Dead or alive: the permanence of objects versus the fragility of human existence

Here Today…’

One silver and turquoise Art Deco hand mirror, one blue velour Parker Knoll armchair: two random items, both of use to their owners, but of no particular significance – until you’re made aware of the history and narrative associated with them, that is. 

The art work I make is often motivated by my connection and close relations with family. ‘Here Today…’  was created through assembling pieces from my late Nana’s more personal, intimate possessions and placing them on a bedside cabinet; a hand mirror, a vintage silk flower and palettes of used make up – items that she had handled and used over and over; old, well-worn objects, still in existence and now, with an even greater emotional charge, having survived my Nana by some years. 

Likewise, with my late father and the continued presence of a favourite seat. How was it that my Dad’s blue armchair stood so resolutely in the living room of my parents’ home on the day of his funeral, begging the question: if the chair could survive, then why on earth couldn’t he? 

Themes of loss and remembrance are present in a lot of the work I make and reflect my fascination with the permanence of objects versus the fragility of human existence – crucially, how things outlive people. The histories associated with everyday objects give the work its meaning, not solely for me, but for an audience for whom some objects will inevitably resonate. 

A lot has been written on the subject of the emotional attachments made to the everyday things that surround us, and none more powerfully than Sylvia Plath who captured her love for objects in many of her poems, ‘Tale of a Tub’ and ‘Black Rook in Rainy Weather’ being examples. 

Tisha Nemeth-Loomis in her research paper ‘Plath’s Possession Aesthetics: Visual and Object Libido’ wrote: 

‘Plath employed a visual exactitude which indicated surprising states of perceptual awareness; it filled her poems and objects with curiosity and dimension. When engaged in these states of visual connection, it is possible that Plath attempted to integrate herself with images and objects. For Plath, objects surpassed the mundane; they were unique, enviable entities.’

And her late husband, Ted Hughes, noted Plath’s psychological investment in the everyday object: 

‘This genius for love she certainly had, and not in the abstract. She didn’t quite know how to manage it; it possessed her. It fastened her to cups, plants, creatures, vistas, people in a steady ecstasy. As much of all that she could, she hoarded into her poems.’ (quoted in Holbrook 279) 

From a completely different literary genre, I found this piece of writing by romantic novelist Erica James. In this extract from her novel ‘Precious Time’, James describes the thoughts of a character who runs a house clearance firm … 

‘It was the bedside tables that invariably got to him. It was in those little drawers that, often, the most personal and poignant objects had been kept, and which gave the deepest insight into that person’s habits and thoughts. Today’s bedside table had revealed the usual old tubes of ointment, packets of indigestion tablets, buttons, rusting safety-pins, bent hairpins, and a string of cheap gaudy beads. There was a tiny-faced watch that didn’t work, a money-off washing powder voucher (dated October 1988), a pair of tweezers, a throat lozenge that had oozed a sticky trail across an envelope of black and white holiday snaps, a crumbling bath cube that had lost its scent, and a small trinket box containing a collection of Christmas cracker jokes, unused party hats, two plastic whistles and a key-ring. There was also a small Bible, its pages thickened with use.’ 

It’s difficult sometimes to find the words to convey the true, agonising sense of loss and the very powerful emotions that we project onto objects that are left behind. Items presented as objects of remembrance and associated with the dead, are imbued with deep sentiment and emotion.

The hand mirror bears the physical marks of a well-used object, the metal and patina worn and eroded by my Nana’s endless handling of it. My Dad’s empty, unoccupied armchair, following his death, came to symbolise his absence, heartwrenchingly so for those who loved him – his revered place within the family unit and the actual physical space he once occupied. How on earth can we ever find it in ourselves to part with such precious items? 

The reality is of course, that we can’t keep everything and for practical reasons, some things in our lives just have to go. House moves, house clearances, downsizing, relationship break-ups and other life-changing events inevitably lead to a serious rethink and overhaul about what we can and can’t keep. 

William Morris stated that we should have nothing in our houses that we did not ‘know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.’ While I understand this sentiment, I know that peoples’ homes sometimes also contain things they positively hate but find hard to throw away – unwanted gifts from long deceased relatives, for example – the hideous ceramic owl inherited from Auntie Elsie who loved it and thought you would, too. 

There’s no doubt that the bonds we form with certain objects are stronger than others and that our decision making about what we keep in our homes is often determined by the depth and strength of the emotional attachments we make to them. As time passes, these objects get handed down through the generations; their condition might become more battered and fragile, but their significance and sentimental value continues to grow – living on, immortal and becoming increasingly robust as they accumulate and carry with them, layer upon layer of their ancestors’ histories and narratives. 

Kate Murdoch 2019