Julian Walker

Transmission: Provenance - talk Nov 2004

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Talk given at Sheffield Showroom Cinema as part of the Transmission: Provenance series November 2004

Organised by Sheffield Hallam University

Projections of the presence of preserved objects and sites


I was giving a talk at the British Museum about a work I had made there, which was about people’s desire to touch the Rosetta Stone. The talk was given as part of an open evening with a number of talks going on around the museum simultaneously. While I was waiting I tagged along on another talk, where a curator was discussing the layout and presentation of the objects in the Egyptian Gallery. He was saying that every time someone touches a sculpture it interferes with our access to the past. While he saying this, his hand was resting on a piece of Egyptian sculpture.

I was listening to Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 - Jenni Murray was interviewing the curator of the Wallace Collection, which was just about to reopen. She was asking her about the Sevres porcelain, and how the curators went about researching into the pieces.

"First of all you fall in love with them by feeling them and touching them."

There are a number of questions which can be extracted from these anecdotes. Why touch? Isn’t seeing enough? Is there a hierarchy of sense that is proposed by the material? How & why might such a hierarchy come into being. What is the nature of the abstract that is attached to objects that draws us to them physically ?

We might look at such ideas as

  • Class, status, why we buy antiques
  • The age of objects and how this relates to ideas of value
  • Gender and the psychology of collecting
  • Realness, authenticity, and the power and fear of fakes

What I am going to talk about today is the idea of physical contact and the projected core of the object.

Amongst the things I have on my desk which I use either rarely or not all are an antique microscope, a case with two stuffed birds, a pot of paintbrushes, a wooden bowl from Papua New Guinea, an eighteenth century pharmacopoeia, a Gitanes ashtray, a roman coin.

What do I want from having these things around me, what do I expect them to do? Like those signs of the privilege of the curator seen in the museum objects on the desk, or Freud’s collection on his desk, or talismans kept in the pocket, there seems to be a need to have around us those things that reflect to us our identity, things that remind us of what we are, material objects to anchor ourselves to the world. Their physical presence is important.

As I play out to myself in miniature the role of the gentleman collector, I can refer back to the majority of Cabinets of Curiosity, which used a structure which depended largely on the process of taking things out of storage to handle and look at them – see Stephen Bann’s analysis of the cabinet of John Bargrave.

The prohibitive expense of glass would have meant that display behind glass was an unnecessary priority, adding nothing to the overall effect, whereas a wooden cabinet inlaid with precious wood or marble, etc. allowed a double possibility for showing off – both the cabinet and the curiosity it housed. My desk has become the cabinet, a cabinet in which I reflect my interest in the world.

Patrick Mauries in Cabinets of Curiosity, proposes the type of the collector as a person with an obsession for completeness. "By taking objects out of the flux of time he in a sense "mastered" reality." I want to bypass the idea of completeness for now but take up the ideas of the "flux of time" and "mastering reality".

So, how do the objects I have on my desk do what they do, and how are they different from reproductions of the same objects?

We might start with the idea of the aura Benjamin proposes as pertaining to the "original". "Aura is what envelops an object as we experience wonder not at this or that aspect of it but at the simple fact that it is, and that we, observing it, are" (Gabriel Josipovici Touch). Hence the desire to actually go to the museum, to see the original Rosetta Stone, fossil dinosaur, Van Gogh Sunflowers, etc.

But what is the actual object, and how is its identity built up? This is something I’ve explored through some works which test the core of the object through the deliberate mistake – reading it not as a preserved object but as an object. Thus for example a work in progress, Do Bees like Van Gogh?

W Benjamin - "the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking its presence in space and time." This is reminiscent of Einstein’s idea that people and objects are events because they happen in time. The idea of presence doesn’t exist a priori, it comes as a result of realisation, it is mutable, it changes and is changed by the information we bring to our perception of it. Two mugs may be of the same pattern, design, etc. but as soon as we find out that one was used by Churchill, or Crippen, we project that knowledge onto that one, which becomes special.

