Sunday, February 12, 2012

Something I can put in a box and look at

This is a really beautiful thought on human relationships from Virginia Woolf, written on August 8, 1928, in her diary:
"Eddy has just gone, leaving me the usual feeling: why is not human intercourse more definite, tangible: why aren't I left holding a small round substance, say of the size of a pea, in my hand; something I can put in a box and look at?"

Watcha got in your pockets?

Dutch website with a collection of photographs of the stuff (or "treasures") that emerged from people's coat pockets. It's a fun site where you can explore what others found in their pockets as it invites you to photograph the contents of your pockets and add your bit to the collection.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


I like the idea of the pocket as it is so intangible. In itself it is nothing, when the pocket is taken out of its context it is just a bag. But the space of the pocket has to do with concealment, closeness, availability, and both importance and unimportance. We keep our keys in our pockets, but similarly we have scraps of paper, unwanted receipts, lost hairelastics, loose change, or again, big notes we are too afraid to carry in our wallets.

And pockets are almost always in pairs.

Here are my favourite bits from 'Fanny's Pockets'

Barbara Burman and Jonathan White, ‘Fanny’s Pockets: Cotton, consumption and Domestic Economy, 1780-1850’ in Batchelor and Kaplan (eds) Women and Material Culture, 1660-1830 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), pp. 31-51.

p. 31 ‘Tie-on pockets were immense, certainly by comparison with the sewn-in alternatives that emerged and became increasingly dominant during the Nineteenth century. Most commonly, they were between 30 and 40 cm in length. Women could keep a dazzling array of items in such large spaces. The records of trials for pickpocketing offenses at the Old Baily in the eighteenth century give us such items as coins, bills of exchange, trade tokens, fashion accessories such as gloves, jewellery, watches, buttons, earrings and mirrors, sewing equipment such as scissors, needles, thimbles and penknives, eating utensils such as spoons and knives, as well as implements for negotiating the urban environment such as keys, purses and letters of testament.’

p. 32 ‘The history of these objects and the social worlds within which they were produced and used, it is argued, requires a thoroughly interdisciplinary inquire which can draw on histories of technology, trade, business and broader processes of socio-economic change, alongside a newer attention to the material properties of objects and a similar recognition of the importance of literary and visual culture records and methods.’

p. 43, 44 (referring to the novel Grandmamma’s Pockets, By Anna Maria Hall, 1849) ‘The grandmother owns several pairs of pockets: an embroidered or decorated satin pair for special occasions such as festivals, a pair of hand-quilted pockets, and her everyday pockets. (...) A flighty young girl is made to learn habits of economy in order to control her industrious but careless tendencies. This message is embodied in a beloved grandmother’s pockets. Her grandmamma made a decided distinction between these large receptacles. The right-handed pocket might be considered an active member of society – a positive fountain, pouring forth what was wanted: the left-hand pocket, on the contrary, was a reservoir wherein everything was preserved. One typified the spirit of activity, the other that of carefulness. “I should be in a state of confusion without my two pockets,” the old lady would say. “What I wanted to preserve, would get confused with what I wanted to use; and as I have told you my dear leetle granddaughter, no matter how we realise; unless we preserve, we shall neither be useful nor rich”.'

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Charmed Life: the Solace of Objects

The Wellcome Collection
6 October 2011 - 26 February 2012
"Charmed Life: The Solace of Objects"

"It seems that the soul... loses itself in itself when shaken and disturbed unless given something to grasp on to; and so we must always provide it with an object to butt up against and to act upon."
- Michel de Montaigne, Essais, 1580.

The collection of Edwardian amateur folklorist Edward Lovett is displayed by artist Felicity Powell in a great horseshoe lit from below. It is a collection made up of other people's lucky charms, small enough to fit in the pocket and carry around with you. They all belonged to Londoners. The leaflet explains how 'Despite being long divorced from their original owners, these objects seemed to retain an insistent sense that they might yet hold some hidden magic.' These amulets are further 'tiny embodiments of the anxieties we feel about our human frailties'. 'Powell', the leaflet explains, 'was intrigued by the silent witness theybore to countless personal narratives, most of which are now lost to history.' So with these highly personal charms, the intrigue is said to be placed both on a slightly voyeuristic impulse to witness the private and personal anxieties of people now long gone, as well as on a greater impulse to connect the personal to the masses, to see the individual as a sign of the collective state of being human.

The collection is divided into the various uses for, and constitutions of these charms, ranging from "against lightning" to "foodstuffs and journey" to "game charms", "varied hearts" etc. The explanations that elucidate the individual objects further come from Edward Lovett's book Magic in Modern London (1925) which offers a tiny biography of the object, ranging from the specific describing a cow keeper with a cow's heart, to the widespread use of coral in charms.

Felicity Powell further shows her own artwork, inspired by these charms. She works with wax and creates small images on mirror-backs.

What seems to be specific about this exhibition is that the objects are so small but seem to carry a great weight, not only for the person who once carried it in his pocket, but also for the one standing in the horseshoe and examining these charms with his nose perched above the glass to get a closer look. Indeed, there are magnifying glasses lying on the surface, although these do not really work through the glass and only serve to make large blurs. Especially with charms, the object is not simply its physical form. The acorn is not simply a representation of an acorn, the tiny shoe is not simply a representation of a shoe. They are also the story of the person who used it for protection or whatever other reason, the story of human myth, the confrontation of the human condition, a slice of historical time etc. etc.