It starts with my own journey, not my usual photo walk, but a hunt for discarded objects that I will claim as my found objects. Objects discovered by chance and ‘considered from an aesthetic viewpoint’. I swap my camera for a carrier bag and proceed to scan the ground with an unexpected self consciousness. I’m in Glasgow, I walk from Buchanan Street bus station to University Way, which is more or less a straight line, heading west through the city for thirty minutes. This is a clear start and end point, which is helpful for my concentration and limits any extra decision making – because to blink would be to miss the low lying treasure.
I’ll admit this activity amounted to voluntary litter picking. Which sounds admirable, if it wasn’t for leaving most of it on the ground as I reviewed debris from the newly required ‘aesthetic viewpoint’. It felt odd at first, to pause and idle around kerbside, whilst regular folk pass by, moving through at speed. I think about how a walking pace is one of my safety indicators – and if I saw me from a distance I’d be very suspicious. So I channelled Rauschenberg as I walked and collected, taking on his optimism. He’s quoted at the time of 1950’s, when making his combines and living in New York; ‘“I actually had a kind of house rule, if I walked completely around the block and didn’t find enough to work with, I could take one other block and walk around it in any direction—but that was it. The works had to look at least as interesting as anything that was going on outside the window.”
Ten minutes in to my walk, I started to gather some of my own interesting stuff, I relaxed, my eye tuned in, filling my bag with materials, trusting I’d find enough to fulfil this unknown project ahead.
I see this collection as another way ‘in’ to a creative process, a starting point. Just like a photo walk offers a chance to explore and be surprised, a ‘found object walk’ offers the same. Starting with nothing and having faith in the act of discovery, controlling only the method, not the outcome. What began as an exercise on questioning aesthetics, was also humbling and freeing, with an unintended survey of Glasgow’s consumption.
The ‘finding’ of the objects is step one. I’m following direction from Jasper Johns for this month’s project; “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it. (Repeat.)” I’ll share my own journey of the found object through a series of steps. I draw on influences from artists, some intentional and some having seeped into my practice over time. Which is an interesting outcome, to notice again where your artistic leanings are by working with new materials.
“Take an Object…”
I run a bath and pour the contents of my carrier bag into the water. I soak them for a few hours, scrub them and leave them to dry, cleansed and anew. Who knows if Rauschenberg washed his objects, nae matter, I’m creating my own sequence of events. My objects move into a neutral space – the impersonal studio, ready to be examined.
I photograph each object in turn, in daylight, sitting on white paper, capturing shadow and definition of each piece. Mostly as a birds eye view camera angle. Questions of value and status dissolve as each object is given equal time and space to be documented. I start to consider the sculptural possibilities, how objects might combine, by colour, material or shape.
I begin by arranging by hue, altering quickly the way the objects are understood. I get drawn into the group of white, cream and beige. How their sum of parts can suggest an elegance and simplicity, a world away from their isolated origin in a street puddle. Here is where the artistic control returns. I get immersed in moving these objects of whiteness around the page, enjoying how small variations create a new scene, questioning what makes an arrangement more ‘right’ than another. The camera being vital to capture this activity. Here’s a short animation of these compositions…
“Do Something To It…”
I proceed with the project, looking for ways to transform the object itself. I look to how I can create my own assemblage, a term described as “art that is made by assembling disparate elements – often everyday objects – scavenged by the artist or bought specially” Tate. Joseph Cornell was famous for this. There’s a beautiful essay dedicated to Cornell written by the artist John Stezaker, he writes: “His (found) images have a previous life in circulation where, in their legibility, they have been universally overlooked, treated with indifference and eventually cast out. Like orphans, Cornell gives them new homes in his boxes. In these final resting places, they take on a second life, a visibility within the dark aura of fascination.”
With the likes of Joseph Cornell or Louise Nevelson on my shoulder, I explore the materials by hand, looking and feeling for ways the items can fit together – how they can create a match. Binding and wrapping seem to be my choices. I don’t want the method of assembly to overwhelm the objects but become integral to the combination. I use surgical tape, cello tape and thread to fuse pieces together. As I work, I start to recall an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection a few years ago called Memory Movement, Memory Objects by Alice Anderson. Obsessively wrapped everyday objects in strands of copper wire, offering an exquisite new way to observe the very familiar.
