The Things We Carry

Much like the famed novel by Tim O'Brien The Things They Carried which highlights the both tangible and intangible things the soldiers of Alpha Company brought with them during their service in the of the Vietnam War, people today tend to carry quite peculiar things with them throughout their lives. Things that cannot be seen, such as fear and guilt, and also those things more visible such as a lucky penny or an heirloom ring. This week I sat down in my studio and contemplated what it was that I carried with me that others could relate to when viewing my art. What was it that interested me so much in the excessive nature of consumers today, and why do I myself fall into the trap of excessive consumption and acquire material things for no reason at all other than to simply have them.

We all do it, we buy into the market. We purchase the twenty four pack of water bottles instead of drinking out of the sink. We get the to-go meal because it's faster than sitting down and waiting to be served. We grab a quick cup of coffee through the drive thru because we just don't have the time. It happens now without us even noticing it; we are wasteful. Americans in particular generate an average of 4.3 pounds of household waste per day, all of which goes to over 3500 landfills, and yet two-thirds of it is actually compostable.  But Americans don't do too well when it comes to recycling, composting, or reusing. It simply collects, piles up, and eventually gets buried or left to the elements. But why?

These images are from a protest against animal cruelty where humans became the meat, thus becoming the waste.

I asked myself repeatedly why was it that the society I was raised in was so wasteful. I come from an average middle class, military family. We moved often but generally stayed in the south United States, where recycling was not mandatory and growing food in your garden didn't get past a tomato plant for one season. My family hunts, so we always had meet in the freezer, particularly venison, and occasionally wild boar, but beyond that we relied heavily on the market. It provided us with everything else needed to survive; as it did for everyone else. That is where I think the big shift happened, and I'm sure it's been proven somewhere that when we became reliant on oil, the stock market, and technology---we as a society became less concerned with the preservation of whats around us here are now.

Thus we became more wasteful.

It was cheaper for us to go out and buy something new than to repair the thing we had before. Recently I read an article addressing a women's wardrobe. It caught my eye because I recently pared down my closet and was amazed at the number of "repeat" pieces I owned. Back in the 1950's and 1960's the average middle class American woman owned about 30 pieces of clothing, which she repaired, maintained, and kept. Today, the average woman owns over 140 pieces of clothing, of which are almost all manufactured outside the United States. Talk about mind blowing! A majority of my closet space was just repeats of the same styled items, but the faux pas of re-wearing something in todays fashion generated the excess closet clutter on its own. Again...I bought into the market.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Triumph of Death (c. 1562) in the Museo del Prado, Madrid. Brueghel was strongly influenced by the style of Hieronymus Bosch.

This trend isn't just in clothing, it's in all aspects of life. Above is Pieter Brueghel the Elder's painting The Triumph of Death from 1562 that depicts everyday life during the mid 16th century. Clothes, games, household dishes, food, and death himself are all depicted here. This image came to mind because it shows the full span of life, from rich to poor, young to old, everyone is present. It's a broad sweeping statement of the times, but the same can be said about today, for instance lets think about food in America. Actually, on second thought let's not even talk about excess food because a majority of it goes to waste due to wanting and not needing. The common phrase "my eyes were bigger than my stomach" should never be said, yet I hear it all the time.

However, I'm not alone in noticing of the consumer culture that we live in and the excess consumption of materials and products around us, artists talk about the problem all the time. Some address it in a negative light and get all apocalyptical like photographer Cheech Sanchez whom I found on Pinterest while doing a search for the key word "consumption." Although I cannot find an official background for Sanchez, the work alone speaks volumes. Referencing the classical Vanitas portraits of the 16th and 17th century in Flanders and the Netherlands, artists such as Pieter Claesz who's piece Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill from 1628 is described as:

This is one of the earliest dated still lifes by Claesz, a Haarlem painter who gave extraordinary presence to familiar things. Here a skull, an overturned glass roemer with its fleeting reflections, an expired lamp, and the attributes of a writer suggest that worldly efforts are ultimately in vain.

It was so interesting that the topic of familiar things was noted by The Met in regards to this work from 1628. Going back to the topic of the things we carry---we all carry familiar items with us everyday, and I found it so interesting that this painting is described as a representation of items attributed to the efforts of the person who owned them. (The thought that our possessions are what make us scares me...and yet its been a topic of discussion for centuries apparently.)

Finding more about the Vanitas paintings does however make my work feel a bit more grounded in the context of their creepiness, as does the semi apparent theme I've picked up on concerning the increased obsession with death and decay seen in the Ars moriendi, the Danse Macabre, and the motif of the Memento Mori. I can appreciate the wording spun by the ever so beloved quick access wikipedia, in that "paintings executed in the vanitas style were meant to remind viewers of the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death."

Philippe de Champaigne's Vanitas (c. 1671) is reduced to three essentials: Life, Death, and Time

So then what about other forms of art that reference this excessive nature aside from still life photography you ask...since I am working in the realm of three dimensions? Well, I came across Judith Scott who was a visual artist isolated by Down Syndrome and profound deafness, who achieved world recognition for her enigmatic fiber sculptures. Her sculptures also oddly enough popped up when searching key words such as "excess" "waste" "collection" and "piles" just to name a few. This short youtube clip I've attached below is about her history and work. It is a good watch if you've got eight minutes to spare, as well as have an interest in art made by a non educated artist...something we discussed in my theory class this last Thursday. I argued that "outsider art" is just as good as anything other art, which is right, but we concluded that the context of the art and its viewer is what places the work into a particular "art world" as Danto would put it.

There it all is, I suppose. Quite a bit of new information thrown into the world and not much resolution to show for it.

My work will continue to develop and next week I will have posted new images of my work up to date. I took photos this past week and now just have to edit them down into more manageable bits to upload. In regards to my own work however, I spent this week getting ready for a massive undertaking of casting and building. I made 300pounds of high grog clay for extreme rigidity and stability as well as a full batch of casting slip, a new formula I tested from Val Cushing's book called Wally's Wonder Slip. I also went to the local GoodWill to hunt for white plates and saucers to use in my work. Overall I am looking forward to what the week holds and what new influences will pop up in my work now that it's clear I need to drag in the life, death, and time aspect.

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