Has an object ever snuck up on you?
There you are, living your life and minding your own business. Maybe you see or use an object every day but never give it much thought one way or the other… and then it happens. The object has performed a stealth maneuver, and all at once it hits you that this object contains meaning. It has become linked to a memory or an experience, or simply worn you down with its steadfast presence. Or maybe it has become intertwined with other more precious objects to form an assemblage, and now you could never manage to think of any of these objects without the others. Now, suddenly, you would hesitate to throw this object away, and you might feel sad if it were lost.
When such manifestations of objects’ agency occur in the case of objects meaningful to our collective cultural consciousness – such as with the wooden box that became irrevocably intertwined with the Taung Child fossil, as written about in a past post by Dr. Lydia Pyne – we might consider that such instances reveal a glimpse of something important or even profound about our relationship to objects. But what if the sneaky object isn’t, either by itself or its associations, anything nearly so grand? How are you (the victim?) meant to respond to this sort of emotional hijacking? I can say firsthand, because I was overtaken by a disposable plastic salad container this past Thursday, that my initial reaction was to feel distinctly unnerved, closely followed by a huge dose of embarrassment. Here’s how it all went down:
In the process of researching my dissertation on falconry material culture, I was fortunate enough to spend a few days last fall with the hood maker Jacques van Gerven and his wife at their home in the Netherlands. Jacques had demonstrated the making process for me, and it had been decided that I would take two of the finished hoods home. We were casting about for something to put the hoods in so that they wouldn’t get smashed inside my suitcase, when Mrs. van Gerven came out of the kitchen with an empty plastic salad container.
The container is a round plastic tub, which, according to the label, is meant to hold one kilogram of Farmer Salade – a food I’ve unfortunately never seen firsthand nor had the pleasure of eating. The container is surely meant to be disposed of once its seal is broken and its contents are finished, but its plastic construction is sturdy enough that Mrs. van Gerven is likely far from being the only one ever to rinse it out and store it in a cupboard for reuse. Relevant for our immediate hood-preservation needs, the dimensions of the container allowed both hoods to fit inside without being squished, while still pressing against each other and the container’s sides so as to not slide around.
I brought the hoods back to London nestled in their salad container, and meant to both display them at home and obtain a ‘more suitable’ box. Neither of these things happened. The hoods remained in their salad container, which ended up sitting next to my bed. I’m still trying to remember how it managed to intrude so far into my personal space. There have been several occasions since I’ve come into possession of the hoods that I’ve taken them somewhere to show them off. Each time, I would take the salad container from my bedside, open the container at my destination to remove the hoods, and then carefully replace them in the container to bring them home. The container would somehow make its way back to my bedside. Even when showing the hoods off at home (accept my dinner invitations at your own risk), the container would come out of the bedroom, the hoods would be displayed, and then immediately returned to the salad container. I didn’t really give any thought to the salad container itself, except to semi-apologize whenever it made its appearance, acknowledging that I am indeed aware that it makes an incongruous receptacle for falconry hoods and that I would certainly be replacing it soon.
The salad container revealed its intentions this past Thursday, when I brought the hoods to the V&A so that they can be part of our History of Design display at the upcoming RCA Graduate Show. As I walked toward the Tube, the salad container bumping against my diary inside my bag for the umpteenth time, I finally registered its presence – the fact that this was the umpteenth time, that the hoods have really never been out of the presence of the salad container since their making, that the opening and closing of the salad container had somehow become part of the presentation of the hoods, that I would constantly have to move the container out of the shot when taking photos of the hoods, that the salad container had spent so much time by my bedside – all of that. I had known for the past several months that I felt very attached to the falconry hoods, as an extension of my interest in my project and my affection for the van Gervens, but somehow the salad container, of all things, had snuck its way into my affections as well, and now had become a part of that assemblage. Now, it wasn’t just ‘hood+hood’; it had become ‘hood+hood+salad container’ and I had therefore been suckered into caring about a salad container as part of a three-for-the-price-of-two special. It was, as I mentioned earlier, very unnerving. And embarrassing, especially when it came to handing over the hoods to our kind and long-suffering Show Team. Rather against my will, I found myself emphasizing that the hoods really ought to please stay in the salad container and be returned to me inside the salad container, and I wondered if the dissertation process had exacted its final toll on my sanity.
Before I let the hoods go I snapped a few more photos, this time with the salad container squarely in the frame (sort of a family portrait?), because it had become clear I would be writing this post.
To come back to my earlier question, how is one to feel when an object exerts its agency like this? I felt unnerved by such a clear demonstration of agency, but in fact I am fascinated by that agency, and thinking about that agency is a fundamental part of my work as a design historian. What is there to feel so unsettled about? Perhaps it is the extent of that feeling, coupled with the embarrassment, that provides the clue; and it reveals more about me as a person than it reveals about the object. Whether or not we make it explicit, we rank objects in order of their ‘worthiness’ to engage our emotions, and I am patently not ‘supposed’ to be feeling any sort of attachment to a disposable salad container. Hence my feeling of shock and embarrassment at inadvertently succumbing to the salad container’s socially inappropriate advances. Should I be feeling this embarrassment? Does my embarrassment make me an object snob, and should I therefore attempt to transcend it? After all, if the salad container was a more culturally acclaimed object – or, not a disposable one, the very least – my feelings in this situation might be very different.
Now that I think about it more, maybe I should be embarrassed about feeling embarrassed. There is definitely a moral here about being more open-minded about how we rank our objects – what feeling embarrassment about an attachment to an object might say about a need to view the agency of supposedly mundane objects in a different light; and how this reassessment is vital if we are not to unthinkingly privilege certain objects above others, especially when moving between different cultural and temporal contexts. However, this is no easy task. Even while attempting to think critically about this situation, I am a product of my subjectivity and I have an almost overwhelming need to reassure you that I haven’t lost all sense of ‘perspective’. I know full well where our society expects the disposable salad container to rank in relation to other objects, and I will tell you that I certainly privilege the hoods inside. If the salad container gets lost in the shuffle of Show preparations and breakdown, as long as the van Gerven hoods are returned to me, then I admit I might be a bit disappointed but it won’t be the end of the world. But… I guess it still would be nice to have that salad container back.
Have you seen any objects that intrigued you lately? Perhaps you have encountered something that piqued your curiosity in a museum or gallery (or in a shop or in the street?), or as part of your art or design practice, as part of your research, or as part of your daily life. Please don’t be shy! We welcome submissions on objects of all sorts, between 500 and 1,500 words, and we do ask that you own the rights to your images or use those belonging to the V&A. If you aren’t sure if your idea is right for our column, it certainly never hurts to ask, so please get in touch with us: email@example.com
Emily Aleev-Snow –
Emily graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 2004 with a BA in East Asian Studies, with a particular focus on Edo Period Japan. After joining the Asian strand of the V&A/RCA History of Design MA, she has broadened the scope of her interests to a more global focus, asking questions about what objects can tell us about the sharing of knowledge across geographies. For her dissertation, Emily will be exploring the role of the practice of falconry as a medium of global exchange in the Early Modern period through its material culture.
© Emily Aleev-Snow 2014. All Rights Reserved