Part 2, project 1 – contemporary approaches to still life

The background

This first exercise, collect/make/arrange, requires the grouping of a number of objects, loosely related in some way, on a table that can remain in situ for the duration of Part 2. Then to add to the collection by making maquettes (small models used by sculptors as a preliminary ‘sketch’ of some additional object), inspired by a version of Richard Serra’s ‘Verb List’.

MoMA | To Collect

There is reference to George Perec’s Notes Concerning the Objects that are on My Work Table which, from the text, was written just before the outbreak of WWII and lists rather than describes the accumulated items on his desk, many of which relate to smoking, snuff, and writing. Perec laments the decline in writing of enumeration and I wonder if this ‘list that is not quite a list’ is his fish-tail last thrash of rebellion at that.

He and Serra seem to me to have something in common – a need for order in the form of lists and catalogues. Inventories of words and comfort items. Does this give a sense of security? A sytematised framework for containing thoughts that might otherwise break loose?

For Perec, maybe so. This is from his Wikipedia page: “Georges Perec (born George Peretz) (French: [peʁɛk, pɛʁɛk]; 7 March 1936 – 3 March 1982) was a French novelist, filmmaker, documentalist, and essayist. He was a member of the Oulipo group. His father died as a soldier early in the Second World War and his mother was murdered in the Holocaust, and many of his works deal with absence, loss, and identity, often through word play.Georges Perec – Wikipedia. Given his personal losses and the devastation of the cultural losses around him, keeping close to and accounting for every small thing he has seems very likely to give him comfort and security. Or as much as it’s possible to have and experience deeply after something like WWII and the Holocaust.

Serra seems to be a man influenced by heavy industry where his father worked and where he also worked. Brutal physical engineering work in steel mills. It’s no surprise then that he created his list of verbs “titled “Verb List,” that served as catalysts for subsequent work: “to hurl” suggest[ing] the hurling of molten lead into crevices between wall and floor; “to roll” le[ading] to the rolling of the material into dense, metal logs.” (Richard Serra – Wikipedia), as prompts for his work. Again, the list suggests a need for order (and ‘systematise’ is in that list) which may have its roots in the dangerous industrial settings he and his father navigated. Get out of sync there and you could be dead.

I’m fond of a list myself but not this sort. Mine are functional – to do, to buy, to finish; I don’t have that need to itemise anything in my house or consider words at their face value. For me, meaning is everything; a word is nothing without the context and emotional load of its delivery. The objects on my table will likely have some kind of tag that anchors them to a window somewhere in my life.

Gabriel Orozco doesn’t make lists but collects items in shoe boxes. He likes looking at working tables (work tables?), including those of engineers – the ‘tools and and leftovers of something’, according to his introduction to his MoMA exhibition. The work, I think, may be dated 2000 – 2005 and the exhibition 2005. I’m not sure this resonates with me much, although if it were a newly unearthed Saxon cooking area, I know I would be fascinated.

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem ’12 o’clock news’ merits focused attention. It’s a prose poem* which looks less like a poetry than a series of prose paragraphs, and anyone looking for a rhyme will be disappointed.

The first time I read it, without having looked at any of the analyses, I got a sense of distance, of someone viewing terrible events from high up – in a plane perhaps, or to my sci fi mind, a visiting alien ship. The ‘reporter’ doesn’t relate to the people below; it may as well be a film. After reading some of the analyses, I don’t think I was far off. And further, in a commentary about Bishop herself, she is reported to have greeted Gwendolyn Brooks, an African American Pulitzer Prize winning poet who had come to read at a meeting at Harvard, with an anecdote about dressing up in black face as a child (Axelrod, 2014).

But the first link I found was one evidently used for teaching and set a series of questions about it for students to answer. The poem is stuffed with metaphor and symbolism but it helps to know the identity of the items listed by Bishop down the left hand side of her manuscript next to each of the stanzas. The teaching document I’d found pointed this out but didn’t say what the items were, making the questions difficult to address. I failed and went looking for a more helpful piece.

I found two; the first a Slideshare analysis of the poem itself and containing the missing key words, and the second an unattributed Word doc from North Dakota State University ( › ~cinichol › CreativeWriting) showing the poem with the accompanying key words. These are:

  1. Gooseneck lamp
  2. Typewriter
  3. Pile of mss [manuscripts]
  4. Typed sheet
  5. envelopes
  6. Ink bottle
  7. Typewriter eraser
  8. Ashtray

This immediately tells us it’s a writer’s desk and sets it well outside the age of computers. The poem’s publication is dated 1976 and the thrust of its message is thought by most commenters to have been the war in Vietnam. American involvement in this caused social upheaval and protest at the pointlessness of it and the loss of American lives, much of which I remember being reflected in the near negation of the trauma its returning troops experienced.