I was concerned to think about how that specialness happens, and what it comprises. In many cases it’s the site that makes the object special, as in the case of a famous museum, or because of its acquisition history, or because of its post-acquisition history (the Rosetta Stone doesn’t seem to have had much of a role in the deciphering of hieroglyphics by Champollion, but visually it is "about" decoding, and its location in the British Museum adds to its role as a portal to the otherwise lost past). But of course the surroundings gain meaning from their contents. Thus Benjamin’s idea that it is the "presence" of the original that determines its later history could be seen as happening with the benefit of hindsight in the case of objects which "become" important.

W Benjamin proposes that aura is reduced by the environment of mechanical reproduction – Josipovici suggests that the sheer multiplicity of important things in the museum diminishes rather than adds to the aura of each, in the way that objects in the collection have a formal identity which outshines their individual identities. For example, Pepys arranged his library according to the height of the books rather than their subject matter. But we may contrast this with the way that reproductions may act as acolytes to the original - see Colin Painter and Constable’s Cornfield exhibition, which explored how people’s approach to an art object can be mediated by domestic souvenirs rather than scholarship.

The artwork installation Acquisitions at the British Museum, 1998, was presented as a museum display. Based on the observation of how visitors use iconic objects as cultural landmarks to be photographed with, the work used photographs of visitors having their photographs taken, enlarged and turned into sculptural objects. This was set against a video which showed a pair of hands moving over the surface of two display cases in the ground-floor Egyptian gallery and over the rail surrounding the Rosetta Stone; interspersed with these three activities the camera traces three short narratives – a replica of the Gayer-Anderson cat is carried through the gallery and leant against the original object, a small ceramic hippo replica is carried in and set in the case where it touches the faience hippo (c 1900 BC), and a small replica of the Rosetta Stone is brought in and laid on the original.

Visitors do not come primarily to read about the stone; their intention in coming is to be with it, to partake of its authenticity and realness. And maybe to make their identification with the material symbol of uncovering the mysteries of Ancient Egypt. The Rosetta Stone is "about" the access to Ancient Egypt as expressed in the hieroglyphic script.

But this "aboutness" happens after the object has been made (assuming we are thinking within the context of linear time – which is another story). The new role has happened through a potential in the object to fulfil some emerged desire, which the object itself may have partly engendered or at least brought into focus. This begins to open up a can of worms regarding our linear time world-view.

During the course of my visits the BM in preparation for Acquisitions at the BM I noted that people tend to have their photographs taken standing next to, near or in front of iconic objects which are free-standing: large Egyptian statues, the Rosetta Stone, etc. People rarely have their photographs taken by objects behind glass, however well-known: the Portland Vase, Lindow Man, the Sutton Hoo treasures, the Battersea shield, or the Leonardo cartoons.

There is something specific about the photographing of the person with his/her outline overlapping with that of the object. The image of the person photographed is mixed with the image of object, the photograph unites them. Ann Game quotes Barthes in this respect: "Significantly, [the form of] mediation in photography is corporeal... Bodies touch without clear boundaries between them". And as well as becoming united in space, they become united in time; Sontag quotes Berenice Abbott: "The photographer is the contemporary being par excellence; through his eyes the now becomes the past".

Considering the idea of the fragility of identity.

I wanted to make a work in which I would make crude fakes of objects which were fakes themselves – Billy & Charlie’s. I was told by museum staff that I could not. At the time of Acquisitions at the British Museum (1998) the Rosetta Stone was mounted on a stand and surrounded by a metal bar at waist height set 60 centimetres from the stone; an invigilator was seated nearby, but his role seemed to be only to be a warning presence. Rather than preventing visitors from touching the Rosetta Stone, he would gently reprimand people after they had touched the object, implying a complicity in, or at least an awareness of the need to touch.

