Among both artists and contributing writers, a popular method of engaging with discarded objects has emerged in their contributions – the collage, diorama, or the shadowbox, all of which share techniques and stylistic features.
Wendy Stewart’s piece “The Revising Angel” (North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Canada: 1970s) is related to a diorama entitled “A Place for Everything” that she displayed at an art exhibit in London, Ontario in 2007. Stewart gives us context for the diorama, which she acknowledges is autobiographical: "It’s the story of the lullaby ‘Hush, Little Baby,’ in which the singer bribes the baby not to cry. As each promised reward turns out to be unsatisfactory—deficient, broken, fake—a new bribe is offered. ‘A Place for Everything’ imagines what would happen if, instead of discarding the objects that fail to please, the mother holds on to them. The singer—worn out from trying to deal with all the stuff—is the one who falls asleep, and the baby triumphantly escapes the chaos of her home. All of the substandard objects mentioned in the song (lyrics below) are present in or on the house, which is an old herb garden starter box—stamped “Versailles”—measuring 11” x 3.5” x 3.5”. Stewart explains that most of the items in the diorama are recycled from the household of the Smalls, the family of dolls her essay ‘The Revising Angel’ discusses. The rest are toys from Christmas crackers, gum machines, and the dentist’s treasure chest; magazine and candy-box cutouts, etc.
We encourage you to read the complete story under the Interactive Map feature, a written record of a child’s (and now an adult’s) relationship to discarded items—both typical and highly unusual—that were turned into playthings. And since many of those items no longer exist (the Smalls were, after all, “throwaway people”), the story is all that remains. (Continued after the image gallery)
Stewart’s story “The Revising Angel” refers directly to two tiny angels decorating a gift that she received as a young girl. But it but could also be interpreted as a reference to Walter Benjamin’s concept of the angel of history, especially when considered alongside the diorama. One of the diorama’s conspicuous features is a small plastic doll perched on top of the box, presumably looking down at the pile of rubbish/rubble down below. This gesture eerily echoes Benjamin’s description of the angel of history. In his ninth thesis in the essay "Theses on the Philosophy of History", Benjamin describes Paul Klee’s 1920 mono print thus:
"A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress."
One can’t help but look at that toy doll, facing down, and see Benjamin’s words manifested: “he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet”; and “The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.” In Stewart’s rendering, the angel (cherub?) is both protected by a makeshift helmet, a toy pan, and also vulnerable as she is facing the world stripped of any clothes. And, in a touch of irony, the angel leans on an oversized trophy, a testament/monument to all that is “sweetest”, but also in its toppled state a caution that those sweetest things do end, pile up and grow skyward. Still, one has hope that the word "Revising" in Stewart's title means we still have a say in how things turn out, or at least in how we remember them.
*A challenge from the artist: In “Hush, Little Baby,” Mama (or Papa, or whoever’s singing) promises Little Baby a series of rewards in exchange for not crying. See if you can find, in the diorama, all the rewards promised in the lullaby:
Hush, Little Baby
Hush, little baby, don't say a word,
Mama's gonna buy you a mockingbird.
And if that mockingbird don't sing,
Mama's gonna buy you a diamond ring
And if that diamond ring turns brass,
Mama's gonna buy you a looking glass.
And if that looking glass is broke,
Mama's gonna buy you a billy goat,
And if that billy goat won't pull,
Mama's gonna buy you a cart and a bull.
And if that cart and bull turn over,
Mama's gonna buy you a dog named Rover.
And if that dog named Rover won't bark,
Mama's gonna buy you a horse and a cart.
And if that horse and cart fall down,
you'll still be the sweetest little baby in town.
Our relationship with everyday objects – the way we arrange them meticulously around the home, how well (or not) we care for them, how we put them to use (for which they are designed, or not) – is often a reflection of deeply rooted beliefs, habits, and superstitions. At times these manifest themselves consciously, we reason them out to ourselves and others; other times the rationale is slippery, too personal, peculiar to a time and place, which from the outside makes it appear eccentric, odd behavior.
Janice Bisset has one such story (New Mexico, USA) that recalls one Mrs. Jaramillo, who in the 1960s had offered to teach her mother, Joyce, how to make tortillas. The trick, according to the story and to Mrs. Jaramillo’s inexact orders, was to fill a particular bowl with flour “to here, where this crack is.” Those were Mrs. Jaramillo’s baffling instructions. The bowl in question was one of Mrs. Jaramillo’s dishes, one that we would imagine she’d used countless times throughout her life in the preparation of tortillas and possibly other goodies. A young Joyce asked her teachers what most curious students would ask in that case: “But what if I don’t have a bowl with a crack in it?” A reasonable question most of us would agree, assuming that one is not in the habit of collecting broken or nearly broken dishes, and especially not for cooking. The response was anything but expected; Mrs. Jaramillo simply refused to continue the lesson, Joyce left the befuddled woman’s kitchen and home, and never did learn to make tortillas.
The lesson here, of course, has more to do with how to live than with culinary expertise. Of course Joyce would never have the exact same bowl with the exact same crack in it that would allow her to get the measurements of flour just right. Mrs. Jaramillo likely knew that as well. She was teaching Joyce to gauge the measure with her eyes, to get to know simply by feel, by instinct. To recognize that sometimes cooking, as much as life in general, is not an exact science, even though we might want it to be. How do we explain the reasons we often swear by our parents’ or grandparents’ cooking over that of any five-star restaurant?
