Earlier this year, Little Toller published Alex Woodcock’s memoir King of Dust, a craftsman’s journey through the landscapes and ancient sculpture that inspired him to first pick up tools, eventually becoming a stonemason working at Exeter Cathedral. For this series, Alex asked writers, artists and those who work with stone to respond to the idea of ‘Artefact’. This essay and accompanying photographs are by the artist, psychologist and writer Louise Kenward.
How do you piece a man’s life together after he’s died?
Ordinary, everyday objects, does death turn them into artefacts?
After my uncle died, I learned new things about him, sorting through what was left behind: all the letters he wrote to Tony Blair that hadn’t been posted; the Christmas cards for family, for me, written some time before and found some time after, still in the place he had written them, pen cast aside, envelopes still to be filled; the mixing bowl, filled with urine, on the floor by his bed.
My uncle was a brilliant man. He was distant too, disappearing out the door after initial conversation was set to settle into something more domestic with my nan and my mum. “So long as you’re ok?” He’d say, when I rang after my nan died, trying to keep in touch, failing to visit as often as I wish I had. He would never ring, would never visit, wouldn’t want to intrude I suspect. He had his patterns and his habits, the way he structured his week with markets and pottering. Pottering had been collecting and fixing. His home was surrounded by sheds filled with things he’d found, been given, or traded. It was surrounded by bits of cars since grown over by blackberry bushes, things he would fix, was worth something, would come in handy, one day.
He had the space to do it, all this collecting and pottering. I have the same gene, but am more restricted in my terraced house. I wonder what I would I do, given those circumstances, of space and isolation?
Health and Safety was one of the reasons he was writing to the then prime minister. My uncle blew things up for a living, tree stumps and the like, when farmers needed land clearing. Increasing regulations was making it harder for him. He made fireworks, worked from home. He had the space to do it and the knowledge to make my nan jump, setting off a ‘bang’ in the garden for our (and his) entertainment. Increasing regulations were squeezing people out. During an inspection, quantities of explosives were impounded. They weren’t stored according to guidelines, he was told. The official proceeded to load them into the back of his car, next to the petrol tank my uncle noticed, as he watched. He waved him off with a chuckle – the inspector hadn’t got the joke. My uncle needed a factory, he was told. So he made one. A shed in one of the fields was painted blue. He posted the notice he was given on the front of it ‘Store for MIXED EXPLOSIVES’ was fixed with drawing pins, there was a padlock on the door. It was enough it seemed, all he needed to do to comply with new regulations.
I mourn the things he’s given me that have since been tidied away and lost in moving house and clearing out. We shared a love of science, a rare and treasured point of connection. Aged 12 or 13 he’d give me his old books, great thick tomes of lists of chemicals, as a new trade edition was issued. He had a knack for engines, a love of taking things apart to see how they worked, and putting them back together again. They didn’t always get put back together. When my nan was still alive, when he was still fit and strong, radios, heaters and typewriters would be unpacked, their guts sprawled across the kitchen table. My nan silently despairing as she made a space on the corner for the teapot and sugar bowl. “French fancy?” She’d say. My nan passed down her love of tea and cake, the ritual to every visit. We would go out then, to scour charity shops, leaving to his promise to clear up later, we’d be glad the heater/radio worked when it was fixed, he’d say.
He had his seat too. No one sat in it if he wasn’t there. Jar of cider on the floor by his side, ‘phone in reach, closest to the door. It had been the same with my granddad, in the other room – that was my granddad’s domain – walking stick propped up against his armchair to change channel with. No one used the other room after he died. Until my nan couldn’t walk the corridor to her bedroom. It was cold at the other end of the bungalow. A bed was set up in the other room, where she could light the fire. I wonder was she comforted by my granddad’s ghost in there, his pipe smoking and shouting at the races, the horses and the boxing?
I only ever saw them on a Saturday morning, assumed they continued the same routines whether I was there to witness them or not.
My granddad had more than a dozen strokes during the years I’d known him, up until his last. My nan outlived him by quite some distance. I didn’t realise how ill she was. When I made it to the hospital, she had waited for me. It didn’t take long after that. My uncle died a year later. He was found after a break- in in the middle of the night, police driving by came to investigate. He’d got up and fallen, and couldn’t get up again. It was protracted with a hospital stay and rehab unit, but finally, back in hospital, I was again the last to see him. The grim reaper, my family called me. I wondered if it was good luck or bad that he had been found in the early hours of that morning on the floor in the kitchen. Would he have preferred to have been left? He was a man of science not medicine, with cupboards full of tablets – prescriptions dispensed and put away. “Rat poison!” He exclaimed.
