‘ABSENT THINGS’ – Tullia Giersberg

RESPONSE #3 Tullia Giersberg

Death of Seneca, UCL Art Museum

Death of Seneca, UCL Art Museum

During last week’s meeting with material culture specialist Catherine Richardson our ten-pound note was conspicuous by its absence both as a physical object and as an object of discussion – only to reappear at the very end as through a prism in a pencil rubbing created by Liz Haines. At the time, this faded echo, a kind of ghostly monochrome inversion of the real thing, reminded me of the disturbing shadows the nuclear holocaust left on the walls of houses in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It vividly demonstrated that like most commonplace objects, bank notes are transitional, neither here nor there, always passing through, defying ownership, living a curious half-life in the liminal spaces that separate desire from consumption, spaces which go largely unacknowledged amid the hubbub of daily life.

Insofar as they freeze certain actions in time, including those mundane activities which constitute the daily routines of human existence, objects, too, resonate with previous lives. In doing so, they fill a vacuum in our knowledge of the past, acting as material reminders of everyday behaviours often tacitly overlooked or assigned little worth by an academic economy of values which tends to privilege grand critical narratives over the patchwork of relationships and meanings within which things exist. But is it worthwhile to study everyday objects, and the mundane activities of ordinary people they silently communicate? If so, what kinds of insights might such an object-led approach to scholarship yield?

Reflecting on these questions now, it seems to me that our ten-pound note’s unexpected absence – and its reappearance in a stylised version at the end of the session – tied in nicely with the group’s discussion of the merits and pitfalls of material culture studies in general, the curious transformation of the grubby article into a delicate work of art a fitting metaphor for the dilemma the group encountered early on: how does one engage in critical discussion about the history of “things” in the widest sense without aestheticizing and thus robbing it and them of their authenticity?

Catherine Richardson talked about the difficulty of mapping early modern sense experiences, especially sound. Attempting to think of my own object, The Death of Seneca, in terms of a material echo of a past experience, I’m suddenly struck by the fact that like Liz’s pencil rubbing, it too constitutes a ghostly footprint of multiple other objects: on the one hand, there is the series of artworks upon which the drawing seems to be based, including Peter Paul Rubens’s oil painting and Cornelis Galle’s engraving thereof (#1130 in the UCL Art Museum catalogue); on the other, there is the historical event which all of these artworks purport to commemorate. With every new, and progressively pared down version (my drawing features none of the articulated spaces, other figures, or decorative trappings that the others do), that event changes its meaning. As I look at it, it appears to be not quite there, always receding into an unknowable distance (I don’t even know if the drawing is finished or formed part of a larger composition). At the same time, notwithstanding the very noticeable absence of factual knowledge as to the artist, his (or her) economic and social circumstances, or the conditions of the artwork’s production, notwithstanding that it can hardly be called an everyday object in any sense, The Death of Seneca nevertheless communicates something about the most basic – and in a sense, the most mundane – experience known to man: death itself. Like our ten-pound note, the drawing is liminal, forever both in and representing a state of transition. As confronting this epistemological uncertainty becomes part of my experience on the 100 Hours Project, I begin to wonder: perhaps absence is a starting point, not a narrative gap to be filled?

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