In Patrick Sykes’ recent Inkling article about the artist John Sergeant, he draws attention to a series of images showing two friendship rings.
Patrick writes, ‘when abstracted to still lives the images echo one another without any setting to illustrate the circumstances.’ It seems crucial to me that Sergeant’s rings are not just any rings; they are repeatedly classified as friendship rings. Patrick, astutely and lyrically, (okay, sucking up a bit here….) points out the poignancy in the way the two rings lie nestled together, fingers almost but never meeting. But this hints at a greater poignancy; the empty space between metal fingers is mirrored by a larger empty space: that enclosed by each ring. These metal bands have lost their occupants, their owners, their ring-enclosed friends. That friendship rings mark a perpetuity might become painful when this perpetuity allows them to outlast the friendships they initially signified.
Going through a selection of treasured things left by a deceased, much-loved family member several years ago, I came across – among objects with some obvious financial worth or easily understood sentimental value like photographs, letters, children’s shoes – a small ring, obtrusive only in its unobtrusiveness. Nothing special to look at and quite clearly not going to raise any money on Ebay, this ring however winds itself permanently around the heart strings with more force than any other gem.
It looks like the kind of thing that you might win in a cracker at a Christmas party, or buy on a whim in a corner shop. Kept for years in a safe place, nestled next to objects of financial value, we can only assume that it was emotional value that guaranteed this ring’s place. Was the cracker pulled at a particularly happy Christmas party? Was the shop on the corner of a road where a teenage crush lived? I know the things kept from that one party, when suddenly everything was exciting, every plastic bead a pearl, every boy previously spoken to entirely via MSN a probable Clark Gable. I know also the ephemerality of the significance of ephemeral objects: the boxes of teenage mementoes, of receipts for late night cups of tea I no longer remember the significance of…
Objects like these have a power that is bound up with emotional investment, and when the investor passes away, or forgets her particular pimpled Clark Gable, they are left unmoored, without context, without value—or at least so one might think. In fact, they acquire a new power—the poignancy of being not only a souvenir of a lost time, but also of being a souvenir of the loss of a souvenir (memory in French) or a lost time. It is this power that Sergeant’s studies have.
His images remind me of inventories, or of auction catalogues. Harvard recently loaded images of a collection of Emily Dickinson’s family artifacts. Dickinson, as a notoriously reclusive poet, maintained an extraordinary privacy – Jodie Foster eat your heart out – and to this day her biography contains many mysteries. Her possessions have acquired a relic-like significance. One tweeter responded to Harvard’s online collection with an exclamation at “Dickinson’s beautiful, austere writing stand”; while I do not want to be sniffy – it’s a pretty nice table – we can surely see some projection of Dickinson’s qualities, and of her poetry’s qualities, onto a piece of furniture that – if dubbed Pooki or Borg – wouldn’t be that out of place in an Ikea catalogue…
Such treasuring of objects for their past, and for their emotional value, transforms them into souvenirs. Susan Stewart has written a book called On Longing which deserves to itself become a treasured item, so full of paragraphs you want to underline is it. She has written that ‘We do not need or desire souvenirs of events that are repeatable’. ‘The souvenir generates a narrative which reaches only “behind,” […] rather than outward toward the future.’ We do not look at Dickinson’s table and think “Oh wow, that’d look fab next to my bed,” but instead think poetic
thoughts about austerity, and about the many lines written on its surface in the past. We return then to the inbuilt poignancy, to the link to the past, which long-lasting souvenirs inevitably have.
In my favourite book written in the last decade – apart from On Longing and whatever I wrote about last week, and next week, of course – inanimate objects become the only material in telling a love story. Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry by Leanne Shapton is presented as an auction catalogue. Each object inventoried relates to the failed romance between Doolan and Morris. They range from napkins tattooed with telephone numbers, to a case of 1989 Calon-Segur Bordeaux (auction estimate $55 to $95), with which Morris asked Doolan to move in with him, to a teapot in the shape of a dog (estimate $12 to $20), and an umberella belonging to an ex-boyfriend. Doolan is a food writer and her scribbled notes about meals eaten, and cuttings from her cake themed column shed light on the book. These are objects that signify experiences consumed and ended, eaten up, leaving only an aftertaste of what was and what might have been.
‘The presence of the object all the more radically speaks to its status as a mere substitution’ writes Stewart, about souvenirs. A souvenir reminds us that the whole, of which it reminds us, is absent. Stewart gives ‘pressed flowers’ as an example of souvenirs, and of how souvenirs are deprived of life, permanently tied to loss instead. ‘Nature is arranged diachronically through the souvenir;’ she writes, ‘its synchrony and atemporality are manipulated into a human time and order. The pressed flowers under glass speak to the significance to their owner in nature and not to themselves in nature’. Important Artifacts and Personal Property… ends with two pages of pressed flowers, preserved botanically and then preserved again in their collections of treasures, by the lovers. The preservation of the fragile flowers, eternal symbols of transience, reflects the novel’s aim: to capture the fleeting moments of a life. That these flowers remain however, and the romance does not, that soon even the flowers will be auctioned off and dispersed, speaks painfully of our inability to capture these fleeting moments. We are left with memory but not reality, with label not object.
This is all getting a bit doom-and-gloom and I’ve used the word ‘poignant’ a ridiculous number of times. In fact the gap between souvenir and memory is remarkably productive, and it is this gap that prompts the great artworks like Sargent’s and Shapton’s. Because of the inevitable distance between thing and memory, object and life, we, when interacting with objects, are obliged to fill in the gaps, to make up our own stories, to imagine. Looking at a plastic ring, we see not something that should be thrown away, or even – crucially – something that should be sold, but a prompt for something else, a stepping stone to a lost life. With no definite significance, no place on an inventory, it could be a souvenir of any lost experience. Anything is possible when there is no evidence to prove otherwise – it could have been bestowed on one over-excited teenage girl by Clark Gable himself.