Bone Room Meditations IX: found-objects

July 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

Bone is subtle and lasting

George Mackay Brown

I have been thinking about found-objects.

In contemporary art the found-object or readymade has held a special place in theoretical discourse since Duchamp’s Fountain: the mass produced urinal signed R. Mutt and placed on a pedestal in 1917. In spite of the allusions to, quite literally, toilet humour – the amusement that we derive from the punning title of the ‘artwork’ – Fountain remains fairly high-brow, a cerebral found-object that positions itself firmly within the world of ideas and at some remove from conventional art pleasures. But what about in nature, what about in our nature; in the attentions and actions of early man? What prompted our early hominid ancestors to first pick up an object of particular ‘delight’ or interest? When did the inevitable staring at our feet as we crossed the plains during our species’ dispersion from the African sub-continent turn into an act of aesthetic choice – a Pleistocene ‘beachcomber’ stooping to pick up a particularly engaging shell, stone or feather?

Is this linked to the instincts of a hunter gatherer? Or is it an indication of some different, deep-seated, neurological impulse? Beachcombing is, after all, a particularly dreamy kind of pleasure (and one that is pretty widespread – on some beaches in Cornwall that boast particularly fine pebbles, there are public signs warning against collection).

In Kathleen Jamie’s beautiful book, Findings, (from which I take the quote by George Mackay Brown at the beginning of this posting) she writes:

A stone caught my eye and I bent to pick it up. It was a perfect sphere of white quartz that fitted the palm of my hand. ‘Orb’ was the word that came to mind. I’ll keep that, I thought and in the moment that it had taken me to admire it and slip it in my bag all the seals had slithered from their rocks into the water.

Jamie is describing a visit by yacht to the remote and uninhabited island of Ceann Iar. Her impulse, which appears only partially conscious, only partially the impulse of a modern, urban, human being would appear to be one of appropriation, of seizing onto something to fix the transitory nature of experience.

There are a number of Bower Birds that collect stones: the nest of Chlamydera nuchalis is often adorned by well chosen specimens. The female makes a careful choice from the collections of rival males and chooses the one that to her is most pleasing. This advances the notion of the found object into different territory; it’s hard to say what’s really happening here but to our eyes it appears that the bird is using its aesthetic abilities as a means of showing off its superior taste. In our case I think the random act of finding something to hold onto might actually be a little less sophisticated but it still holds a certain poetry. To collect something from nature fixes memory, meaning and value around a tangible (yet often quite random) object – qualities that can be evoked each time we pick up that bleached bone, hold it in our hands, hear the sea for little while and then, carefully, return it to its privileged position of display on the shelf.

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