"The Presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity" W Benjamin. Roger Cardinal suspects that when the Rosetta Stone was open to being touched, the tolerance of the invigilating staff for its being touched was an indicator of its inauthenticity, that the real Rosetta Stone must be somewhere in the basement. The moment doubt appears, the object becomes "infected", like the Hastings Rarities.

The Hastings Rarities were a group of 6 bird species shot in the Hastings area during the early 20th century, which had not been recorded as appearing in the UK; when they were not recorded again by the late 50s, doubts were raised about their documentation and authenticity. It was proposed that they had in fact been shot in Eastern Europe and Turkey, and shipped frozen to the South East of England, during wartime.

However, they were removed from display and suddenly found to have been infected with museum beetle, also known as carpet bear, and they were burnt, (memories of the Dodo at the Ashmolean here). Rather than conserve them and give them a new museum identity based on a question or a doubt, they had to be removed from all possible contact with the authentic or real specimens, lest the doubt as much as the insect, should prove contagious.

The corollary of this is that objects may be seen to aspire to the immortality conferred by the museum through their inclusion in the collection.

Lies & Belonging (2001) was a site-specific exhibition exploring the power of objects and the notions of reality, authenticity and truth attaching to them. Working with the three local stories of famous frauds - Grey Owl, Piltdown Man, and the Hastings Rarities, the works focussed on particular aspects of the stories, such as hierarchies of cultures, the need to belong, and the role of text in falsehood and denunciation.

Archie Belaney, born in 1888 in Hastings, was brought up by two aunts and emigrated to Canada, drawn by his fixation with Native American culture. Some time in the 1920s he changed from being a fur-trapper on the fringes of Indian culture, to being a beaver conservationist and writer of articles on wilderness ecology. Encouraged and eager to move to within Indian culture to promote his local lecture series to rich holidaying whites, and already being a good speaker of Ojibwe, he re-invented himself as WaShaQuonAsin, He Who Walks By Night, or Grey Owl, at first the product of Apache/Scot parents, and finally as a full blooded Ojibwe chief. His lecture tours took him to the UK, where he spoke on radio, in lecture halls and cinemas, before royalty, and ultimately led him to Hastings, where he was recognised. The accusations of fraud, together with alcoholism, led to his death in 1938. He wrote a number of books, which are precursors of popular scientific ecology writing, and made a few short films about his life with beavers; he is currently regarded as an important founder of conservation in Canadian Parks, but probably with more interest as an interesting identity-shifter/imposter.

Piltdown Man, excavated near Uckfield in Sussex between 1911 and 1915, was unmasked as a forgery in 1953 as a result of the early use of flourine dating. The components of the skull were found to be parts of a C14 woman, and the stained canine tooth of an orang utan. The chief protagonists were Arthur Smith Woodward of the Natural History Museum, who wrote a book about the discovery entitled The Earliest Englishman (sic); Sir Arthur Keith, anatomist at the Royal College of Surgeons; and Charles Dawson, a local solicitor and antiquarian who is credited with a number of honest discoveries, and a number of hoaxes, many of which were donated to help found the Hastings Museum. All have been accused of initiating the forgery, and all are now looked on with disdain.

The Hastings Rarities were a group of birds shot in the Hastings area between 1892 and 1930, mostly stuffed by local taxidermist, George Bristow, some of which found their way into Hastings Museum. Following re-examination of their documentation in 1962, a large number were declared to be fraudulent visitors and were directly removed from the List of British Birds. Some of the specimens at Hastings were found to have museum-bug and were burnt. One theory alleged that the perpetrators, never named, had the birds shot in Eastern Europe and shipped on ice to be sold at vast profit to local collectors; the recorded prices, and common sense (some of this was supposed to have happened in wartime) do not quite bear this out.

