Sunday, 3 February 2013


What is an object t? This is not an IT question. It has to do with our understanding of and feeling for things. The Bacon studio in Dublin caused these questions to arise – see  Does an object have sense only in a personal manner? Does the sheet of paper or the brush in the studio as Bacon left them change when they have been recorded, removed, stored, transported, and placed in accordance with the plan that was defined when the pieces - their identity and precise location and relationships - were documented to allow the new location and relationships to be determined - transmitted and re-established?

This is the question. The answer is important if one is to understand the relevance or otherwise of these studio relocations - that of Francis Bacon and Margaret Olley. It also has significance for ordinary, everyday matters. We know a doorknob as an object as we do the door, the doorway and the room we enter. Do things become objects only when we know them? Is this a useless question like that of the falling tree - does a falling tree in a forest make any noise when no one is present? It is an intriguing proposition.

One carries the ability to identify and name things, but the experience is more than this. As I sit and type - one-finger, touch-tablet style that escapes the critique of such limited skill on a separate QWERTY keyboard - I look up and see a small Staffordshire mantle piece dog, black and white with strange yellow eyes. The twin is not there. But what is this object that I have placed there on top of a closed cupboard that is filled with crockery, glasses, valuable old books and sundry pieces of interest, beside: racks of CDs; the Oxford Library of Short Novels; a small, black cast resin robin in its nest; a clock - it's 6:48am; a small plate of shells; some cassette tapes; a candle; a resin-cast angel from Clonmacnoise; a resin seal; a cast glass horse; a pottery bird; a bronze porpoise; a glass flask; an otter on a rock – resin again?; a set of nesting glass containers; a conversion pug; a CD player; and a model sailing ship? Is the dog just a dog? Each item in its context has a history. It has come from somewhere, at some time for some reason. The cupboard itself has a story. All of its contents have a narrative. Indeed, they tell of history. They are history - its substance. This tiny assembly in this small room is rich in memories for me. Can it ever be the same for another, even if relocated identically in every detail into another space?

The answer must be no. It may have the same photographic presence, but each of these things relate to some personal humming; even to my choice to leave them there or to alter their arrangement. They are together as a set as well as being singular items. Can one object remain the same when removed from its place? What is that feeling that notices that something is missing? What memories do we hold of places, sets and things that generate these responses to voided familiarity? I look up now and notice that all of these things have shadows that touch and lap and project onto nearby walls. Indeed, there are two shadows - two lights. This assemblage has a complex set of juxtapositions. The sailing ship forms shadows on the wall beside the mast of the CD player aerial, all standing on the mass of the two-tone shading of the cupboard and the player. Other shadows become an integrated part of the collage as seen from this one position. One move and it has changed.

So these pieces relate not only to me personally in time - their story - but to my position. I am sitting. They will change when I rise. I know them. There is an intimacy here that could fill a book, literally: story on story about stories. The clock ticks as the CDs hold their wonder in silence, waiting to be released. Take this set elsewhere and put it on display - what will it be but a display that imposes on others the proposition: what significance is there to be recognised here? Then new stories start. So why exhibit? Exhibiting needs stories to place objects in context. Without this, one is left guessing, trying to locate meaning in voids, allowing fools and cheats to pretend that some random spill or collection is meaningful; or even worse: to tell those making an effort to 'get something' from the exhibit, that it is this very effort that is the 'art;' or some other esoteric nonsense that intimidates.

The point to note is that the cupboard-top array is nothing other than pieces that have been put there to be somewhere. There is nonchalance here. It is random in the sense that when a space seemed appropriate - be this either in size, or quality of place, or just nothing - it was used. These objects have been gathered in much the same manner as the Bacon studio pieces have been. They have just been put there as part of the fun and function of occupancy and its complexities. There is no preconceived arrangement or plan. Things have just accumulated over time. In this cupboard circumstance, we are looking at a period of more than ten years.

I recall the cupboard. It sat at the back of a shed on a concrete floor covered with muck and silage about 300mm thick. The shed was used as a byre. Sheep and lambs were brought in when extra care was required. Time had seen the floor build up with a rotting but fertile mix of sheep droppings and hay, and, well, general muck - mud and dirt. The base of the cupboard was buried in this mess, but what could be seen had a grand presence about it. It had been noticed for a couple of years before the question was put to the crofter: "Would you let us have the cupboard?" The answer was in the affirmative. No one knew just what condition this cupboard might be in at its base. It could be useless, but an attempt at salvage seemed worth the risk.

