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.