Rag and Bone Shop (The Cabinet of Curiosities)

As someone who is fascinated by objects and their provenance (and has great difficulty getting rid of things I can no longer justify the need to keep) I feel a great affinity with collectors. There is something obsessive about a collection that focuses on one specific item or theme, for example, collections of Elvis memorabilia or Susie Cooper polka dot china (but only in blue). I like that kind of single-mindedness. For those collectors, the joy of collecting is in the search, the striving for completion (mixed with a secret desire never to complete, for to complete would mean there would be nothing more to search for).

I am a great admirer of Francis Alÿs’s Fabiola installation, which I saw at the National Portrait Gallery in 2009, and which has toured the world – this strange collection of over 300 images of Saint Fabiola, a 4th century Roman matron. Two aspects of the installation impressed me: 1. All the images of the saint are identically posed, based on a nineteenth-century French Salon painting, ironically now lost; 2. The artist spent fifteen years trawling flea markets and junk shops all over the world seeking out these images, rendered in a variety of genres, and all by amateur painters and craftspeople. It is Alÿs’s singular and obsessive act of collecting that most moves me; his search for this (not so) obscure saint, this one image of her copied and copied again, and then presented by him in one place. A world conference of Fabiolas. So I was thrilled on my recent trip to the Saturday market in Bruges to find my first Fabiola, in the form of an oval brooch. I resisted buying it, just in case Alÿs has an itch to add to his collection. It was enough just for me to see one out of the context of his installation. Presumably, once you start looking, you see them everywhere …

And you start to wonder how they got to where you found them. Flea markets are a great place to ponder this question. Things travel from one corner of the world to another, in suitcases or pockets. Some things never lose their power, even out of context. At the Saturday market in Bruges, I was momentarily halted in my tracks by the sight of a selection of Nazi memorabilia spread out innocently on a rug on the grass, part of a more general and random selection of goods offered by a jovial middle-aged Belgian dealer. Objects tainted by association. I had recently finished reading the excellent book The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, so as I wandered the stalls, his summary of the life of objects came to mind:

How objects are handled is all about story-telling. I am giving you this because I love you. Or because it was given to me. Because I bought it somewhere special. Because you will care for it. Because it will complicate your life. Because it will make someone else envious. There is no easy story in legacy. What is remembered and what is forgotten? There can be a chain of forgetting, the rubbing away of previous ownership as much as the slow accretion of stories.

Of course, his inheritance, the collection of netsuke which is at the centre of the book, was hidden (under a mattress) from the Nazis who invaded his great-grandfather’s mansion in Vienna; so they are linked by history to these grim Nazi souvenirs (one of the less attractive aspects of our collecting culture – the need to grab trophies from those we’ve defeated).

As a collector whose habits are both specific (Chinese ginger jars and mid-century Scandinavian pots) and random (anything that catches my eye, from a rat’s skull to a Victorian grave marker), I appreciate the need to surround oneself with curiosities; objects which represent the variety of the world. I have always liked the idea of a wunderkammer, a cabinet (or in Renaissance times, a whole room) which would gather objects both man-made and natural, ancient and rare, works of art or geological samples.

Or even things common and ordinary. The best (and most obsessive) book on this type of ephemeral collecting is Collections of Nothing by William Davies King, in which he lists (over two pages) all the varieties of tuna fish for which he has collected labels from their cans. It is crazy, but also fascinating, as a way of recording how we branded and packaged items for sale at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Of no value now, but in years to come …

Eavan Boland describes one of her poems as ‘a small inventory of my views’. Perhaps poems are also a way of gathering these disparate objects together, another kind of ‘cabinet’. I will leave you with a quote from William Davies King’s book:

Collecting is a way of linking past, present, and future. Objects from the past get collected in the present to preserve them for the future. Collecting processes presence, meanwhile articulating the mysteries of desire. What people wanted and did not want drives what collectors want and do not want in anticipation of what future collectors will want or will not want. The mathematical formula connecting these equations of desire is mysterious and difficult …