It’s a period of trial and error. Except there’s no definitive clue about right or wrong here. My assemblage evolves one way and I wonder the outcome if in another’s hands. With a free styling approach in mind, I stumble my way through, connecting the contours or the scale of various objects together. I’m looking for some synchronicity perhaps, parts that add up to a new whole. Each unit transformed simply by being placed with another to ignite fresh sensations or stories. More dramatic examples lie elsewhere – Merett Oppenheim’s Object in 1936 or Picasso’s Bull Head, 1942.
Their extreme editing of objects paved the way for Duchamp’s readymades. My own task here is limited by materials and scale, but this restriction feels good. It’s a useful challenge to stretch my sculpting ideas and try out unfamiliar materials. A big influence in my approach to assemblage is Eva Hesse, who’s distinctive sculptural hand writing always makes her objects feel connected, creating a unique space in their presence.
I’ve held onto this image of her studio since first seeing Hesse’s retrospective at the Tate in 2003. It was around that time I began devising my textile degree show, the final collection of work before finishing art college and her impact is lodged in my mind. Hesse led my interest towards plastic and resin, inspired by her experimenting with opaque and translucent materials. I started collecting carrier bags to paint as objects and photographed them against light. I painted resin onto fabric to make textured hangings. Her legacy for me is repetition, consistency, do the same again but slightly different. Variation on a theme is probably the constant in my own visual practice. If Rauschenberg is behind my spontaneity and experimentation, Hesse is behind my ability to handle the outcome, how to create a sense of order through editing.
Moving back to my own objects, I get tempted to stay digital and begin to view the photographs of the assemblages in Photoshop. I start to layer the images and get pulled in to new compositions like below. For me, creating digital artwork will be an inevitable step in the process. It is a way to transform work quickly and dramatically. And although tempting to continue, I want to push the physical work a little further first.
“Do something else to it. (Repeat.)”
How to transform my found objects outside the digital realm? I consider changing their environment – covering them in paint or placing them in water to photograph them again. Water made me think of ice, solidifying my objects and watching the thaw. A way to make a major change without damaging or permanently altering the assemblages. Freezing the objects also feels like preservation, halting time on any further deterioration – and about as far from the street as they could be.
With my tupperware collection ransacked and filled with water, I place the objects in the freezer for a day or two. I notice how the direction of the frozen blue rope will be dictated by the shape of the container, a process imposing itself onto form.
And then one sunny Sunday morning, with glee, the ice objects are removed…
Photographing the frozen objects became an immersive few hours. I leave them on baking trays in sunlight as I work with each one in turn. Rotating the blocks until I’d exhausted ideas. To photograph each object, I use a large sheet of white paper as a base, turning up one end of the sheet to form a backdrop. The opacity of the white paper makes it ideal for capturing the texture and contours of the translucent ice. I use a mixture of macro lens, flash and no flash, moving the camera around the object to capture variations of image. I use back lighting from sunlight and direct light from an overhead lamp. I am absorbed in seeing how light moves through the ice, sometimes blocked by the object, forming ice bubbles and flecks and orderly crystals.
To help convey the feeling of discovery, I recorded a video of my camera scanning two sides of a frozen object. The sound you hear is a recording of the room where the ice objects are melting. Listen out for tiny sounds of water drops, spaced out every ten seconds or so. The high pitch sound of the water droplet is so slight, I quickly set up my microphone in the hope of harnessing the moment.
By moving the camera close, the object and ice become one world, the story of the object on a new trajectory, away from confines of scale and place. The introduction of frozen water with object forever alters the way I know these objects and sharpens my curiosity for how materials can interact.
Needing to reclaim my freezer, I leave the ice to melt fully, feeling a little sad to see the end of my ice objects. Slowly, the found objects reveal their original state, with no harm done. I document a few stages of the thaw. As ice melts around the surface of the objects, I am able to extract the items from the ice, leaving indents and gaps around the ice structure. The remaining thawing ice becomes the thing to photograph, in the daylight, its surface is reflected in the increasingly soaked paper background.
Beyond Objects Transformed
What will I do with my imagery of the transformed found objects? I’ll certainly be moving into Photoshop and working digitally with the imagery as layers. Something to return to in another blog. I also think about repeating the activity of the original walk over a series of months, collecting objects along the same path. Perhaps I’ll investigate new ways of transforming the assemblages, using different mediums besides water to see the objects anew.
Before I find a home for my own found objects and reflect on their journey, I delve into research about artists who continually work with object, material and their transformation. I’ll leave you with a few examples of painting, installation, sculpture and sound all incorporating the sculptural elements of water and light…