So careful of the type she seems, So careless with the single life.
So careful of the type? But no, From Scarped Cliff and quarried stone,
She cries a thousand types are gone, I care for nothing all shall go.”1
The poet Tennyson in the poem ‘In memoriam’ expressed fears and anxiety of his experience of cosmic despair when confronted with the idea that life on earth is the outcome of an unsupervised process of change and necessity. For him evolution was a troubling idea, for if the earth could be seen to exhibit continual change then it was entirely possible that some day man would disappear from the face of the earth, and if man disappeared then love, art, religion and everything else that man alone shares would disappear likewise. To this day Darwin’s theory of evolution continues to challenge the old conventions of the meaning of life, God made us the story goes, and put us here for a special reason. Humans are not just animals, humans have spirits or souls and only humans can survive death. The theory of evolution does away with all these ideas, undermining the central claims of many religions. It leaves no room for god, the soul or life after death. Therefore, it could be argued our lives are in fact a mixture of life choices, free will, pre-destiny and determinism that drive us inexorably towards our inevitable end.
Initially taking inspiration from a philosophical approach I became engaged with the central argument of Darwin’s theory that suggests the sheer fertility of nature creates a struggle for existence. In any such struggle those lucky enough to survive must have profitable peculiarities, that Darwin described as Fortuitous Novelties. I became interested in exploring how such a theory could be attached to the sequence of events that make up our individual lives, and ways a life could be measured through achievement, career, history or knowledge. I take the position that it is the personal moments that provide the measure and meaning to life, and are the events that truly shape us. The rites of passage, of birth, childhood, love and partnership, old age, death are the emotional milestones making human experience that are the common property of mankind across time and culture. These moments, through the passage of time take on a special significance that become the memories that we treasure the most.
Objects that mark out these life events become personal memorials and reminders of our shared humanity. As life becomes history through the passage of time and stories fade and become forgotten we look for means to fix on to memory, to keep it tangible and real. Mementoes, keepsakes and souvenirs act as a potent reminder and are examples of objects that commemorate and celebrate lives lived.
Susan Stewart suggests the capacity for objects to serve as traces of authentic experience is exemplified by the souvenir.
‘If I purchase a plastic miniature of the Eiffel Tower as a souvenir of my visit, the object is not a homomaterial one; it is a representation in another medium. But whether the souvenir is a material sample or not, it will still exist as a sample of the now distanced experience, an experience which the object can only evoke and resonate to, and never entirely recoup. In fact if it could recoup the experience, it would erase its own partiality, that partiality which is the very source of its power. Second, the souvenir must remain impoverished and partial so that it can be supplemented by a narrative discourse that attaches it to its origins and creates a myth with regard to those origins.’ This narrative is not one that relates to the object itself but to the experience of its possessor.2
I became intrigued by the ‘Design Art’ objects of Constantin and Laurene Leon Boym (Boym Studio) whose miniature buildings series include the work ‘Buildings of Disaster’. These souvenirs refer to monuments that enter the collective memory when tragic or terrible events take place. Herbert Muschamp wrote an article for the New York Times (March 2000) where he cited the Boym Miniatures as notable examples of new design that deal explicitly with the tragic dimension. The real emotional need for these types of souvenirs was proved by the events of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that brought about a sudden transformation of Boyms work, from provocative design comment to patriotic effort. Their production of a Sept 11 Memorial Souvenir Set inevitably generated controversy on the grounds of taste, accusations of capitalizing upon disaster. Boym questioned how could souvenirs be of help and continued to relate that ‘the answer is far from clear, people put their own meaning on to the miniatures, and they find their own personal ways to use them as material for memories and memorials’.3 Boym considers these as objects of design not art, he describes these products as working within a new mode of design – based on communication, emotion and desire.
Referencing Boym’s output directly, I considered the notion of a souvenir devoted to the Manchester Bombing tragedy. The designed object depicts a pillar-box that remained intact after the blast despite being only yards from the centre of the explosion. At first it may appear shocking, at best a strange and eccentric artwork, but a souvenir such as the letterbox recognises the need for a mnemonic device, an object where people can put their feelings, and make their memories permanent. Just as with a monument dedicated to great people and important events such as war and it’s casualties, an identical miniature souvenir can spark within each of us a wide range of emotions and cause us to remember. It was important to recognise the popularity of souvenirs which attests to the value that people attach to these objects and some basic need that they fulfil by personal association.
I came to question how mementoes can be used to shape and preserve memories and gave consideration to designed objects as personalised devices to shape thinking, and found that such objects come to acquire a density of meaning by evoking the invisible, that of personal relationships and emotions.
Central to this inquiry became an argument for the revival of the artistic genre of memento mori, that embodies a narrative structure pertaining to the themes of life and death and the passage of time. Throughout my studies, I had recourse to appreciate the powerful symbolism of seeds as a carrier of markers that re-contact us with the natural world. When under threat change occurs in the natural world to transform into something that will survive and become more beautiful. Nature offers visual evidence that change can be an enhancing and transformative process. This led me to experiment with the notion of ‘seeds’ as a poetic metaphor that employs a universal symbolism engaging us with the recognition of synchrony, in that we are moving from the past into the future and nothing stands still. This exploration was an attempt to deal with the notion of complex poetry becoming wrapped around an object as a simple armature for the focus of creative work and as a means for individuals to discover conjunctions and connections to their situation as part of a greater journey.
Hence the overarching premise of this programme came to explore the context of human rites of passage and the utility of objects as indicators of these significant life events. Rites of Passage are described as a category of rituals that mark the passage of an individual through the life cycle, from one stage to another over time, from one role or social position to the next, integrating the human and cultural experiences with biological destiny, birth, reproduction and death. Nearly 100 years ago Arnold Van Gennep spotted a universal three-part structure to the form of rites of passage, a logical sequence of Separation, Transition, and Reincorporation. According to Van Gennep, ‘In the first phase, people withdraw from their group, in the third they are re-enter society having completed the rite. The liminal phase is the period between states, a state of limbo during which normal limits of thought, self understanding and behaviour are relaxed opening the way to something new’.4 My initial research concluded rites that engender positive change such as promotion or getting married are celebrated with vigour in our society, but enforced changes in our lives such as dealing with the death of a loved one, or coping with physical or mental health issues are often stigmatised and covered up by denial and silence. Yet in my view both types are two sides of the same coin, and both require a state of change to be entered where detachment from the past is required before embracing a new future. I therefore elected through my practice to create meaningful objects that aim be cathartic in situations that are considered to be a crisis.
Definition of Aims
- To design experiences, actions and rituals that can operate as devices to support changing perception, in order to focus on the opportunity instead of the problem and to find the positive in the most negative of situations.
- To design objects to play a role in significant life transition, times that are rich with creative possibility and recognize the need for an object where people can put their feelings, and make their memories permanent. An outlet that represents an opportunity for individuals to express themselves, where objects can benefit people in finding common ground in life’s experiences and may initiate new feelings towards their situation that may go on to improve their quality of life and to maintain meaning and dignity in their lives.
1. Tennyson, A, ‘In memoriam A.H.H’ Section 55 & 56. (1833-50)
2. Susan Stewart, On Longing, Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Duke. (1993) p136
3. Constantin Boym, Curious Boym. Princeton. (2002) p102
4. Van Gennep, A. The Rites of Passage, (1965).