The works comprised a video performance based on the desire to belong, a vast collection of objects which turn Piltdown into a site of continuous and important archaeological habitation, and a number of hybrid objects creating pockets of truth within a framework of lies. These last include a neolithic taxidermy kit, an American Indian headdress made of text and bones, and a case of lead-toy archaeologists and American Indians zoologically named and labelled in English, Latin and Ojibwe.

The video performance shows a figure representing the three entities of the project travelling to Hastings, attempting and failing to gain admittance to the museum.

Kettle’s Yard has the problem that occasionally stuff is pinched, but more of an administrative problem is that people want to donate, despite the obviousness that it is a fixed collection. The BM and the Tate have this problem also, of people literally leaving things on the doorstep like the apocryphal baby in the basket.

Contact and physical touch

For an installation in the Museum of Mankind I selected four objects from the museum's collections, found out all I could about them, their histories, usages, storage places and when and where they had been shown, and used this as the material for an installation. The objects themselves were not shown, but were clearly defined, both theoretically by the information, and physically by the use or fabrication of such things as storage cases showing the indentation of the object, display plinths showing its outline in dust, or labels whose string had touched the object.

One of the pieces I fabricated was an impression of a handprint on one of the objects; this idea led me to further consideration of the idea of desire and prohibition surrounding the touching of objects in museums, what the desire stems from and what it hopes to achieve (and incidentally how the curator and artist working in the museum is privileged by being able to touch objects).

In 2000 I made a series of works in Wolverhampton Art Gallery based on a painting by Joseph Highmore of the Lee family in mid 18th century. The picture is large, 9 by 11 feet and shows 11 members of the family including a dead child and the late paterfamilias. The works comprised a video, 3 photographs, a full-scale interactive drawing and 5 sculptural works based on the family crest which appears at the top of the frame of the picture. The video work called Touch consisted of a hand slowly traversing the surface of the picture, showing at any time a square of about 60 cm.

It is noticeable that when the hand moves over parts of the anatomy that are sensitive, the image becomes uncomfortable; it moves from the nobility and purity of art to touching on the motives of pornography – an image designed to provoke a physical response. In this I see a connection to my reluctance to touch pictures of spiders. Similarly the hand may be respectful, caring or intrusive, depending on what it is touching. Making the work was a highly supervised process, which became a kind of performance, with two curators watching me carefully, and ensuring that I washed my hands after every three passes over the picture; the picture was quite dirty.

From Andrew Benjamin's review of the show: "It loosens the narrative hold of the painting by allowing particular aspects to acquire a power that they did not initially have. The iconic status of painting’s untouchability is undone by allowing a painting to be touched that then, reciprocally, allows the painting to acquire even greater force; greater force as painting".

So, the fact of touch highlights the fact that we cannot normally touch, and the iconic status of this painting as a representative of all paintings rests on its untouchability. But the painting’s status resists this by the fact that it is still a painting.

To what extent does the touched image here and its relationship to the original person relate to the relationship between the original work of art and the reproduction in Benjamin’s pattern? For Benjamin the aura of the original withers with the existence of the reproduction; are the personas of the imposing mother, the haughty eldest son, the dead child, affronted by my familiarity with their images? Perhaps.

So do icons cease to be icons when they are touched like the Egyptian statue earlier on, the touching of which so affronted the Egyptian Antiquities Department curator? Or do they become more of an icon? Can we connect the mass reproduction of souvenirs to the desire to touch the original? If so as more and more paper weights of the Rosetta Stone are made and more people touch the original stone does it become more of an icon (Andrew Benjamin/Colin Painter) or less of an icon (Walter Benjamin)?

Hierarchy of senses seen through reading processes.

From The History of Reading by Alberto Manguel

Reading begins with the eyes. "The keenest of our senses is the sense of sight" wrote Cicero noting that when we see a text we remember it better than when we merely hear it. Saint Augustine praised and then condemned the eyes as the world’s point of entry. And Saint Thomas Aquinas called sight "the greatest of the senses through which we acquire knowledge".

