​How Ordinary Objects Become Extraordinary

This essay explores the relationship between objects and humans, the formation of emotional attachment to objects and how these affect our perception on objects and our emotions are changed and affected. Objects are objective but it is interesting that people often form certain connection to particular objects and some might share similar traits in the connection. I wonder to what extent an imaginary or a fictional object is able to create such connection and why some of them cannot. In order to analyze this relationship between objects and humans, I will first look at the link between objects and portraits. Then, I will explore the relationship between objects and humans and discuss the role of ‘uncanny’ in turning the ordinariness of objects into extraordinary sources for artists.

Talking about Louise Bourgeois, Gibbons (2008:17) suggested that art is the medium through which she comes to term with and transcend a painful and imperfect past. Gibbons made a convincing argument that artists always project their personal experiences and emotions on things they create. For instance, Frida Kahlo painted stories about her suffering from illness and unhappiness from marriage, Vincent Van Gogh painted his hallucinated vision and his self-portrait reflected his mental states. Some artists prefer using objects instead of portraying the scene of events directly. Artists like Tracy Emin, Louise Bourgeois and Ged Quinn told stories through depicting the objects themselves rather than using portraits. ‘Memories are linked to imaginary objects and images…for the easy retrieval of information or experience.’ (Gibbons, 2008) These all linked us back to the relationship between objects and personal experience.

Miller (2010:50) suggested that objects are most powerful when they are familiar, as we get used to their existence, that they fall into background and affect our behaviour and perception without our notice. Although it may be true to some extent, objects may be more powerful when they are strange to draw our attention. In Magritte’s paintings, he loved to misplace the object from its original familiar place into somewhere weird. Calvocoressi (1979:4) argued that by doing this Magritte can show his belief that ‘the more familiar the object, the louder it would scream when divorced from its habitat’.

Figure 1: ' The Blank Cheque' by Rene Magritte, oil on canvas, 1965

Freud (1919:219-221) proposed that we sometimes experience uncanny when the objects are ‘known of old yet unfamiliar.’  Turkle (2007) explained that objects are evocative because they ‘remind us of the blurry childhood line between self and other’.  Objects are powerful not because they are familiar or unfamiliar, but because they are both at the same time. Humans are meaning-making creatures. When we encounter something new and not making sense, we always try to make sense of it. This is possibly why we tend to read the small caption when viewing artwork. That is why people in the past blamed the witch and demons about the unexplained or strange phenomena. When people face uncanny things, they cannot stop from trying to solve the riddle and that is what makes uncanny object so attractive and leaves a lasting impression on people’s mind.  Take Giuseppe Arcimboldo as example, he is still well known of his fruit face portrait after all these years but his conventional religion paintings are forgotten.  Uncanny things are always more interesting and attractive.

We all had experienced the moment that we thought we see something but it is not the thing we thought. We tend to see other things in mundane objects, for instance the nun bun discovered in a coffee house in 1996 that people think it looks like Mother Teresa, and the famous grilled cheese sandwich that look like Virgin Mary which was sold in eBay in 2004. We always see car’s front as a face and people really do sell eyelashes for sticking onto the headlights. Disney even makes a cartoon called Cars that literally turn the front of the cars into faces. It is funny that we seem to have a tendency to see faces everywhere. This phenomenon is called pareidolia.

Figure 2: ' Vertumnus' by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, oil on canvas, 1591

Figure 3: ' Nun Bun’ found in Bongo Java, pastry, 1996

Figure 4: Screenshot of online shop ‘CarDeco’ selling headlight eyelashes

According to a scientific study on learning process by Takeo Watanable (2007), it is shown that the more frequent we see an object, the higher sensitivity we will develop it in our brain. In other words, if we are exposed to a certain repeated object, we become highly sensitive to that object that we will easily mistaken other things which look like that object. This eventually interferes our perception of reality because we see things even when they are not really existed. Lee (2014) said the purpose of this ability was to increase our survival by being able to recognize predators and our kind. We are born to have the ability to see the extraordinary from ordinary things, with a little imagination we novelty added.

