“Walter Benjamin understood the true collector’s collection as a ‘magic encyclopedia’. Such a collection is animated. It acquires a life of it’s own. What is more, when objects are added to it they undergo a rebirth as they are placed in this new context.”
Taussig, M. Art and Magic and Real magic. P26, Franzidis, E. (ed). (2014) Drawing Down The Moon. Brisbane, Australia: Institute of Modern Art.
“According to Benjamin this language of things is mute, it is magical and it’s medium is material community.”
Steyerl, H. (2006) The Language of Things, http://eipcp.net/transversal/0606/steyerl/en
Over the years I’ve had many collections; collections of objects that I felt were significant in some way, collections of images that I wanted to return to and put into order (these orders would change as I revisited them), collections of items I wanted to make something out of, to change into another object that becomes a new thing by the sum of it’s parts. In a way they were all potential collages, both two dimensional and three dimensional. Why do collections appear to have their own innate power? Adding or subtracting from them can change their very nature and the nature of the new addition or subtraction.
Benjamin suggests that objects have their own innate language that is expressed in their relationships to each other. (Steyerl, H. (2006) The Language of Things ). We, as humans, come along and name them, try to impose, vocalise, amplify their language with our own. Benjamin refers to this as the Language of Judgement which I suppose means that the Things (capital T!) allow each other to be content with their original thingness while we are unable to resist imposing our own language upon them.
I have seen these ideas expressed in the Mikala Dwyer’s ‘Additions and Subtractions’ works, the collections of objects that create a conversation between themselves and a magical space in which to exist and explore their ‘thingness’. The works are never the same and Dwyer is never sure what they are going to be, bringing large numbers of objects with her and then responding to the environment and the relationships of the objects to each other and their surrounds. The circles created in the ‘Additions and Subtractions’ works create an otherworldly space within their circumference that is created by their conversations with each other. Sometimes, as in ‘An Apparition of a Subtraction’ (2010) Dwyer will add other elements to the collections such as smoke and sound to create a ‘sonic object’ within the circle. She also utilises materials and forms that draw on her family history; blocks of stone from Cockatoo Island where her parents lived and shapes from her mothers jewellery making practice (see Goldene Bend’er, 2013).
Dwyer tries to limit her ‘language of judgement’ by allowing her Things to realise their own language.
“I try to get to a point where things can speak for themselves rather than having me impose my voice upon them.”
Mikala Dwyer in conversation with Robert Leonard. p57 Franzidis, E. (ed). (2014) Drawing Down The Moon. Brisbane, Australia: Institute of Modern Art.
I really enjoy the variety of size and materials in Dwyers objects. The same form may be repeated over and over but take on a completely different life depending on it’s dimensions and materiality. I also appreciate the way they create windows and vignettes for each other, giving the viewer new perspectives and insight into the conversations between the Things.
“The circle then becomes a defined space of activity in which the conversations between forms matter far more than the forms themselves. This reversal of focus, from the installation’s positive solidity to the negative spaces it leaves, is similar to the experience of a séance, which invites participants to believe certain arrangements of objects and bodies in space will create electrical fields that enable spirits to transform or reappear.”
Byrt, A. Prism Break. P12, Franzidis, E. (ed). (2014) Drawing Down The Moon. Brisbane, Australia: Institute of Modern Art.
I would go so far as to say that the above idea can be related to much ceremonial ritual practice, where the gathering of specifically chosen Things creates an energy between both the Things and the practitioner that enables the experience of the otherworldly. The language of the Things imparts an importance to the ceremony that enables the practitioner to believe in the ritual and remove the conscious (and skeptical) mind from the proceedings. Michael Taussig suggests that Mikala Dwyer exhibits both scepticism and faith in equal measure (Taussig, M. Art and Magic and Real magic. P26, Franzidis, E. (ed). (2014) Drawing Down The Moon. Brisbane, Australia: Institute of Modern Art.) and this is an idea I relate to in my own work and, indeed, my own life. I’m an entirely skeptical atheist but at the same time inexplicably drawn to the occult, the esoteric, the otherworldly. I don’t see these stances as being oppositional to each other, indeed the flourishing of occult practice in conjunction with the emergence of Modernism around the turn of the last century brings together metaphysical thinking with the western scientific worldview in a strange amalgamation of the rational and the mystical. Friedrich Fröbel’s rather mystical thinking produced the Kindergarten movement which exerted a significant effect on certain Modernist schools. And Dwyer herself utilises a form of modernist, esoteric practice in the way she assembles her Things, using a Fröbel-esque approach to uncovering the objects relationships to each other.
It seems that the interplay between the Things is strongest and most ‘electric’ when the collection is heterogeneous, when the objects clash, confuse and challenge. This can be seen in Dwyers circle works as much as on in the collections of magical practitioners. The image below shows a West African Voudou altar where Catholic icons sit side by side with jewellery, traditional pottery, stones, snakes and offerings of food and drink.
When looking at Dwyers collections of Things it’s easy to see them reflected in the magical collections of both traditional shamanic ritual and of western ceremonial tradition, as well as their relationship to the ‘magic encyclopedia’ that Walter Benjamin describes. Michael Taussig makes a connection between Things and the human relationship to the otherworldly:
“Could it be that magical practice through the ages needs things so as to maintain a relationship with the non-human, thing world?”
Taussig, M. Art and Magic and Real magic. P27, Franzidis, E. (ed). (2014) Drawing Down The Moon. Brisbane, Australia: Institute of Modern Art.
Maybe it does, especially if Things speak the language of creation, or as Benjamin described it, the residue of the word of god. (Benjamin, W. (1916) On Language as Such and on the Language of Man, http://users.clas.ufl.edu/burt/chaucer’swake/LanguageofMan.pdf