Let me propose an extension to Cicero here, bearing in mind that when Cicero was alive almost all reading was reading aloud, even when the reader was alone. This we can deduce from the small number of occasions on which reading silently is specifically mentioned. But let us consider that we remember a text better still by writing it or speaking it, both involving a physical relation with the text.

Josipovici tells the story of how he felt that when he arrived in California for the first time he felt he had to go and dip his hand in the Pacific Ocean, knowing that this was important but not knowing why. And he talks about a friend going to Rome where he felt he had to touch so much "I suppose touching something confirms its presence" And Josipovici adds "Its presence to you but also your presence to it."

The injunction "Look – don’t touch" is uncomfortably applicable to both the strip club and the art gallery.  So, is there a hierarchy of senses?

My cultural history of touch starts with a few Biblical references – first, the story of Thomas the Doubter having to put his hands and fingers into Christ’s wounds. He has heard the story, and seen the wounds, but he needs to put his hand into Christ’s side, to insert his body physically into that of Christ.

We must consider now the idea of the presence within an object being able to transfer itself across objects.

My biblical model for this is in two stories

  1. Mark 6 v25: … a certain woman who had an issue of blood twelve years…. when she heard of Jesus, came in the press behind, and touched his garment. For she said, if I may touch but his clothes, I shall be whole. … and she is cured immediately … And Jesus immediately knowing in himself that virtue had gone out of him, turned about in the press and said, Who touched my clothes? ….. But the woman fearing and trembling, knowing what was done in her, came and fell down before him, and told him all the truth. And he said to her, Daughter your faith has made you whole; go in peace and be cured of your plague.
  2. Luke 7v14: Jesus raises a man from the dead by touching his coffin.

The making and use of relics

From the seventh century the earliest missionaries to England brought with them relics of saints which were used to bind the new church to Rome. Amongst the relics sent by Pope Vitalian to the King of Northumbria were relics of the apostles St Peter and St Paul, and of the holy martyrs Lawrence, John and Paul ( two 4th century martyrs), as well as of Gregory (Pope Gregory the Great) and Pancras. To the queen he sent a cross with a golden key, made from the holy fetters of the apostles St Peter and St Paul.

The installation of relics in the altars was regarded as essential particularly in the cases where the newly dedicated Christian church was a converted pagan temple and the presence of relics would then serve to emphasise its changed character. (This is odd in a sense that the Judaeo-Christian god is notably not fixed to a place but is perceived as existing in all places.) However Bede indicates that the relics come first and the churches afterwards, the altars being a place for the veneration and storing of relics.

In Rome the need for relics was satisfied by the creation of "brandea", usually made of cloth. These were "manufactured" by placing objects in contact with the bones of saints, which were then used to consecrate altars of new churches, often on pagan sites. Importantly it was perceived that the secondary relic was as powerful as the original. In England secondary relics were created incidentally rather than deliberately.

Bede’s account of the royal saint Oswald gives the fullest examples. Oswald set up a wooden cross before his victory over the pagan British king Cadwalla, and " …many people are in the habit of cutting splinters from the wood of this holy cross and putting them in water which they then give to sick men or beasts to drink or else they sprinkle them with it; and they are quickly restored to health"

(David Rollason, Saints and Relics in Anglo-Saxon England, Oxf 1989)

Eventually Oswald was killed and dismembered; the place of his death became a relic "it has happened that people have often taken soil from the place where his body fell to the ground, have put it in water, and by its use have brought great relief to their sick. This custom became very popular and gradually so much earth was removed that a hole was made, as deep as a man’s height."

Peter Brown states that the granting or translation of a relic to a community was an act of God himself, an indication that God had judged the community worthy to guard such a relic.

Going back further in the process of relic making

Pope Gregory the Great in 594 received a letter from the Empress Constantina asking for the head or some part of the body of St Paul to deposit in the new church she was building within the precincts of her palace. He was obliged to refuse and warned her of the horrible portents which had visited those who had tried to remove bones of these saints (this did not stop the whole-scale dismembering of minor saints for the demand for relics throughout western Europe).

