does not have page numbers).  In describing the jug as a thing, it seems as though Heidegger is disregarding the materiality altogether, saying that is it not important.  Rather, what is important is the task that the jug does for us (like recognizing the door closer?) and the fact that it may stand forth, be near us/be a part of a gathering, and because it can take in and keep/hold and pour out.  I think that all of his points are relevant, but I think that he should give materiality its due.  I am interested in the discussion tomorrow to see if I am completely misinterpreting his stance on materiality. 

Dead matter tonight.

March 25, 2009

Dear Things,

I feel I must warn ahead of time that I will be showing photos of dead bodies tonight, as my object study is human cadavers.  Why are we able to perform tasks on dead bodies that we wouldn’t dream of performing on living bodies? Let’s find out!


“the grid’s heart fluttered”

March 10, 2009

The image of a power grid serving as an example for an assemblage was strong for me.  I thought that it did a good job of prompting me to think about the ways several different factors are connected and that an immaterial force can act upon humans.  This unpredictablity even prompts people to “live off the grid”, to move out of the realm of “normal” society and feel self-sufficient (feel more in control of one’s life and functions).   This concepts touches on the idea of an ecosystem that we talked about in class last week.  Bennett even points out that this idea of interconnectivity has always existed in ecological thinking, but today we are further connected b/c of the “degree of infrastructural and technological complexity”.  No wonder, then, she makes the step towards moral accountability, which is not something I would have normally thought of when talking about agency.   I am not sure how I feel on the situation, whether or not humans can be fully responsible for events that happen, but that is because I am still unsure as to the equality of agency between humans and non-humans.

March 3, 2009
I was hoping to be wow’d by Ingold’s “Materials against Materiality” after such an interesting introduction, urging me to pick up a real-life stone and place it on my desk during the reading of his article.  Sad to say, I still wasn’t convinced once I finished the article.  True, the rock had changed and perhaps I looked at its material a bit more than I would have when previously viewing it as just another rock on the ground, but my questions still weren’t answered.  Questions like…Why should we care about the materiality of things? I think the example of  Nash’s Ladder was a better example of looking at the materiality of an object, rather than form or function.  When looking at the ladder, the first thing you’re struck with is the fact that it looks natural, not mass produced as usual, and as if it had grown out of the ground.  But Nash’s example was rather obvious.  As Miller’s critique pointed out, many of Ingold’s examples were still related to humans manipulating natural objects, but what about plastics and other synthetics?  What about the objects whose material we are unfamiliar with and do not recognize/know what it is or how it’s made?  “My plea, in this article, is simply that we should reverse this trend, and once more take materials seriously, since it is from them that everything is made” (14).  I feel as though I DO think about the materiality of things because I am a tactile person, I always like to feel things, whether walking through a department store brushing my hand against the different fabrics, or when hiking as I run my fingers through a stream/patch of leaves/dirt.  I was hoping Ingold would tell me how the recognition of materiality would be important.  
The next article shed a little more light on materiality…Ingold’s discussion in “On Weaving a Basket” pointed out the concept of force, that the materials of the basket exert their own force and dictate how much an artist may manipulate the materials.  Although Ingold claimed clay only had force through gravity, and thus was not the same as the basket, I think they are both important factors.  The concept of autopoiesis revealed that “the artisan is involved in the same system as the material with which he works, so his activity does not transform that system but is – like the growth of plants and animals – part and parcel of the system’s transformation of itself” (345).  Is Ingold’s point, then, that the materiality of things must be considered along with human manipulation… that the form of an object does not solely exist b/c of what the human saw and did with/to the object (like sculptors envisioning a form in the wood and then creating it), but what the materiality of the object allowed the human to do as well (that the sculptors must taken into account the grain of the wood)?  Ok I will take these ramblings and try to form more coherent questions for class…
P.S. I just saw Laura’s post on Pollock and had a “duh” moment.  What a great example of the materiality of things! Wish I had thought of that while reading Ingold for the first time.

