Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Soul of Things

by Drew Martin

When I am in a foreign land, where everything seems different, I am often struck by the universal familiarity of a dog or a cat. When I see a Volkswagen bus in or near Germany, however, I am a bit surprised. I always think "Don't you belong in California?" It's odd because while some animals and even objects may have a certain attitude of their locale, the VW bus seems soulless when not being toured up and down the Pacific Coast by neo-hippies with bundles of sage on the dashboard or transformed to some eccentric's taste. Back in the Fatherland the vehicle seems utilitarian and generic.

Marcel Duchamp came across as an aesthetic prankster when he proposed products such as a urinal, bottle rack, bicycle wheel and snow shovel as art objects but what he actually did was bring attention to the sensibility of things that seemed lost in the modern world.

The animation of machines with electricity and fuels made it easy for humans to comprehend the life of something mechanical. In the Cuban film "Fresa y chocolate" one character speaks to his refrigerator and even threatens it at times. Duchamp reloaded simple objects with personality not seen since the middle ages, when swords, shields, cloaks and rings were saturated with personality and meaning.

In a modern twist on this, the Precious ring of The Lord of the Rings series, controls the will of its owner. Such a personal trait can even been seen as far back as The Odyssey, with Ulysses' bow. He is the only man who can string it and load it with an arrow. This object is not just prop for a test of manliness, but an obeying partner and a metaphor for his (re)union with Penelope in the face of less deserving suitors.

Modern artists since Duchamp have played with the personality of objects, beyond his ready-mades. Claes Oldenburg made a post-coital soft drum set, while Jeff Koons cast a stainless steel inflatable rabbit, which he has expressed having the aura of an ancient sun god. Certainly Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate, a.k.a. the Bean in Chicago has a mesmerizing draw on people.

In my own possession I have two found objects that I keep close because of their personalities. One is Petina, a mass produced lawn deer, whose demise has given it a unique disposition. The other is the casing for an outdoor motorboat propeller, I call Polyphemus (pictured right - named after the blinded cyclops from The Odyssey) whose darkened orifices reference the blinded eye and screaming mouth of the giant.