And he states how the brandea were actually made: "…a cloth is enclosed in a box which is then placed near the saints’ most sacred bodies. This is afterwards taken up and deposited in the church which is to be dedicated, and the miracles it causes are as great as if the very bodies of the saints had been brought there."

"It was taught and believed that the miraculous powers of the saint might be manifested not only through his actual relics, but also through objects which had been associated therewith, such as dust from his tomb, oil from the lamps which burnt before it, and rags of cloth which had been placed on the sarcophagus. … occasionally these were worn by private individuals about their persons"

(F H Dudden Vol. 1 p277 Gregory the Great - his place in history and thought, Longmans, Green & Co, London 1905)

The Empress asks also for a napkin she has heard is lying next to the body of one of the apostles, but he says he dare not come near the body - "who can be so rash as to venture - I do not say to touch, but even for an instant to gaze upon their bodies?"

Brandea were placed in a box before being placed near the body of the saint. Noteworthy here then is that the cloth does not even have to touch the body, just to be in the same space as it, which we might bear in mind when considering the idea of the pilgrimage.

He does later in the letter offer her a filing from the chains of St Paul, but says he can’t promise because it is sometimes very difficult to file any off, even though he has a priest standing by with a file ready.

Peter Brown The Cult of The Saints says that the brandea were cloths actually dangled onto the tomb of St Peter. Onto the tomb, but not onto the bones.

Secular relics

Josipovici shows that in Chaucer’s world, Christianity was coterminous with the universe (p97), and warns us not to treat modern secular souvenirs in the same light. Though Chaucer’s Pardoner sells healing with the refrain "cupidity is the root of all evil", his use of this is knowingly directed at himself. Secular relics, he proposes, are altogether different. When offered as such, like "collectors’ plates" offered by the Franklin Mint, which no serious collector would touch, they are debased.

It is not difficult to find instances of more respected items in the modern secular world which serve this role, from the possessions of celebrities, to the desire to touch royalty, with the possibility of healing involved in that also, through touching for pulmonary scrofula, not a skin disease but an internal one, which was called The King’s Evil. For an example of how this operates at one remove we can see the energetic attempts to throw flowers onto the hearse carrying the coffin of Diana Princess of Wales in 1997.

See Grave Goods and Teddy Bear Thieves, Inventory 3,1, 1998

The royal relic occupies a problematic space, not like the relics of the rest of the world. This may be partly wrapped up with the curious traditions surrounding the person of the monarch – Charles II used to be watched by large numbers of people while eating and sleeping, Henry VIII appears to have performed few bodily functions in private; when King John’s coffin was moved from its place in the nave of Worcester Cathedral in the late 18th century, a large proportion of it was stolen by souvenir hunters.

The royal relic is somehow special, as if the British continuous monarchy still retains something of its divine right. It was the post-regicide monarchy, particularly Charles II in exile, that was the most energetic promoter of touching for the King’s Evil. (But see Josipovici’s reference to Bloch’s analysis of this as a political act).

The combination of the royal touch and the chain of contact appears in the song "I danced with a guy who danced with a girl who danced with the Prince of Wales" which I used in the work King John’s Teeth, 1998. This show involved a series of works about the sense of touch in which I documented all the instances of my touching individuals in the City of Worcester, and a number of instances where I touched something that had just been touched by someone else.

The most satisfying work was a site-specific performance lecture based on two of King John’s’ teeth, which are in the museum. There were again a curious and arbitrary set of conditions instantly imposed on my activities with these things, which allowed me to handle them directly while I was sitting down, but not when I was dancing (I danced with the teeth to that piece of music).