The house has since been emptied and refurbished. Central heating installed, double glazing fitted, bits of cars removed, explosives disposed of. But there’s still an echo. The land holds their memory. His ciné films remind me of times I hadn’t known and don’t remember. Glimpses of my mum, pregnant with me or my sister, walking with my nan through the orchard, or coming back from the shops on a Saturday. As distant as he was emotionally, he was never far away. Captured fragments now converted to DVD in flickering muted colours. I can watch my granddad walk out of the other room into the garden, bent over holding my hand to steady my wobbly legs. I can watch my nan, always looking like my nan but with more of a spring in her step, self-conscious as she sees the camera. It is a nostalgia perhaps, a version of events, which mostly was mundane and domestic. They’re the bits that are easy to forget, that time we went up to town and had a morning spent looking in charity shops, each one blurs into the next.
“Who did you see?” Was the welcome on our return. “Was it busy?” Our news report from the morning spilled over lunch, something fried in lard with bread. More tea.
What is an artefact – a thing with memory and meaning? Can landscape be artefact? A house? A family? An explosives factory?
“We are what we own…it is clear that between what a man calls me and what he simply calls mine the line is difficult to draw. We feel and act about certain things that are ours very much as we feel and act about ourselves.” William James.
Jean-Paul Sartre believed we learn who we are by observing what we own. Early civilisations believed that possessions are a part of a person’s ‘life spirit’, their sense of self. In Papua New Guinea possessions are considered so sacred they are grieved for as loved ones are, if lost.
Psychologists and analysts also have much to say about our relationship to the things we surround ourselves with, and the function of collecting and ownership. The ‘transitional object’ was a key notion identified by Winnicott in 1953. In this instance it’s the attachment to the thing that’s of importance. The special blanket, for example, acts as a replacement for the (m)other, the association between the two offers comfort and security, enabling the child to tolerate her absence. This is one of the foundations of the psychotherapy that I practised as a psychologist. Object Relations explore these aspects of significant other(s). As social animals, we are motivated to connect with people – care takers in childhood, and representations of them subsequently. They are the foundation to our experiences as we grow and develop, re-enacting these relationship patterns with others we encounter.
Objects don’t replace people but they can help us hold on to a sense of them. In my house I have my nan’s 1930’s sideboard, my uncle’s armchairs, my granddad’s pipe. I can see each clearly in their house and in mine.
I am an artist as well as a psychologist and I am influenced by my environment. In 2011, not long after my uncle died, I spent six months ‘in residence’ at a space I called Cave. I connected with both roles, artist and therapist, as I sorted through the items left there and told new stories with them. I rearranged and grouped things together. I wrote letters to the space, of the self I saw reflected there. My uncle was, perhaps, doing the same thing, writing a narrative about what was important to him. Stories we tell ourselves are often held by, and told through, objects – a memory jogged by a souvenir from a holiday, an item handed down by a grandparent – in turn our objects tell their own stories about us.
“They remind me of your photos of your uncle’s farm.” Jane said.
I was presenting my work from Cave to a group of artists, Jane was one of them who had also seen the photographs of my uncle’s farm, taken shortly after he had died. I hadn’t been aware of a connection at the time, I had a general interest in run down and abandoned places, wanted to keep the place exactly as it was, knowing that it could not last. Looking again, I could see what she meant. The things I had focussed on, the way I had framed and photographed particular objects. They could both be described as derelict and abandoned, filled with a collection of apparently random items. In both sets of images I had highlighted favourite pieces, things despite (or because) they were damaged and beyond repair, that I found beautiful. Most importantly, I think, both were now interacting with their environment. This was perhaps key to my interest in them, not the objects specifically, but how they were assembled, their stillness while also the presence of a sense of change, of transformation, of life. The distinction between manufactured objects and nature becomes less clear. The rusting of metal created lace effects as it deteriorated, making new colours of orange and red. This was the defining hue, the consistency in the collection at Cave. The wood was also decomposing as it rotted. On the farm, where there was access to light, there was ivy growing, covering and smothering buildings and its inhabitants too. The impact of the environment, the moisture and air the objects were exposed to, was now as significant a part of their lives as anything. The stories they now told were of abandonment perhaps, of being forgotten or no longer useful, but this stillness gives nature a chance to claim the things we leave behind.
