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“Provenance” – Autopoetics

Dear Laura, Chelsea and Maiya,

My husband accumulates things. When we first moved in together, I went through boxes and boxes of his stuff. Please, I said, you have to get rid of this shattered iPhone 3 with a cracked screen that’s been dead for five years. What is this box of random cables, sticky and bent from being taped together in awkward shapes? These clothes are stippled with mildew – when was the last time you wore them in sunlight? We sat on the floor and unpacked the bits of his life that had been boxed up and forgotten but he’d refused to let go of. Or perhaps they’d refused to let him go. Agatha sifts through the her mother Alice’s labyrinthine hoard – with infinitely more patience than I would have – each remembered object whispering its name next to stacks of bills and foreclosure notices. What stories can an assemblage of objects tell, all these “nameless, shapeless things?” Rarely has an invisible landscape felt so visible, so tangible to me. It took me some time to locate myself in the landscape of things the three of you were narrating, but once I’d arrived I felt as though I might turn some of these items over in my palm, smudge the dust off with my fingers, and put them back on a high shelf. 

There was something so precise about the way the interlocking stories of these three women were pieced together, almost as if you were sculpting your own object, chiselling it out of the darkness and out of our collective imaginations. At first I mistook this choreographed precision for detachment, but then I realised you were excavating something incredibly fragile and tender from underneath it all, the way a surgeon might cut through a sheath of skin to get to that quivering, wet-slicked organ beneath. 

As Alice’s hoarding disorder begins to chip away at the borders of her sense of self, and her objects begin to puppeteer her and dictate her every decision and gesture, I begin to wonder what it is that anchors us to our sense of reality, and if once that slips we fumble for what we can actually hold on to, like the marble sculpture of a head of a noblewoman with an oxidised tear stain from 1st to 3rd century CE. Then there’s the tangle of what we gift and what we sell and what we own and the sediment of sentiment that’s settled in each and every item that becomes harder to separate from what the item is. I wonder if that’s why we laugh during the auction at the objects on the block, at the absurdity of their unimaginable price but also at how what is priceless may change hands so easily within an absurd commercial machine; what is heavy with worth may be conjured out of something so lightly discarded – the crushed and twisted newspaper sculptures of Romulus and Remus and the pair of bronze Etruscan warriors. But we also inscribe the objects you’ve presented us with layers and layers of meaning, that these newspaper sculptures are also the feet and arms of a mother putting on makeup in a moment of vulnerability. Our relationships with objects are deeply marked, Provenance reminds me, quietly, and (unsentimental as I am!) reminds me of the investments I’ve made in each item I own – or once owned. And I think that’s probably why I loved that the black box was papered over with classifieds and obituaries – all these things for sale, about to be lost, set against all the people we’ve actually lost.

When I was an undergraduate, I enrolled in a puppetry and object theatre class. My 21-year-old self, trying to be clever, brought in a hand-held mirror and made it behave bashfully, shyly, in front of its audience. But every time I looked at that mirror after that workshop I wondered what it thought of itself. We’d explored the lives of so many things – a table fan, a small painting, a flashlight, a set of cutlery – working within the constraints of how little we actually owned as students. There’s a magic to how much you’ve constructed out of the simplest of objects, that a line of red string can be a framing device or a tangle of emotions or the strangling red tape of an institution. I gasped a little, together with many other people, when all of you raked up the newspaper covering the stage at the end – that’s how much we’d invested in it being there, how much life we’d given it.Maybe all this is why I let my husband keep that dead, cracked iPhone, which is still in the bottom of a box we haven’t unpacked in the five years we’ve been living in this apartment. He would have owned it in 2010, just when each of us had started our professional lives in our early 20s, when a smartphone was still a small marvel and a huge investment. Writing this I realise I’ve never asked him what it meant to him, and why it whispered to be kept. So I texted him.


Me, [03.11.18 13:01] this is random but
Me, [03.11.18 13:01] why did you keep your dead iphone 3
Me, [03.11.18 13:01] like i’m just wondering out loud because i rmb telling you to throw it away
Me, [03.11.18 13:01] do we still have it?
Him, [03.11.18 13:08] Hmm I think I wanted to boot it up again with android
Him, [03.11.18 13:08] But obviously I would never have to time to do it
Me, [03.11.18 13:08] was it special to you haha
Me, [03.11.18 13:08] i’m such an unsentimental person
Him, [03.11.18 13:08] Hmm not special in that sense
Him, [03.11.18 13:09] I just thought that I could give it a second life


I think what I’m trying to say about Provenance is – thank you for giving all our objects that second life.


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