One thing I did during this was to wrap them up in a handkerchief, then unwrap them and wrap up a bar of chocolate in the same handkerchief, and then to give the chocolate to members of the audience; I have no doubt that some of them threw it away horrified by the anti-hygienic nature of this, also that some of them kept it as a souvenir, and I saw at least two people eat it.

Hygiene and the reality of infection

Using the format of local archaeological strata, Collection: Persistent Items, at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine presents a simultaneous chronology from pre-Roman times to 1900 of the evidence of human activity and the perceived prevalence of infectious diseases. The work depends on the actual viability of pathogens over periods of time. The size of the potentially infected area (2.4 x 4.3m / 8 x 14 ft 3 in) refers to the notion of miasma, the space of polluted air within which the power and point of hygiene becomes questionable. The work also raises the link between fear of disease and susceptibility to disease, the role of disease in history, and the acts of transference of pathogens.

In this case we are projecting onto the object a projection back to us, that the object is reaching out to touch us.

There is strong evidence for an understanding of the fact if not the micro-processes of contagion, through germ-warfare using diseased corpses.

To us, even with the benefit of hindsight, the simple business of washing hands before dealing with food, or after dealing with dirt, which would clearly improve an individual’s chances of combating disease seems such an obvious idea that we can easily find ourselves thinking that our forebears must have been stupid in this respect. This teleological perspective on the past does not take account of the framework of thought pertaining to disease, miasma, bad air, etc. Simply put, if you are moving within an area of infection in which the physicality of the atmosphere is infected, why bother with hygiene? The plague/smallpox/bloody flux will get you if it chooses to.


We are accustomed to thinking of germ theory as the cause of contagion as a relatively recent idea. But if we look at the history of deliberate acts of infection in warfare – the catapulting of infected corpses into besieged cities, for example in the case of the Crusader armies besieging Nicaea (now Iznik in Turkey) in 1098, who catapulted diseased human heads in to the city, people seemed to have a good idea of what they were doing and why.

A line of physical contact

Look now at this idea of the "line of physical contact" which leads people to want to touch museum objects, how it relates to relics, but also the desire to touch celebrities, and how the idea of there being nothing but air between the visitor and the object is offered as an acceptable substitute. If a large iconic object is being touched as a physical link to something further back (i.e. nearer to a source), is there some notion of a goal for which e.g. Egyptian statuary is the conduit?

A story told by Barry Humphries is useful here. He was taken as a child to shake hands with the composer Percy Grainger, who had shaken hands with Greig, who had shaken hands with Brahms, who had shaken hands with Liszt, who had shaken hands with Beethoven, who had shaken hands with Haydn, who had shaken hands with Mozart.

Though each entity along this chain is important, within the context their importance lies in their existence as a link in the chain. There is no idea of loss of contact through there being so many people involved, nor is there a sense of accumulation of power, presence, what have you. The point is that it is a chain, and that it seems to be leading somewhere, to some sort of idea of the fount of musical composition. Or is it to do with the potential of going back through time at an identifiable level of illustrious physical contact?

Is our priority the act of travel, or the place of arrival?

Let’s now put time and space here on the same footing. Peter Brown shows that the cult of the saints’ relics was very much to do with going to a place to be in the presence of a holy person, which we can find in most of the major religions of the world. On arrival at the tomb of St Peter in Rome the whole process was repeated in miniature, a sort of recapitulation to remind the pilgrim of what has happened, what Brown calls a "ritual of access", or Josipovici calls a "ritualisation of the tension between proximity and distance.."

"Whoever wishes to pray here must unlock the gates which encircle the spot, pass to where he is above the grave, and opening a little window, push his head through and there make the supplication he needs"

This ritualising of the distance makes it palpable; in this the goal of the pilgrimage is designed to materialise and heighten the sense of distance. Josipovici proposes that aura in the sense that Benjamin uses it, brings distance to life. We might also usefully here look at the way that the opening doors of the cabinet of curiosity act as a funnel to draw the viewer or visitor in.


