Untitled, 2023, Swings, roundabouts

Untitled, 2023, Swings, roundabouts
To get to grips with ‘The Power of Things’ I visited the thing-iest exhibition I could find. A radically minimalist assortment of everyday objects by Michael E. Smith at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds. By hook or by crook1, I was going to get to the heart of the thing.2
Apparently, Michael E. Smith spent two weeks in this gallery space, creating pieces for his exhibition in situ, which would only be revealed hours before opening. For the first couple of days, he simply explored the empty space, investigating every crevice, getting to know its nooks and indeed its crannies. You know what it’s like, those halcyon days of getting to know a gallery, discovering each other’s hidden faculties, finding out what makes each other tick. Before you offload your baggage onto / into it.

Offload he did. A truckload of detritus, ephemera, bits, bobs. Things, all over the bloody place. A veritable hoard which he proceeded to move around in this great sisyphean artistic struggle. Rearranging the deck chairs on the floors of the Henry Moore Institute. And then removing most of it. The final exhibition is a minimalist affair, comprised of just seven assemblage artworks.3

Untitled, 2023, Television, rock.

The first is a TV monitor, screen down, with a teardrop shaped rock at its corner.4 I really - really - want to tip that TV onto its stand, the way I’m used to seeing it. The way the object should be. It’s a feeling sparked by many of these things - taxidermied ducks attached to the back of an armchair. A milk bottle on two precariously posed tables. A bottle hanging from a chain to the ceiling. I ask if anyone’s followed the urge, crossed the sacred boundaries of the gallery space, touched the objects. Only children, apparently. At least they have the guts.

The space itself plays a part. There’s a window over there, but the shutters have been mostly closed, leaving only a small crack of light visible. Michael spent a lot of time deliberating over that, apparently. Elsewhere he has also opened a big cupboard, partially blocked the stairs, and opened a service elevator. Essentially, everything you’d expect from a gallery space, he’s upended, so that you feel alienated by the unexpected unavoidable thingness of the space. So much so that I remark upon a mark in the middle of the floor, which I presume Smith has stained to create the ghost of an object. Apparently it’s just an old mark the Institute wishes they could get rid of.

A service lift, unexpectedly open.

Maybe this all started when Marcel Duchamp recycled an assemblage of personal amusement - a bicycle wheel attached to a stool - as a work of art, by simply placing it in the hallowed space of the art gallery.5 There’s a Duchampian uncertainty that defines many a work of contemporary art, leading to the ever-increasing rate at which bewildered visitors feel they need to interact with the artwork.

As I write, it’s only a week since student Noh Huyn-soo took a banana taped to a gallery wall by artist Maurizio Cattelan and ate it, claiming he was ‘hungry’. Cattelan was unperturbed, replying ‘No problem.’6 In 2015, a cleaner in Italy threw away champagne bottles, cigarette butts, and confetti, which she had assumed to be the remnants of some atrocious artist-y party, but was in fact an installation.7 The exact same thing happened to a pile of rubbish by Damian Hirst in 2001.8 At perhaps the most extreme end of the spectrum, in 1999 a woman travelled 200 miles from her home in Wales to London’s Turner Prize exhibition to tidy up Tracey Emin’s Bed. ‘She will never get a boyfriend unless she tidies herself up,’ she claimed.9

An artwork presumed to be rubbish by a dutiful Italian cleaner.

All this goes to show the difficulty in art of repurposing an object. Of removing it from our functional or day-to-day associations. Of thingifying it.

'We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us.'

That’s the claim of Bill Brown, coiner and expounder-in-chief of ‘Thing Theory’, which invokes a psychological shift in our perception of the things we so often take for granted. He’s borrowing from Heidegger, who described how our perception of a hammer is changed when it breaks, when it becomes no longer useful to us. When an object, or a space, or the uncertain gulf between space and object, asserts itself in a manner that is foreign to our privileged perception, our relationship to that thing changes.

Brown’s theory is part of a confusingly labelled ‘object turn’ in the intersection of critical theory and modern philosophy (this’ll lighten up again in a bit). It accompanies Object Oriented Ontology (OOO for those in the know), a branch of Speculative Realism expounded especially by Graham Harman, reconsidering the human tendency to objectify objects. It all fits in with a wider de-anthropocentrism, an effort to uproot the human from their privileged position of subjectivity, explored in the ecocriticism of academics like Timothy Morton. Then there’s Jane Bennett, whose work on ‘vital materialism’ investigates the power of the inanimate that populates our everyday lives. Of course all of this can be rooted in Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory, or - further back - Heidegger’s readiness-to-hand, or - further still - Marx’s critique of commodities, Leibniz’s monads, Kant’s thing-in-itself, Democritus’ atomos, Aristotle's causes.

And all this is - naturally - bubbling up in my head as I admire two basketballs that Michael E. Smith has poised suggestively on a staircase. ‘A load of balls’, remarks another punter, to decent chuckles.

Untitled, 2023, Basketballs, stairs.

The work is Untitled, 2023, ‘Basketball, stairs’. Michael E. Smith doesn’t mess around with naming his work.10 This particular piece is not to be confused with Untitled, 2023, ‘Chair, ducks’, or Untitled, 2023, ‘First aid cabinet, hide’. It raises the question, where does the art object end and the gallery begin?11 Unfortunately, when I took out my camera to photograph Michael’s things, I couldn’t bring them into focus. I squinted through the viewfinder, frantically twisting the ruffled plastic collar of the lens around and around, *click*ing between auto and manual focus, trying to bring it into view. It remained resolutely - stubbornly - unphotographable. The camera was broken. The irony was not lost on me.

‘We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us.’ But, having explained to the Institute that I will be taking photos, and not being of the disposition to explain the unfortunate breakage, I must play the part and deal with the consequences later. There’s nothing that quite exemplifies the power that things have in our daily performance of subjecthood like walking around an exhibition of philosophically perplexing assemblages and pretending to take photos on a camera that doesn’t work. But it helps to make sense of things, philosophically. Swings and roundabouts.12
1 Both are things

2 My visit was accompanied by knowledgeable representatives from the Institute.

3 The word minimalist is used, semi-apologetically, perhaps three times during my tour of the exhibition, maybe as a form of apology to the assumed disapproval that the Institute’s namesake Henry Moore would no doubt take at Smith’s artistic approach. Then again, he too was a veritable collector of things. The Henry Moore Archive is awash with the stones and bones and other things that he compulsively collected over the years. See The Spectacle 08.

4 A representative from the HMI refers to it as a ‘speech bubble’. Either way, I suppose we both perceive it as being emitted from the TV screen. We’re both wrong. It’s a rock.

5 I have two - two - degrees in the history of art from a renowned institution, in return for which I owe the government riches beyond belief. You’d think in return I’d be able to tell you - confidently - whether this thing is or is not art. But hey, that’s immaterial.

6 ‘Banana drama: “hungry” South Korean student eats $120,000 artwork’, The Guardian, 1 May 2023.

7 ‘Art binned by cleaner in Italy “restored”’, BBC, 27 Oct 2015.

8 This is a description of the artwork not a judgement on Damian Hirst, unarguably an artist from his generation. ‘Cleaner clears up Hirst's ashtray art’, The Guardian, 19 Oct 2001.

9 ‘Housewife “outraged” by dirty bed exhibit’, BBC, 25 Oct 1999.

10 Perhaps because he’s used to people getting his own name confused with the lead singer of The Fall.

11 This raises a further question: why does it matter?

12 Both are things.

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