The ornate floral display of Drakaea confluens; the hammer orchid mimics the appearance of the female Thynnid wasp in an evocative display. When the male wasp observes this sensuous flower it tries to mate with the orchid and so transfers its pollen. With this intimate inter-species encounter the wasp and the orchid become entangled in one another’s stories of reproduction. The wasp and the orchid ‘become together’ in a reciprocal action that happens between the two, more than just a joining of insect and plant, the wasp and orchid are produced anew.1
The encounter is a becoming across difference, where entities communicate and come together in new compositions. Like wasps and orchids, human-subjects encounter objects and the two become entangled. I centre this article on subject-object encounters that occur when human-subjects are attentive to the embodied narratives and histories of objects. I recall my encounters with objects at The Biography of Things at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (acca), emphasising the storied lives of these objects. The exhibition opens a space to encounter the agency of objects. Its title emphasises the liveliness and life narratives of objects. It is this storied mode of encountering objects that allows us to hold open simultaneously a range of interpretations, temporalities and possibilities. By inquiring into the biographies, narratives and histories of objects we become attentive to the agency of objects, the intricate webs of interaction they are enmeshed in and how they relationally shape our subjectivities. These encounters with objects produce new possibilities for understanding them as co-producers of meaning in our shared spaces.
The Biography of Things is an exhibition that delves into the storied lives of objects. It brings together international artists who trace the narratives of objects through their work, offering us encounters with the topologies, histories and relationships of these objects. Camille Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue (2013) engages with objects from the Smithsonian Institute to re-tell a creation story; Narelle Jubelin’s Case No: T961301 (1998) draws our attention to the stories of mundane, everyday objects; and Brook Andrew’s Harvest (2015) demonstrates the relational process that we undergo with objects when telling these stories. These artists, along with the others included in the exhibition, bring together an array of objects, weaving their lively stories through new connections with human-subjects. In the spatial arrangement of the gallery the object and subject are reproduced anew as they become entangled in new narratives encompassing places, people, life and loss.
The Biography of Things is a contact zone, a space for subject-object encounters that allow new assemblages and stories to emerge. The encounter adds sentences onto the biographies of objects and subjects. Take the stainless steel and silver cutlery on display as a part of Jubelin’s Case No: T961301. The highly stylised cutlery began its life in commodity form — its value derived less from its utility than from what it communicates about its consumer’s social status. In Case No: T961301 the biography of the cutlery is reconfigured as it is placed alongside court records from the Ploughshares Four case. The case involves four activists who in 1996 broke into a Lancanshire manufacturing plant and used everyday tools to significantly damage a Harrier jet destined for sale to the Indonesian government, which was intending to deploy the jet against East Timor. The activists were acquitted, as it was proven that their destructive efforts were an attempt to prevent genocide. In this new assemblage the cutlery and the mundane objects used by the four activists interact and intertwine. Like the re-purposed tools, the cutlery becomes entangled in a new narrative. The encounter reshapes how we view both the subject and the object.
The multiplicity of possible configurations that arise from the subject-object encounter cannot be exhausted. Henrot’s ever-ramifying 13-minute video work, Grosse Fatigue, is an example of the lively web of interactions that objects weave through encounters with other objects and subjects. Made while she was on a residency at the Smithsonian Institute, Henrot delves into both virtual and actual archives to provide a hyper-taxonomy of ‘the universe’ that unfolds and enfolds as images ripple out, creating a dense layering of pop-up windows on a computer screen. The viewer’s perspective is collapsed into the first person perspective of the artist, seemingly placing them at the computer. At other moments throughout the video the viewer is placed inside the Smithsonian Institute. An archivist opens a drawer to reveal a collection of flattened toucans, recalling Jean Epstein’s theory of photogénie: ‘summoning objects out of the shadows of indifference into the light of dramatic concern’.2 Epstein argued that film could transcend its photochemical foundations when deployed by the right person, becoming art; in Grosse Fatigue a multiplicity of objects are summoned ‘out of the shadows’ and into a loquacious composition, achieving just this.
Grosse Fatigue brings the viewer face-to-face with the homogenising force of museological efforts to categorise and contain the natural and human-made world. Birds, insects, cultural artefacts are categorised and contained as objects from which human-subjects can force knowledge and meaning. The footage in Grosse Fatigue is accompanied by a poem, delivered by Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh, which conflates a conventional Western scientific conception of the universe and lineal time with indigenous, religious and hermetic knowledges and creation stories. As the visual and aural momentum moves towards narrative resolution, Grosse Fatigue finally realises the impossibility of its own project. The universe, its encounters, entanglements, flows are always in excess. Each event is neither singular nor exhaustive, in that it extends beyond the actual occasion or instance and facilitates the object and subject’s relationship to other objects and other subjects.