Janice’s heartwarming story about her mother reminds me of a story involving my own grandmother, who similarly cooked her entire life without using a cookbook, measuring cups, or any kind of dedicated cooking utensils. For the uninitiated and impatient, she would be considered a terrible teacher, her instructions when asked amounting to “you just know”. In her later years I remember buying for her more than once new sets of pans, bowls, spatulas, and many other kinds of items I felt she might need and appreciate in her kitchen to make her life easier. Still, what I found is that those items got little to no use. She still preferred her nearly charred frying pan, the deep pot with the chipped lip and scratched bottom, the one or two wooden stirring spoons that had turned deep brown from years of use (one of which had even caught on fire and partially burned to a crisp). I didn’t understand it, and at first thought it had to do with her unwillingness to ruin something new and therefore she simply was holding on to it “for later”, for “when it’s really necessary” – a bit of an old world mentality of preservation if you will.
But Janice’s story revealed partially another reason why she went back time and again to those items that many of us would discard readily in favor of something new and likely more efficient. And I did try to force her a couple times to use the new items by hiding way the older utensils, tucking them deep under a cupboard, even outside in a shed detached for the kitchen. Without fail, however, those tools she’d grown accustomed to refused to be discarded and relegated obsolete. They’d always make their way back to the kitchen, and the new ones were safely put away. Those old, broken, scratched, charred items were how she knew what she could not fully explain; how she learned to navigate the art of the kitchen, how she made her world a familiar one. And maybe they also held within them stories, of a certain meal, of a time when a minor mishap might have lead to a few chuckles, or maybe she genuinely believed that they were better, would make for a better soup or loaf of bread. And maybe she was right. ~ Andrei
*I did not have the foresight to document the above story when my grandmother was still alive, but I did preserve a few images of repurposed/reused objects around the house and garden when she and my grandfather lived out their days. 1. An outdoor sink powered by rainwater; 2. A set of cabinets that used to be part of my family's kitchen in Bucharest, and which were taken apart and put back together (somewhat unevenly!) in their new location; 3/4. Pots and pans that I remember my grandmother using since I was a young child, still being used now by my aunt in that same house (making them about 40 years old). Very little is actually discarded, and even if something sits unused gathering mud or rust in the garden or the shed, by all appearances little more than trash, I have no doubt that years from now it will be put to use - either by necessity or imagination.
It is hard to imagine an object more haunting and emotionally charged than a broken doll. “I still tear up every time I see a discarded toy,” says Olga Inguz from Kurgan, Russia; “I used to pick them up often when I was a child: broken cars, dolls with broken limbs; sometimes I would find ones that are not broken.” Thrown away dolls, with their eyes plaintively returning our gaze, are at once repulsive and fascinating, sad and scary. They certainly invoke our sympathy: after all, anthropomorphic dolls, teddy bears, or robots were our first friends, confidantes, first projections of our affections and familial attachment. A doll with a missing limb suggests a story of yet another childhood vanished, innocence lost. That is why so many of our contributors speak about the desire to give a second life to discarded toys, to repair and make them beautiful again. Omnidoll from Garden Grove, California, tells a story of a childhood spent building an elaborate world for her dolls from trash, a talent that she has carried over to her adult world as well: “The skills and eye for small things I gained then assist me now in repairing old dolls and making dolls for my renewed pleasure as a grown up and to give pleasure to children and adults whose dolls I fix. I am grateful that I did not lose my ability to appreciate overlooked objects.”
Many of us have favorite items around the house, be it a chair, old dresser, picture frame, something we infuse with meaning either because it was passed down to us through generations, or because through use and the natural passage of time it acquires its own air of sentimentality.
Priya Sarukkai Chabria (Pune, India) wrote about such an item in her contribution of a poem, which you can read in its entirety by navigating the interactive map (by name on the scrolling bar to the left, or by region by zooming in on the map itself). Priya’s poem “Blue Vase” tells the story of an heirloom that carries within it the complexities of family life, which often reveal themselves over the years as we look back – either with fondness or regret, or a bit of both – to times that otherwise passed by as nothing more than ordinary.
What is especially interesting about the blue vase is that the item itself has had multiple functions – first as a typical vase, always glimpsed around the house out of the corner of the eye, and second as a lamp stand featuring a hole in its base, changing its function permanently. The hole in this case was intentional, bored into the base by its owner, a way to change the purpose of the object and in this way to make it something other than its original design. Even so, its new life as a lamp stand was temporary, relegated eventually to a corner of the closet until recently when its owner “decided to retrieve and reuse it. Not as ruined lamp stand, but as vase again, as when we were a family.” The desire to repair the hole in the vase and literally to make “whole” again, reminds Priya of “kintsugi or golden joinery, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery that highlights breakage by filling in the cracks with gold or silver dust so that neither its past as shards nor its mending is disguised; rather fragility and resilience are simultaneously on display.” Kintsugi does not seek to erase or eliminate what is damaged or broken, to lay claim that it never existed. Instead it seeks to highlight and celebrate imperfection, certainly of itself, and in doing so serves as a mirror onto our own lives – difficult, far from perfect, infinitely complex and full of things beyond immediate control. Kintsugi offers old items new life, it gives the broken a chance to feel whole again – as it applies to life, it helps to heal past wounds, personal or familial, it restores and reinstates into consciousness the value of what we might otherwise take for granted.
Here we highlight featured stories from the archive, contributions by fellow writers and artists, as well as reflections and comments on the value and impact of discarded objects in our world.