Books

What Is an Object?

by Michael Blum on April 23, 2014

(all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

(all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Before even opening The Object, Whitechapel Gallery and the MIT Press’s latest installment in the Documents of Contemporary Art series, the book’s title stares back, interpolates itself, asking questions: What is an object? Which object? Aestheticized and spiritualized objects, like the artwork or the idol? Or flotsam and jetsam, rejected objects and other dejecta? Can we consider imaginary things objects — dreams, concepts, others still more formless? And what about objects that, though dead or lifeless, are nonetheless not mute, like fossils, glyphs, and other excavated objects, which can be animated and made to speak across centuries? Indeed, how are we to think about this rapport between objects and subjects? And what role does this subject play — the one who apprehends, dominates, and make use of the object?

The Object, edited by Antony Hudek, proliferates and attends to these kinds of questions. The book’s aim is to defamiliarize the inquiry into the object, as well as expand the perception and experience of the object in more everyday, playful, or artistic contexts. As Hudek writes in his introduction:

Objects are not reducible to the material, perceptible, and consumable goods we commonly refer to as ‘objects.’ The world of objects, however ‘ordinary,’ is a trove of disguises, concealments, subterfuges, provocations and triggers that no singular, embodied, and knowledgeable subject can exhaust.

The book’s survey of the “world of objects” takes the reader through the domains of art (both its practice and criticism), theory, science, politics, literature, as well as less rehearsed, more sui generis engagements with the subject.

Gabriel Orozco, “Sandstars” (detail) (photo by Kyle Chayka)

For those unfamiliar with Whitechapel’s ongoing series, Documents of Contemporary Art is a collection of anthologies, each one dedicated to the elaboration, interrogation, and illustration of a single theme, such as memory, ruins, participation, dance, and failure. Each book is comprised of a number of texts in the expanded sense: selections include essays, manifestos, artist statements, interviews, poems, and other textual material like magazine clippings and transcriptions of performed events.

Page from 'The Object'

Page from ‘The Object’

What distinguishes The Object in an essential way from many of its sibling volumes is its structure and the multiple parameters for reading that this structure allows, not to say dictates. Whereas previous books in the series are comprised predominantly of longer, more conventional essay-type pieces, The Object is formed out of an abundant constellation of excerpts, many of which don’t even exceed a page’s length. (The Object’s table of contents is more than three pages longer than Participation’s.) Owing to this dispersed formation, the book summons the active involvement of the reader to organize meaning and navigate more personal trajectories through the disparate — and in some cases opposing or incompatible — texts. The reader can also duck in, consume a page or a paragraph, and then set the book back down. Either way, The Object is not a uniform literary product with definitive boundaries and prescribed modes of reading.

The book is a choral work — and nearly a cacophonous one at that. But there is nonetheless some order to it. The first section, “Subject, Object, Thing,” serves as the philosophical scaffolding. In it can be found a grasp of the object as it occurs in the (mostly French and German) philosophical tradition of the 20th century. Hudek draws upon structuralist psychoanalytic theory, for example citing Lacan’s text on the “true secret” of the thing (das Ding), which stands for the dumb object that precedes and therefore resides outside of representation, consciousness, and language. As an ontological analog to Lacan’s argument, there is Marcus Steinweg’s defense of the foreignness and uncanniness of the object, or in his words, the “side of the object that is necessarily turned away from the subject.”

Though it’s the dominant trend, the texts in this section don’t exclusively study the object from so abstract a perspective. Hito Steyerl’s “A Thing Like You and Me,” another highlight, proposes a renewed consideration of the image as a material thing subject to contingent forces and energies, rather than an idealized representation: “[the] image is … a thing simultaneously couched in affect and availability, a fetish made of crystals and electricity, animated by our wishes and fears—a perfect embodiment of its own conditions of existence.”

TheObject1The rest of the book takes aim at the object from the perspective of its obsolescence, its everydayness, its use and standardization, its psychological projection, its role in performance, its monolithic presence, its function as a memory agent, and its occurrence in art from the classical medium (marble, canvas) to the readymade to the post-medium art object and beyond. The object is explained, attacked, defended, and mystified. It is treated sentimentally or plaintively — for example, by Song Dong, who enlists objects in his mourning of his mother and other passed family: “The reason I’ve tried, by every means possible, to hold on to these things is so as to extend their lives.” Statements like these are accompanied and practically countered by pragmatic, sardonic, but still lyrical formulations, such as Louise Bourgeois’s “Do not fall for the fetish you can do better, do not waste your / time. example: the because clothes from your youth — so what — sacrifice them, eaten by the moths. is it a sacrifice yes it is.”

Ultimately, the book is a messy but fleshy and substantial weave of very diverse material, and is therefore meant more to be used — as reference, inspiration, education. One may also choose to take some of its lessons more seriously and manipulate the book, convert it, and use it beyond how it was meant: as a doorstop, an oversized coaster, a bludgeon, as tinder, as decoration (it’s not a bad looking book), or as a present to an MFA candidate you know who, inside or outside the classroom, is liable to complain about “society’s” limited conceptions of objects and objectivity.

The Object, edited by Antony Hudek, is available from the MIT Press.

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