“Deceptive Evidence”

February 24, 2009

Our discussion last Wednesday along with a few of the posts below correspond to Pinney’s idea of objects as “deceptive evidence” (263).    We often examine art and objects in context, assuming that they will be examples/representations of their time and place, but sometimes this may be deceptive.  Pinney quotes Quinet when describing art of Venice that perhaps should have represented the political regime and tension, but instead looked as though “these [men’s] ardent imaginations can only have flourished in a regime of excessive freedom” (263).  The photo from 9/11 is alarming to viewers because we expect it to show the scenes and emotions of other photographs from that day, yet it looks as though it were taken during a time of peace and confidence.  The reaction that the people IN the photo had to the critique of their afternoon was very interesting– they pointed out that pictures can be deceiving, even mentioning that snapshots have the ability to make mourners at a funeral look as though they are at a party.   Pinney goes on to state in his article that “we assume the image will somehow embody the moment; we form a judgement of the moment and then read into the image what we have already determined ‘by other means'” (264).  Historians and museums may be obsessed with the presentation of objects in time lines, mapping out history as sequences, but as Pinney quoted Kubler “the date of a specific art object is less important for its interpretation than its ‘age,’ meaning its position in the sequence to which it belongs, and that these sequences have time schedules all their own” (264).   It would be nice if we could discuss the idea of contemporaneity in class as it relates to the images we have been discussing.  How can we be cautious and recognize that placing an object in context does not always reveal meaning about the object?

Alarming quote

February 17, 2009

“The problem with things is that they are dumb.  They are not eloquent, as some thinkers in art museums claim.  They are dumb.  And if by some ventriloquism they seem to speak, they lie.”

That was the first line of an assigned reading in a Museum Anthropology class this week.  The author was discussing the various ways museums assign meaning to objects, not taking into account what pictures want or the agency of the object.  Quite a difference to the readings for our class tomorrow!

(Crew SD, Sims JE. 1991.  “Locating Authenticity: Fragments of a Dialogue.” In Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, ed. I Karp and S Lavine.  pg 159.)

Gell’s “captivation”

February 10, 2009

One aspect of Gell’s quest to define an “anthropology of art” that was interesting to me was his concept of captivation.  Captivation perhaps may be able to answer the heavy question of “what makes art, art?”  Gell’s argument stresses that objects must have some capacity to captivate a viewer, providing “the primordial kind of artistic agency” (69), otherwise people would not waste time looking at the object/artwork.   Captivation may come in the form of awe and admiration  (over work that the viewer could not replicate, such as Gell and his inferior “Seamstress” example), or in the form of fear-induced respect.  Captivation “ensues from the spectator becoming trapped within the index because the index embodies agency which is essentially indecipherable” (71).  The idea of captivation is seen literally in the maze and pattern examples.  Gell points out that patterns are ways of decorating objects, that “decorative patterns applied to artefacts attach people to things, and to the social projects those things entail” and thus that objects may have social agency because they are decorated (74).  The Iatmul lime-containers serve as Gell’s example, that “the decoration, which is distinctive, binds the lime-container to its owner in a most intimate fashion; it is less a possession than a prosthesis, a bodily organ acquired via manufacture and exchange rather than by biological growth” (74).  Reading these sections makes me wish I had read Gell’s other work  further explaining his “technology of enchantment” theory.  I think Gell did a commendable job in trying to explain and work through why people just “like” things.  His use of captivation, I think, could work in most situations.  Even when people dislike a piece of artwork, it still has captivated them long enough to look at it and form an opinion.  An object that may not captivate one person, still may captivate another.  When objects are decorated in a fashion that captivates us, we may hold them in higher regard, allowing them greater agency.  I think Gell was on to something, but I’m still not convinced that he has found the answer of what is art and why we like some things over others.  Although he used examples from non-Western cultures, I’m still not convinced that he has examined the concept from all angles.   As an irrelevant aside, I was annoyed that Gell used the phrase “picture-restorers” when describing the conservation of the Rokeby Venus.  The correct term would be “painting conservators”.  Perhaps “picture-restorers” allowed for a better mental image when discussing the “restored Rokeby Venus”, but still…

“Objectum Sexuals” Watch this documentary!

February 6, 2009

My roommate (an American Studies student) was telling me about a documentary on men who are in love with dolls.  In love love… as in, feeling as though they are having a real relationship similar to one with a human (like the movie Lars and the Real Girl, only these men never ditch the dolls).  The people who made that documentary also filmed one about people who considered themselves “objectum sexuals”– lovers of objects.  The people featured in this documentary (I think called Strange Love: Married to the Eiffel Tower) all happen to be women, but there are also films about men who are in love with their cars and call themselves “mecaphiles.”  

One woman is married to the Eiffel Tower and changed her name to Ericka La Tour Eiffel.  You even watch her consummating their marriage on the film!  There are many good quotes from the doc; it is interesting to hear the way these women talk about objects. 

Please enjoy!

Click here for Part One.

Click here for Part Two.