This poem could not have incorporated that consequence, and in fact presents as a detached news report made from a vantage point of safety and surrounded by familiar items. It looks down on the awfulness with a lack of empathy and makes us, the readers, complicit in this by use of the first person plural, ‘we’. But it’s ambiguous because of its being riddled with symbolic metaphor; all of it self-referential. To me, this says as much about the reporter’s – and maybe Bishop’s – sense of helplessness and constructed detachment in the face of this long running politically driven, war instigated, and divisive conflict. An arbitrary decision to divide a country after WWII (and for a fictionalised account of this, multi award winning The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai can hardly be bettered), the subsequent grinding destructive war between the two factions made arguably worse by American intervention, and the final denouement which left the north and the south of the country to pick itself up and somehow make peace with people, often family members, who had been on the ‘wrong’ side. In a culture with traditions of generational shame, this has been an unrecognised psychological trauma [again, see The Mountains Sing]. I don’t think, though, that the poem goes anywhere near acknowledging that consequence, only its own parochial one of American disgrace.

Declan Long’s discussion of Uri Aran’s ‘mysterious work-tables’ (Long, 2014) is, to my eye, an exercise in over-blown and rather florid writing. The first paragraph alone is gold medal standard lyrical obfuscation – ‘conceptually secretive installations’, ‘traces of agitated creative labour’, ‘busily cryptic bricolage’, and the tortuous, ‘distinct moment within an obscure project of analysis’. Language at the expense of communication.

What I gather from this is that Aran likes to collect things – dog biscuits, leaves, wood shavings, grapes, and a miscellany of other ‘humble’ things which he then puts on tables, or pedestals as Long has it, implying something much less humble. We do seem to agree broadly about Perec and Bishop so I should maybe cut him some slack.

Long is rather more grounded when discussing Aran’s work using passport photos. Here is another man culturally dislocated (Israel to America) and acutely aware of the boundaries and permitted or disallowed transitions that happen there. What you look like can be your passport.

How do I relate this to the current task? I’ve said elsewhere (UPM) that I’m not a collector although people buy me things as though I am. No plates, no Wedgewood, no dolls, no neatly ordered shoes. So I’m not sure yet how will address this task because I haven’t assembled the items. But while Bishop’s perspective is distant and detached, Perec’s more like emotional intimacy – he needs to know those things are there, and Serra, close through direct contact with the items he lists, still distancing himself from any real attachment through functionality. Distant/detached/aloof [protective process?]; emotionally detached but with a pragmatic relationship; and emotionally attached to items perhaps substituting for significant losses. These, to me, are the three perspectives illustrated by Perec, Serra, and Bishop. I’m not sure yet what mine is.

The practical part.

Casting around for a table that could stay in place and that the cats wouldn’t rearrange, I’m embarrassed at how long it took me to come up with this:

This easel tilts flat and, significantly, doesn’t have wheels so if it moves it will be because I’ve deliberately repositioned it. The board is MDF which I’ve coated with black primer. I’m wondering whether or not to put some sheets of coloured paper on it, or film, or maybe packing paper. I should probably choose the objects first.

May 13th and after going through the reading again it seemed to me that I’d already set my scene with the black surface – the common theme for the pre-existing items would be black/white/silver/grey and the handmade ones, brown packaging card or used paper from the printer. The table is positioned under the glass roof of my studio where light shifts all day, and at night I have LEDs and a daylight lamp that will cast different kinds of shadows.

There are two birds, a paper anemone, a lampshade, a book, some squashed tin cans, a white tile, a dismembered shower sponge, pieces of a cardboard tube cut into sections and strung together with brown string, and a rolled up used sheet of A4 paper.

The photographs suggest landscapes and I can make more of those. There is also a kind of recycling/reusing/naturalistic proxy in the items. Birds and the anemone; the packaging and brown string; the undiscarded net sponge; the tins. The book is Strange and Charmed – science and the contemporary arts (Ede [Ed] 2000) which I’m probably not going to be able to read now for a while!

Perec, G. (undated but c 1944) Objects that are on my table. In Species of Spaces and other pieces. Written 1959-1982. Penguin. Pp 144 – 147.

Serras, R. 1967-1968. [online] Available at MoMA | To Collect. Accessed 12 May 2021.

*Prose poem: A prose composition that, while not broken into verse lines, demonstrates other traits such as symbols, metaphors, and other figures of speech common to poetry. From The Poetry Foundation. [online] Available at Prose poem | Poetry Foundation. Accessed 13 May 2021.

Axelrod, S. G. Bishop, History, and Politics. In Cleghorn, A., and Ellis, J. (Eds) The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Bishop. 2014. Cambridge University Press. P 44.

Nguyen Phan Que Mai. 2020. The Mountains Sing. Algonquin Books. Disclaimer: I know Que Mai; we were co-students on the Lancaster Creative Writing MA 2012-2014 and I read many of the early draughts of this novel.

Ede, S. [Ed] 2000. Strange and Charmed – science and the contemporary arts. Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, London.

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