As a psychotherapist I would pore over the stories of a person’s past, a part of the process of making sense of, and understanding a person’s present. In death we take an object to remember a person by, to retain a connection with them. In sorting through a person’s estate we see them anew, through the things they have left behind.
The strength of connection between objects and our sense of self re-orientates me to the world today, of consumerism and the felt need to buy the latest phone, car, widescreen TV – to ‘upgrade’. It shifts perspective on what motivates this, on the power of advertising yes, but also of unmet needs and sense of self that can be propped up by spending money and acquiring new things. Alongside this I see a growing push encouraging us to spend time outside, to find green spaces and bathe in forests. The two are incompatible. In a world that cannot sustain itself at the pace and way we behave around possessions and resources, to continue as we are, is counter-intuitive. Our drives run deep. Our world is spinning so quickly we cannot keep up with endless ‘latest developments’ of access to information, manufacturing, oil spills, new seasons fashions, fracking, extinctions. How do we cope? It is overwhelming. Reconnecting with something deep within, that reaches out to what went before helps us breathe, but what of the world we return to? My uncle, for all the things he owned, wouldn’t buy new things, an original recycler – out of tightness rather than goodwill perhaps, but he saw the value in the old and abandoned.
Unlike many professions, psychotherapy is not something you can do for your self – like hairdressing, you can’t see what’s behind you, there are always blind spots. I sometimes wonder how much we can unpack our ‘selves’ and rearrange things through the objects we own. I’ve parted with more items I’ve inherited than I have been able to keep, but they become a part of me, transforming into things regularly used or seen, they become mine, but always described in reference to their previous owner. There remains an essence of the person before, a layered history through ownership and a life with an object.
I tripped over the word ‘artefact’ when first asked to write this piece, it has taken time for me to reconsider the language I work with. I am more familiar with ‘object relations’ and ‘transitional objects’ in my work as a psychologist, I am more familiar with the term ‘found objects’ in my work as an artist, artefacts live in museums. In Tim Ingold’s essay ‘On Weaving a Basket’ he wrote: “Artefacts are made, organisms grow.” He goes on to show overlaps and uncertainties in these distinctions working with natural materials and in considering objects made by animals (like beehives and bird’s nests). In the sheds that stored rusting engines and used tyres, mice and shrews made nests, ivy grew up around and saplings self-seeded. There is a relationship between the two – artefact and organism. I wonder if these overlaps are similar to those encountered when something degrades and rots, when biological and chemical reactions occur and transform an object into something else. One of the last pieces I made in Cave was to leave strips of white printing paper on the floor to see what the space would do with it, a sort of right to reply to my time spent photographing and moving things, writing and recording. Returning several weeks later and the movement of water and the footsteps of the creatures that lived there, had filled the paper with drawings, of marks and lines from tails dragged through muddy puddles and splashes of water scattering mud. Are these artefacts or organisms? These of course are deliberate, an action made to capture something unseen. My uncle’s collections were entirely organic, accrued through a lifetime of things that might come in useful and machinery that needed fixing – their degradation was an effect of time. The line between what is made and what is grown becomes thinner and thinner.
Louise Kenward is a writer, artist and psychologist living on the south coast of England. Her work explores connections between place and person, with interests in the overlap between internal and external landscapes. Twitter: @LouiseKenward www.louisekenward.com
All photographs by the author.
Notes and references
Fromm, E. (1947) Man for himself: an inquiry into the psychology of ethics. Rinehart. New York.
Frost, R. & Steketee, G. (2011) Stuff: compulsive hoarding and the meaning of things. Mariner Books. New York.
Ingold, T. (2009) On weaving a basket in The Object Reader. Eds Candlin, F. & Guins, R. Routledge. London.
James, W. (1890) Principles of Psychology. Dover. New York. P291. Cited in Frost & Steketee (2011) Stuff.
Ryle, A. (1985) Cognitive theory, object relations and the self. British Journal of Medical Psychology, Vol 56, pp361-6
Winnicott, D. (1953) Transitional objects and transitional phenomena: a study of the first not-me possession. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 34, 89-97.