For Chaucer the journey is more attractive than the goal, for the Canterbury Tales stops short of the party’s arrival in Canterbury. Perhaps the experience of Praesentia cannot be explored as excitingly as the narrative journey, perhaps it defies expression; more likely the journey is about the experience of people, while the destination is about the individual’s experience of him or herself.

For the pilgrim, the reverence and wonder of the destination / relic was largely induced by the expectation, made material by the journey, and the pilgrim badge is a mark of the achievement, a token of the act undertaken. Time becomes compressed into the object.

Taking this together with the idea of the human relic that in Susan Stewart’s words "erases the significance of time", we can see that both these processes involve the control of time. Add to this the idea of the name that in telling us how an object will react to different sets of circumstances in the future; in this it gives us some control over future time. Add to this the idea of the person as event, because it happens in time, and we are moving towards an idea of controlling things that happen in time past and future, a potential to overcome the limits of time, including death, including our own death.

A place - Kettles’ Yard with Anne Eggebert

The house at Kettle's Yard is the former home of Jim Ede and his wife, Helen, and contains a substantial collection of 20th century artworks displayed alongside furniture and other objects in the unique setting that Jim created. Jim Ede's idea was "that art [is] better approached in the intimate surroundings of a home". Kettle's Yard is designed as 'a refuge of peace and order', an act and site of spiritual contemplation. It is proposed as a model for English domestic settings/interior design which "could be anywhere and for some reason … isn't" . We were invited by the education office to consider the site as a base for a project which would critically engage with the context of Kettle's Yard and its collection.

"We recognised that Kettle's Yard offers a cultural model for the perfect living space that we desire. However, we are aware that this environment which is proposed as something natural is a tightly constructed English aesthetic. We considered the ambivalence of the delight of being in the space alongside the oppressive care of negotiating our way amongst the objects."

We decided that the best way to test Ede's idea of Kettle's Yard as a domestic living space and not a museum was to move in. On the 16th June we invited guests to visit us and our 2 year old son in our new home.

The work Mr & Mrs Walker have moved comprised our living in the site for a week. Domestic activities were carried out in the public view, either seen directly by visitors to the House, or from the street through closed circuit surveillance directed at the bedrooms, the eating area and the playpen, shown on a monitor in the window of the gallery space. Our overnight stay could be watched throughout the night. During the stay we interacted with the visitors to the site, engaging in discussion about the project and implications of the work.

But applying the Heisenberg principle of by observing something we change it; KY is not the place it was before we moved in . It is now a different place, a place where we have lived, as well as Jim and Helen Ede.

Recent works using samplers become different of course, visibly different. How about King John’s teeth? Has my stepping over the boundary of time rendered the object non-precious, broken down its limitations, imposed from outside?

If I push the desire inherent within the work of King John’s Teeth further, what do I really want to do – to have the teeth fixed into my body, to embrace the physical past? Is this a physical kind of time-travel through the medium of the object? Can I get a return ticket?

The Samplers operate as a dialogue across time. My work (i.e. me at one remove) here is embracing, encroaching, becoming one with, with what? The past or an object? An object which has the same relationship with another person as my work has with me. It becomes a metonym for me embracing, mingling with that other person, with the age/gender implications inherent in it. Effectively here my work forces itself on, intrudes on the work of a female child. The implications inherent in this are far more disconcerting than those of vandalising the past, which has been a familiar accusation of this work.

In this there is a link to the Kettle’s Yard work, of sleeping with the museum or the object as museum (one of the delights offered to children members of Friends of a museum, or Museum Members, is the sleepover). As a further work we extended this for a project called "Home " at the Angel Row Gallery, where we replicated a Gaudier-Brzeszka sculpture as a soft toy, and photographed our son sleeping with it.

I wonder how this image of the child sleeping with the precious object reflects an adult desire to seek comfort, some kind of confirmation from something which culturally we have decided is deemed worthy to survive us.