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.
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.