At the opening of Object Migration on January 12, the second show in the migration year of Proteus Gowanus, I witnessed something unusual to such an event: quiet contemplation.
Lining the bookshelves and encircling the room are objects contributed by participants who were invited to lend an object to the show and include with it the object’s migratory story. These handwritten details of the object, its history and the significance it carries can be found on yellow 3×5” notecards alongside the objects.
Objects in the show include a petrified potato, a portable church, glass from the first atomic detonation in 1945 (hopefully not still radioactive), hipbones from an elk, bird stomach contents, a toilet tank part, and many others. There is a quip from a scorned lover accompanying a hotel shampoo tube, an ecological proposition with a pile of bread tags, and a number of objects of personal significance to the contributors. There was a mixture of inquiry, incredulity, and nostalgic pondering in the room as guests at the opening would pick up a set of index cards and travel on their own quiet journey.
Watching people interact with the objects brought to mind a class on collage that I was the teaching assistant for in graduate school. Specifically, it made me think of the one assignment that students struggled with, term after term: material meaning. It is an assignment that requires working with an object in a subtractive way, stripping it of the meanings placed upon it (like “this is my favorite”, or, “I remember when”) and try to see, to listen to what the materials themselves might communicate.
Perhaps it was the hardest to teach, because it is the hardest to discern, so ingrained is our habit of jumping from the raw details of a material to the use value of an object in our own lives.
We all know that each and every object that we come in contact with is the product of complicated systems of production, of economics and international politics. Hold a smartphone in your hand and you carry with you imbricated issues of class, race, wealth and poverty, union struggles and health and safety concerns, suicides off the roof of the Foxconn building.
If we listen closely to the objects displayed in Object Migration, we hear a lot of stories whispered and sung by plastic bottle caps and mass-produced cardboard, by candy wrappers and, of course, all those shiny rings holding together each little pile of index cards. In the quiet moments of the opening, there emerged complicated choruses of voices, each with different tonal structures, scales, and rhythms.
As Proteus pairs down and gestures back to basic material meaning, the meanings multiply, revealing more and more complex systems to sort through and try to follow, to retrace the migratory routes. We look forward to your participation throughout the exhibition as we all learn more about the objects that have filled our lives.