A Call to Collect

The split canine teeth of a fox, now held in a little glass jar labelled H5070 2-3mm. Bleached by the eternal Iceland sun before I took it with me to the mundane weather of Holland.

The skull of what I first thought was a cat but what eventually turned out to be a marten. It lay half buried in a wasteland near Breda.

A circular and spiralling slice of wood shaving, originating from the workplace of my father. The wood might be birch, or not, my father would know.

A tiny burr which I plied carefully from a tree, made black with Indian ink for an art school assignment. I can’t remember why it had to be inkblack.

A piece of volcanic rock from Volcán Mombacho, resembling body tissue in both colour and texture. Not in softness however.

The pyrene of an unknown plant whose exterior mimics leaf veins. When I shake it I feel that it contains something.

The seed of a mucuna plant found on a deserted beach in Puerto Rico. When held just right it looks like the horizontal pupil of a goat.

The dried-out test of a sand dollar, found on the same beach. Unfortunately the dollar broke on the flight back to the Netherlands.

A softly shaped piece of sandstone which I found on the banks of the IJssel whilst walking with my parents. Every time someone picks it up I’m afraid it will break.

A pair of pliers so completely covered in dark red rust that they won’t open anymore. My father found a matching nail later that walk.

An almost crumbling lump of wood which smells slightly of sulphur, pierced by six small straight tunnels. I don’t know who or what might’ve caused those but it makes me wonder.

Five short branches containing twelve soft catkins. I picked these once for a girlfriend who liked cats.

The weathered horn of a cow, removed from a weathered skull because I could not carry it in its entirety. My sister looked on as I separated them and merely shook her head.

A washed up and dried hard bit of seaweed in the form of a four-fingered hand. I wrote a poem about it and the first line said “I will not show you what I have”.

All these objects were gathered throughout my life and all of them contain snippets of my life. They serve as a reminder of those singular moments, idiosyncratic in the memories they carry with them. I think, for instance, that for my sister the cow horn would recall an entirely different set of memories then that it does for me. I found the cow skull whilst we were all hiking together in the Peruvian Andes. Me and my parents were visiting her during the summer of 2018, when she was still living in Lima, Peru. Later, when my sister was back in the Netherlands, I videophoned her to ask where it was exactly that I found the horn. After explaining what I was writing about, she looked at me, surrounded by all these objects, frowned, and replied “Ah, that explains all the clutter”.

It is not that my sister does not collect stuff, objects or knickknacks, it’s just that she collects a different kind of ‘clutter’. Her curios overall appear to be more man-made, more culturally inclined, or things she’s received as a gift from people who are important to her. Not so much seeds which look like goat-eyes when you squint. She has these small, pocket-sized, metal containers of vaseline from Peru, Vaselina Reuter – con perfume – PESO: 18g, which she’s very fond of. In the middle of the round lid sits a dainty portrait of a Victorian lady. You can buy them in small, family-run general stores, by the white glare of fluorescent lights. I think they remind my sister of the time she spend there, acting almost as a mnemonic device. But where mnemonic devices often help us remember specific information, TV-TAS for the order of the Wadden Islands for instance, objects can almost take us back to the moment when that first memory was created. The tactility, slick and/or grainy, the smell, sharp and/or enticing, the shape, continues and/or edged, the sounds, reverent and/or blasphemous, the taste, prickling and/or silky, the colour, lustrous and/or demure, the feeling. A combination of all these things, and something more.

Objects differ further from the mnemonic in that the gathered thing often only has this sensory, memorial meaning for their collector. It has the genuineness that Walter Benjamin reserved for the original artwork in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. “The genuineness of a thing is the quintessence of everything about it since its creation that can be handed down, from its material duration to the historical witness that it bears” (233). To me this is also true of the objects I have gathered over the years. There was something (their genuineness?) in them that urged me to collect them. To me the objects are not merely vessels, they have an agency of their own. They retain some of my memories just as I retain some of theirs. The smooth piece of sandstone I picked up is moulded by memories of its own. From about 1450 till 1850 sandstone was mainly transported from and through the County of Bentheim via the Overijsselse Vecht. This piece might well have fallen off a 16th century barge, tumbled across the riverbed, through the Zwarte Water and into the IJssel. Only to eventually be picked up by my hands and placed on a bookshelf in Utrecht. It is formed by powers utterly alien to me, yet it informs me of them. Eons of erosion, the flowing water of the IJssel coming from the Rhine, the cold wind of the 1963 winter, the mass movement caused by gravitational pull and push. All of this and possibly, probably, more have made it what (who) it is today. I am reminded, not just of walking with my parents on a windy day, but also of the stone’s own movements, be they mental or physical.