 

Hence, object is not just merely object itself. Through our memory and tricks of our brain, we see things differently. Foster (1993) suggested that ‘each new object is a substitute for the lost one, that and the lost object is a fantasy, a simulacrum’, and ‘the found object of objective chance is a lost object that, never recovered, is forever sought, forever repeated.’ Surrealist objects release the fantasy of the long lost object at once. Take Tim Burton as an example. According to Burton (2012), the movie Frankenweenie (1984, 2012) was based on his childhood dog Peppi. He could not bring him back to life so he did it in the movie and it was not just one time. In most of his movie, there is always a dog like Zero from The Nightmare before Christmas (1993) and Scraps from The Corpse Bride (2005). Dog is like an eternal recurrent object for Burton, that he can ‘never recovered’ his childhood dog and ‘forever repeated’ in his works.

 

Surrealist objects are the other dimensions of reality as they reconfigure real objects, just like what Malt (2004:87) said, ‘creates an entirely new form out of a formless material.’  My current practice is based on the elements of uncanniness and the interference of human’s perception of reality, to give new form of my formless personal experiences and emotions and to create evocative and uncanny object paintings.

References

Calvocoressi, R. (1979) Magritte. Oxford: Phaidon Press Limited

 

Foster, H. (1993) Compulsive Beauty. Cambridge: MIT Press

 

Freud, S. (1919) “The Uncanny,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. James Strachey et al., vol. XVII, 219–221.

 

Gibbons, J. (2007) Contemporary Art and Memory. London: I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd.

 

Lee, K. (2014) 'Neuroscience: why do we see faces in everyday objects?'. Interview with Lee Kang. Interview by David Robson of Interviewer for The BBC Global News Ltd, 30 July of interview. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140730-why-do-we-see-faces-in-objects (Accessed: 2 Dec 2018).

 

Malt, J. (2004) Obscure Objects of Desire. Oxford: Oxford University Press

 

Miller, D. (2010) Stuff. Cambridge: Polity Press

 

Takeo, W. (2007) 'Science unravels why we see faces everywhere'. Interview with Takeo Watanable. Interviewed by Elizabeth Svoboda for The New York Times, 13 Feb of interview. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/13/health/13iht-faces.html (Accessed: 2 Dec 2018).

 

Turkle, S. (2007) 'Introduction: The Things That Matter', in Turkle, S. (ed.) Evocative Objects. London: The MIT Press, pp.4.

Bibliography

 

Calvocoressi, R. (1979) Magritte. Oxford: Phaidon Press Limited

 

Foster, H. (1993) Compulsive Beauty. Cambridge: MIT Press

 

Freud, S. (1919) “The Uncanny,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. James Strachey et al., vol. XVII, 219–221.

 

Gibbons, J. (2007) Contemporary Art and Memory. London: I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd.

 

Lee, K. (2014) 'Neuroscience: why do we see faces in everyday objects?'. Interview with Lee Kang. Interview by David Robson of Interviewer for The BBC Global News Ltd, 30 July of interview. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140730-why-do-we-see-faces-in-objects (Accessed: 2 Dec 2018).

 

Malt, J. (2004) Obscure Objects of Desire. Oxford: Oxford University Press

 

Miller, D. (2010) Stuff. Cambridge: Polity Press

 

Takeo, W. (2007) 'Science unravels why we see faces everywhere'. Interview with Takeo Watanable. Interviewed by Elizabeth Svoboda for The New York Times, 13 Feb of interview. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/13/health/13iht-faces.html (Accessed: 2 Dec 2018).

 

Turkle, S. (2007) 'Introduction: The Things That Matter', in Turkle, S. (ed.) Evocative Objects. London: The MIT Press, pp.4.

© 2020 by Sirius Chan