A day or two later, the task of digging the cupboard out started. It was messy and smelly. Hopes faded as the condition of the base was slowly revealed. All of the timbers were saturated with the juice of the sludge. Still, we kept digging and scraping. Finally the doors could be opened with a loud squeaking noise. What a surprise. The cupboard was a teacher's press that was filled with childhood toys and books, and old school records. All of the toys and books were removed and bagged. The interest at this stage was the cupboard. Finally it could be moved. It did not fall part, so we tipped it up and carried it out to the sunlight on the grass. The piece of moulding missing from one side was found on the floor in the mess.

After scrubbing it down with buckets of water, the cupboard dried to reveal some nicely grained timber. A closer inspection showed that, remarkably, the base was still in tact. So the cleaning continued in more detail until the cupboard was in an acceptable state to take inside. Here the fine cleaning and scraping could take place away from the challenges of weather. The surfaces were all sanded and rubbed with metholated spirits. It was indeed a good piece of furniture. The missing moulding was replaced and fitted perfectly. It was an astonishing transformation. There was no indication of the cupboard’s life in muck. The cupboard had stripped back to a hard, dense, closely grained, dark brown timber. It still contains the old school records and other old items and books that were dried and replaced on the shelves they were found on.

Who would know this? Who could understand this by looking at it? Each piece in and on this cupboard has such a story. There is a rich complexity here that throbs with a quiet delight that confirms being and being there. It is an intimate matter that does not seek to be anything else other than itself. It asks no questions and begs for no interpretations. It is just there, a part if the pieces washed up by life. There is a voe on the west coast of Unst in Shetland at a place called Woodwick in which the dentritius of the sea is washed up to the shore. There are piles of waste that have accumulated over the years. It is a most interesting place to search through. It is the sea's collection that has gathered in the same way as the collection of Bacon’s studio. But what happens when I notice something on this voe, pick it up, carry it home and place it on my cupboard? Has the object changed?

Well a rationalist would say that it is the same object. This is true in one way, but in another it is completely different. I have noticed it. I have chosen it. It now has a new context, a new story, a different relationship - well, an additional one layered on to its history.

There are two places on Unst. One is a small cottage that has been restored. The other is a duplex unit. Both have two stories. The cottage was built in 1852; the unit in 1962. The unit has modern storage, kitchen, bathrooms, bedrooms, sitting room, double glazing; the cottage has a sitting room, a kitchen/dining room and two bedrooms. It does not yet have a bathroom. Its windows are old double hung timber frames and sashes fitted with 3mm glass. Surely the unit is better? No. There is a story to the cottage – no, there are stories.

The cottage has history. Generations have lived here. Every part has a story; every place has been occupied and used; every thing has been touched. By whom? My forebears. My father was born in this place. My grandmother lived in it and died in it. My grandfather was an invalid in this place and died here too. His parents and grandparents lived here, and probably died here too. This little cottage was built by the uncle of my great grandfather. Its making stands today as the work of family hands. One is closer to others here than one is with the old photographs.

The unit was built by the Department of Defence for those stationed on this island in the 1960s. With the automation of services, defence pulled its personnel out of Unst, leaving its housing empty - in 2007. Now these units have been sold on at a really good price. But what do they hold as a story? Does it matter? The places are well built. They have probably seen some one dozen or more different families occupy them, as defence move folk about every three years. If pieced together, the unit may have quite a wonderful story, but it is likely to be fragmented and personally impersonal in the sense of being about others lives – somewhat like a novel.

The difference then lies in intimacy. It is like every piece in the studios of Bacon and Olley. Each part and particle made sense personally. For us, the studio becomes something of a novel - the physical facts of story; the remnants of another's life. There is a schism.

So what has all of this to do with an object? A cup; a chair - each has its relationship with the maker and oneself, as well as its own history beyond both of these. And a building? Likewise. The relocated objects in the studio are different to those that were left by the artist. They have a new story added to their existence. Our perception of them asks us to pretend otherwise, that these are as the artist's life and work had placed them. What eyes no longer have is their role in the artist's understanding of them. They are left to become parts of other stories. There, alone in its newly hermetically sealed enclosure, one Bacon brush stands with others in a bottle on a bench along with all and sundry other items. It has seen by Bacon as a tool that can give a certain feel in the hand and marks on the canvas: it has done this. It has been seen to hold potential. Now it is just there after having been considered by others in various ways, first as a Bacon brush, then as an object to be relocated, then as item 1376, e.g., then as something to be transported, unpacked, repositioned, so that others can see what the curator saw and recorded. The link to Bacon is tenuous; he has gone. The brush is a phantom of his ambitions for it and of his understanding of it, his knowledge of it and its story as an integral part of his life, work and being there.

