Tuesday, December 16, 2008
The Nature of Lost Things
I've been reading the photographer Rosamond Purcell's book OWL'S HEAD: The Nature of Lost Things. It's a chronicle of her years of engagement with an astonishing junk dealer in Maine; "junk dealer" doesn't really seem the appropriate term, as what this fellow did was to build, over decades, an enormous site of cast-off and reclaimed things, sorted according to sometimes mysterious principles, and then simply allowed it all to decay. Purcell loves the damaged, the thing marred by use and by time, and she's especially interested in objects in the liminal state of being almost unrecognizable, so far gone in their entropic directions that you almost can't tell what they are, or were. When does a thing cease to be an object, what are the limits of an object's identity? Is a doll without arms or legs a doll?
I'm reading this just after moving out of my apartment in Houston, a process which always involves sorting through things, letting go of some stuff, packing up and sending on others. And though I've been moving all my life, it calls into question the value or ownership. Why do I need these books, where did I get this plate or bowl, and why am I carrying them onto the next house in my life. Maybe this is why Purcell's compelling book unsettles. Her clarity about this vast, outrageous collection makes me nervous.
Here's how she catalogues the condition of the stuff in the Maine junkpiles: "I had never seen so much stuff to which so much had happened. Fraying, tattered, cracked, flattened, swollen, dried, scrawny, collapsed, shredded, peeling, torn, warped, weathered, faded, bristling, moldy, clenched, tangled, punctured, battered, bashed-in, scooped-out, withered, engorged, trampled, toppled, crushed, bald, listing, leaning, twisting, hanging, buried, wedged, jammed, impaled, straggling, stretched, disjointed, disemboweled, skinned, docked, gnawed, entrenched."
Yesterday I went out to East Hampton, to close on our new place there. The seller hadn't finished moving out yet. He's been in the house for years and had a large, rather exotic accumulation. When I arrived for the walk-through you do before a closing, the entire front yard was covered with his stuff, in various states of dishevelment. And in truth I felt sorry for the guy, in his rather overwhelming situation, but somehow I was also right back in the world of Purcell's incredible listing of things that happen to objects, and my own weariness with moving and packing, and it's not really an exaggeration to say I felt a kind of vertiginous horror: stuff, stuff, free me of stuff!
From which no one can be quite freed, and of course I don't really want to be. Most of the time.
Here's a slideshow of Purcell's work.