For me the taking of photos shares many similarities with the gathering of objects and photographs are in many ways similar to objects. In 2013 I was in my final year studying photography at the Akademie voor Kunst en Vormgeving Sint Joost in Breda. In my thesis I had to reflect upon my creative process, in which the gathering of objects played a large role:

“Een ander onderdeel van mij als autonoom fotograaf is het verzamelen van natuurobjecten. Dit is van jongs af aan al een hobby geweest, waardoor ik het vaak los koppelde van mijn kunstenaarschap … De vraag was echter hoe ik dit kon integreren in mijn foto’s. In eerste instantie fotografeerde ik zoals dat in de wetenschap ook wordt gedaan, zo objectief mogelijk. Dit gaf niet weer hoe ik mij verhield tot deze objecten. De interactie die ik had met deze natuurobjecten voelde veel persoonlijker dan wat het beeld liet zien … Het waren juist de kwaliteiten die een object met zich meebracht, zoals tactiliteit, echtheid en de tastbaarheid die ik zo belangrijk vond. Deze eigenschappen gaan verloren bij het nemen van een foto”

Besides the cringe-inducing pretentiousness of a 22-year old me, I find it interesting to see how much my perspective on the relationship between photos and artefacts has changed. I saw the object and the photograph as two separate entities, two seemingly disparate fields. The 28-year old me, however, sees them more as two sides of the same coin. A photograph is just as much a nexus of hybrid memories as an object is. Both allow for the capture of a single, personal experience (the discovery of some thing or the clicking of the camera mirror) and manage to extend its meaning in time and space. An integration of the two can only help to strengthen the memory that lies behind them. The sensory qualities of an object add to a photo of the object, and the photograph in turn can add a sense of locality or emphasize certain aspects of the object.

Konijn

As is customary at the art academy, we had a concluding exhibition at the end of the year. Four years of hard work had led to this point. The image above was one of several pieces I showed at the exhibition. In the years since my graduation I have made many, many, other photographs, but I still return to this one most often. The photo is a gathering of countless different memories. It is not only the creative culmination of my time spent at the academy in Breda, but also a map of my life, the objects themselves and the photograph.

The photograph we see contains another photograph of dirt-covered roots, which entangled and twisted themselves through the topsoil of the Liesbos near Breda. A tuft of tangled rabbit fur, together with some small bones they were all that was left to mark some forgotten tragedy alongside the A58. The abdomen of a solitary bumblebee, which I still have in my possession but no longer know where I found it. A cut-out from a photograph of a milk thistle-leaf, which was taken at the beginning of summer as cars sped by near the Princeville intersection. And the blackened husk of a plant root which I found in the Liesbos one dreary day.

Placed carefully together the objects and the photo strengthen each other. They serve to steer the mind towards the shores of ever-changing memories, connecting wisps of rabbit fur, plant roots and bumblebees with personal experiences. These connections and memories will be different for everyone, just like the cow horn means something different to my sister. Every photo taken and every object gathered can help us feel more connected to the world. The steering of memories and mapping of the mind makes me think of the stick charts made by the native inhabitants of the Marshall Islands. Used until the end of the Second World War, these charts allowed the Marshallese to navigate the Pacific Ocean by canoe. The stick charts were made of coconut fronds, with shells or lashed junctions of two or more sticks used to indicate island locations. They were tied together in an open frame and represented major ocean swell patterns and the way in which the islands disrupted these. The maps were made and memorized by individual navigators, who were often also the only ones who knew how to read them. Sitting down in the canoe they could apparently feel where they were by the rise and swell of the rolling ocean. The stick charts, as such, can be seen as literal representations of their connection to the ocean. Contained within these coconut frames are their memories of and experiences with the ocean. Each shell an island, every fibre a wave, sea salt crunching as they run their fingers along the sticks, their mind sailing across the sea. Just as the small vaseline box might transport my sister back to the streets of Lima. People talking rapid Spanish, fluorescent light glaring, the familiar lilting notes of a grackle. Just as my photograph and its artefacts makes me relive the days spent walking through the Liesbos and along the A58. The sudden honking of trucks too close by, endlessly wandering through bush and shrub, the clicking of my camera. The endless interplay between objects, photographs and memory is what can ultimately remind us of our place in the world.

map

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