And for the makers of objects? One has to realise how the object materialises into the complexity of presence for all and everyone. The concept of making a statement ignores everything except the artist/maker and his/her intentions. Intentions are irrelevant when they seek only to promote themselves. Intentions that are inclusive and allow for others and their being and ambitions to blossom only enrich and enliven. Humility is needed, and love. Compare a Gehry to a Wright, to a cathedral; a Henry Moore to a Buddha. There is a very subtle difference in these that we need to sense if we are to overcome the arrogance that we are presented with as art and architecture today – see Here a new penthouse becomes the theatre for the owner to control. Complete with chip embedded in the arm - like the identification chip of a pet - the owner can manage matters by gestures, as if by magic, using 'Jedi powers.' Man becomes the technological center of place that is for performance, the exposition of ME & MY. The hype of the thing as object is exploded into reality by the super wide-angle lens that seems to make this habitation more of an an exhibition space than a home.

Because of the limited access sometimes provided by The Australian with the last link, the full text has been included here. (A more reliable access to the complete article is obtained by Googling 'My Pad 17 November'):

The Weekend Australian Magazine


WELCOME to the age of the smart home, in which the seamless integration of clever technology and interior design promises to transform our day-to-day lives.
Pointing the way is a Bondi penthouse designed by Kevin Ng of MPRDG architects. Set atop a 1920s block at Sydney's popular beach, this metal-clad structure features a softwired integrated system to control lighting, security, temperature and entertainment. The interior is sleek monochrome, with both curved and angled walls - it would make a perfect sci-fi film set. And it incorporates ecofriendly technology: louvred windows to let in the sea breeze, special glazing to reduce heat gain from glass walls, and photo-voltaic cells on the roof.
Some of the smart design features used by Ng may soon become commonplace, along with intuitive lighting, floors that create heat and light using energy transferred by footsteps, rain-sensitive windows, colour-changing wallpaper and self-cleaning fabrics. In the kitchen, the fridge will display its contents and the use-by dates. Automated devices will take over much of the housework (robotic vacuum cleaners are already popular). The rate of innovations is gathering pace.
"Anything you can imagine today, it will be here by the end of the week," says James Billington, head of Smart Home Solutions, a Sydney company that installs integrated home electronic systems that control security, lights, heating, entertainment and more. His clients want what they already have in the boardroom and in five-star hotels.
"Most people building a quality home don't want clutter, they want simplicity, and they want integrated control that is pretty much invisible," Billington says.
A central panel, usually near the kitchen and living room, controls general functions, while bedrooms and other private areas are programmed for individual preferences. "A lot of bedrooms have iPod docking stations connected to ceiling speakers, with a sub-woofer under the bed," he says with a laugh. "And flat screens hidden discreetly in the ceiling that come down at an angle so you can watch TV in bed without cricking your neck."
Most people will pay architects and a systems integration firm lots of money to trick out their houses like this, but not all. Melbourne-based author and software developer Jonathan Oxer is on a self-proclaimed quest to transform his modest 1950s weatherboard house into "one of the most high-tech homes on the planet".
Oxer has modified himself in the process: he has an RFID (radio frequency identification) tag embedded in his arm - just like the one in your pet - so that with a wave of his hand he can open his front door without a key. "I have a general curiosity about how things work," he says. "My house happens to be a fun playground and there are a lot of things that can be modified. Basically, the way I see the world is imagining that everything is made of Lego: you don't see an object as being fixed and designed for one specific purpose, the way the manufacturer intended. Everything is malleable and can be modified and adjusted to suit your own purposes."
The fact that Oxer, his wife Ann and their two children live in a comfortable but unremarkable renovated weatherboard home in Croydon South, in Melbourne's eastern suburbs, "ties in to my general philosophy to make technology invisible", he says. "So when you walk into the house it's not obvious that there is anything unusual about it."
He built a central processor using Arduino (an open-source project with hardware, software and a community of engineers sharing work), which is controlled remotely by touch-screens or mobile phone. "Once you modify different parts of the house to make them controllable by an automation system, you can do other things - for example, if you link up the smoke detector the computer can automatically unlock all the doors if a fire happens," he says. "Electric curtains may seem frivolous, but it means you can use passive energy management. When you are leaving, using your phone you can turn off all the lights, close the curtains, lock all the doors."
Oxer has even installed controllers with gesture analysis software in his bathroom to allow him to open and close the blinds just by waving at them. Small steps for now, but who knows what he'll be able to do in the future? "I'm experimenting with Jedi powers," he says, tongue-in-cheek (one assumes).
To watch his high-tech home renovation projects develop, go to

The Bondi penthouse designed by Kevin Ng, which features a soft-wired integrated system to control lighting, temperature, security and entertainment. Source: Supplied
Jonathan Oxer at his home in Croydon, Melbourne. Oxer has a microchip in his arm that operates various gadgets in his house. Picture: David Geraghty Source: Supplied

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