Henrot plays with histories and worldviews. The dominant Eurocentric narrative inherited from the history of Western philosophy that takes nature and objects to be fixed, containable entities is undermined.3 In this mode the human-subject is the sole producer of knowledge and objects are intentional nullities. Grosse Fatigue gives way to a heterogeneous array of objects and their embodied stories, which pullulate in spite of the normalising narratives that attempt to contain them as inert. In the Smithsonian a petrified bee livens, it interacts with other images and objects in the work; its biography lengthens, interweaves and becomes muddled with our own. The subject is no longer the sole producer of knowledge and meaning as the objects emerge as active participants enmeshed in their own complex pasts and presents.
In contrast to Grosse Fatigue’s dense layering of objects Andrew’s Harvest is seemingly free of objects. Harvest is a multi-faceted object, simultaneously functioning as a vitrine, a crystal-like sculpture, a museum display case and a tomb — reminiscent of the pyramids of Giza.4 Devoid of actual objects, the empty crystalline cabinet sits amid uncertainty, supported by burnt wooden legs. Like detritus, these carbonised red gum legs recall the excess and precariousness of museological practices of acquisition and categorisation, and their colonising heritage. While Grosse Fatigue communicates the uncontainable excess of the universe, Harvest’s charred legs embody the destructive force of attempts to contain this excess.
Harvest — an object in itself — denies any final constitution. The quiet audacity of the empty vitrine renders it all the more evocative as the viewer is provoked to perform the psychic action of placing virtual objects in the display case. But the emptiness of the case persists, negotiating a space for the viewer to reflect on the process of becoming with the object. I imagine the vitrine filled with the petrified animals and insects, which have taken flight from Henrot’s work. The imagined objects simultaneously manifest and disappear in the living present of the empty vitrine. The persistent absence of display objects reveals that subject and object are entangled in a relational process of constructing one another. Harvest, a fibrous and connective object entangles and engages objects and subjects, revealing the constant process of becoming that they undergo together. Objects encountered in Grosse Fatigue stay with me, they have become a part of my narrative and are reproduced anew in different encounters with other objects.
Harvest provides a space in which object and subject interact and entangle each other. It reveals the relational processes of becoming that happens with each occasion that we encounter an object. Subjects and objects are not static entities but are produced and reproduced through interactions and interpretations. Michael Halewood, following Gilles Deleuze, writes: ‘social, physical, and historical’ [and I would add cultural] forces define subjects and objects.5 It is through encounters, intersubjectivity, our interactions with and our interpretations of events, living and non-living entities that we produce and reproduce our subjectivities. The reciprocal exchange that takes place between object and subject is like that between the wasp and the orchid. Like the orchid, Harvest is shaped by the viewer’s response and like the wasp the viewer is shaped in response to Harvest — the two become together.6
A petrified bee goes on weaving new flight paths, it rests for a moment in the vitrine and then zigzags through other encounters and so meaning unfolds. The object-world you took to be inert livens. Objects become fibrous and connective entities that possess agency and force, interact and entangle. Deeply enmeshed in the world of objects, nature, animals, human-subjects become permeable. We open to the plane of possible moments of becoming together with objects that transcend the limits of our porous bodies. The density of Henrot’s work, the emptiness of Andrew’s, or the mundane in Jubelin’s are shared spaces for encounters to occur. Subjects and objects are made and remade in poetic formations that respond to the now. These encounters allow us to become attentive to the relational acts of becoming, of meaning making, which take place across the permeable subject-object divide and ultimately blur that divide as our storied lives entangle.
Tristen Harwood is an Indigenous writer, cultural critic and independent researcher, a descendent of Numbulwar where the Rose River opens onto the Gulf of Carpentaria. He lives and works in the Northern Territory and Naarm.
Donna Haraway, When Species Meet, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2007, p. 208. Also see Carla Hustak and Natasha Myers, ‘Involutionary Momentum: Affective Ecologies and the Science of Plant/Insect Encounters’ in Differences, Vol 23, 3, 2012, p. 74–118. ↩
Robert Farmer, ‘Jean Epstein’ in Senses of Cinema, Issue 57, 2010, url http://sensesofcinema.com/2010/great-directors/jean-epstein/, n.p. ↩
Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason, Routledge, London, 2002, p. 49. ↩
Lizzie Muller, ‘Harvest (2015)’ in The Biography of Things, ex. cat., Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 2015, p. 7. ↩
Michael Halewood ‘On Whitehead and Deleuze: The Process of Materiality’ in Configurations, Vol 13, No. 1, 2005 p. 74–75. ↩
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1980, p. 10. ↩