The Unbearable Presence of Objects

IMG_4021Some interesting equivalents of the ‘object’ have emerged recently in contemporary art and the ways it is displayed and curated. At a recent MA seminar some of these were discussed. The object, it was agreed is a concept worth attention, whether in painting, sculpture, time-based media, performance or photography. Indeed, on 17 July, curator and writer Antony Hudek will give a talk at the Whitechapel Gallery to launch ‘The Object’, the most recent publication from the Whitechapel and MIT Press series, Documents of Contemporary Art.

188Perhaps the seminar itself could be constituted as an object, since some terms which surfaced could apply to both: freestanding, part of an archive, more than the text, tangible, order, originality, consumable, narrative, fragment, limited, community, materialization, mobility, transient, configurations, contingencies, process. This appears to indicate that the object can never be separated, perceived or conceptualized outside culture.

‘The Photographic Object’, at the Photographers’ Gallery in 2009 showed contemporary photographs which tested the materiality of the medium. Wolfgang Tillmans, Catherine Yass and Walead Beshty et al. stitched, pierced, punched, scratched and exposed to the elements the photographic surface and its chemical phenomena. These approaches seem to suggest ‘object’ as noun, verb and adverb, implying emphatically and perhaps unconsciously, to the permeation, power and cultural ubiquity of photographic media in all its forms. The dimensions of such ‘regimes of value’ could be considered or find expression in other ways via some of the literature on the object: Donna Harraway, ‘Teddy-bear Patriarchy’ (1993); L. Holiday, ‘Kitchen Technologies: Promises & Alibis’ (2001); Bill Brown, ‘The Tyranny of Things’ (2002); Mary Douglas, ‘Purity & Danger’ (1985); Georges Bataille, ‘The Gift of Rivalry’ (1991); V. Margolin, ‘The Politics of the Artificial’ (2002); Esther Leslie, ‘Synthetic Worlds’ (2005) and Jacques Lacan, ‘The Gaze and the Petit Object A’ (1991).


How objects become agents for power struggles and their potential to evoke ‘conflictual sites of political discourse’ is addressed in a forthcoming conference at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. ‘Curating Conflicts / Disobedient Objects’ includes speakers from the Interference Archive and Liberate Tate. How objects can become or be perceived as ‘disobedient’ and how the museum ‘deals’ with such a condition, sounds compelling. This insinuated deviance of objects seems to contest objects’ essential qualities of ‘thingness’ and by association, the nature of the archive.

Elizabeth Grosz has proposed that ‘the thing’ is where we perceive our limits and what we measure ourselves against – it is the mirror of what we are not. The perfected fabricated surfaces, kitsch colour and shimmering ‘thingness’ of Jeff Koons’ work are resistant to marks and traces of the past. His sculptures and paintings defy, what Grosz has argued, what we fear most: the enigmatic, the ‘revenge of the blob’, and the non-living. Shininess denies states of emergence, potential immateriality, decrepitude and the biological and unpredictable indeterminations of the body.


The essential nature of the object could be considered to include matter and substance. The transfigurative properties of objects and borderline states of matter were explored in a work by an alumna, recently exhibiting in London. A ghostly sublime of ephemeral fleeting viral-like forms flowed across the installation space where cone-like structures dissolved in light. Transient, organic-like shapes constructed from tiny plastic packaging materials, transmuted through shadow, light and film. Slightly malevolent-seeming flecks, existing on the ‘threshold of the unnoticed’ appeared to be brought into the realm of the seen simultaneously making visible and transforming that which was hidden. The work suggested that a condition of perpetual flux and movement, mapping a space of continual change, is where objects ultimately disintegrate.


In ‘Objects For…and Other Things’ Phyllida Barlow asserts that she is ‘still looking for the single object, the object that can exist on its own’, yet her work seems to be all about relationships – between colour, form, materiality, space and the body and subject. Hers is a relational practice, of presence, affinity and processes where matter is substance and surface. Barlow’s commission, ‘untitled: dock’ at Tate Britain de-familiarises its architectural space, seemingly to draw on the nature of interiority in its lack of edges and boundaries: literally one (damned) thing after another.

288Further Links: Whitechapel Gallery, Photographers GalleryInterference Archive, Liberate TatePhyllida Barlow, Elizabeth Grosz, Esther Leslie, Victoria and Albert Museum