Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Nostalgia for Real Things

When making love she had a habit of clawing at the walls. In their first week of passion she succeeded in tearing down all his posters. To make it up, she bought him a garden gnome calendar (“I've no idea why gnomes”). This, along with many other mementos of romance past, make up the Museum of Broken Relationships's summer show at London's Southbank Centre. The Museum proper was opened 3 years ago in Zagreb and contains hundreds of objects sent from exs the world over. Since then the popularity of this archive of heartache has grown and now its curators are embarking on open relationships with multiple cities and relying in part from submissions from these host locations. As in Zagreb its travelling exhibitions are admirably unfussy, sticking to just the donated items and a description of the relationship, with start and end dates, and how the object fits into this moment. Given that as many as a quarter of the items on show at the Southbank are from London the assiduousness with which visitors approach the displays -many faces were almost rubbed up against the plastic casing- may stem from the thrill of perhaps finding a relic of one's own past romantic exploits.

Although I didn't discover anything from mine, I was surprised by how moved, tickled and intrigued I was by the whole thing. Much of what is here wouldn't even make the discarded junk of a provincial car-boot sale; so whence its power? The coupling of object and story obviously appeals to a sense that memory can be stored in a tangible form; without these physical mementos we would have little to anchor our histories. I'm reminded of Sergei Dovlatov's discovery of his suitcase after four years of his Manhattan exile. When he had fled the USSR he was allowed only one case, into which he put “all that [he] had acquired in thirty six years”. Dovlatov, “engulfed by memory”, proceeds to tell a story, in his wonderfully picaresque way, about each item inside it and in doing so realises his own history as lived through a double-breasted suit, pea-green crepe socks and a pair of stolen boots. As Dovlatov reminds us, there's a reason books are shaped like suitcases.

Perhaps in an age where so much is digitalised we are experiencing a kind of nostalgia for the tangible; not so much objet trouvé as objet redécouvert. Receiving a handwritten letter now ranks among the paragons of serious romantic expression; sacking Troy would only top that gesture. Whilst it's always been possible for a theatre ticket or a book or a mixtape to be cherished sentimentally, these days we simply have fewer of these physical items in our lives. I see the memorialising of objects through the Museum of Broken Relationships as a partial recognition that the material paper-trail that once bound us together through forms of socialising and exchange -banknotes, letters, DVDs- are disappearing, or at least transforming into less tangible incarnations.

When Walter Benjamin wrote about the aura of authenticity he wasn't thinking about butt plugs or rice cookers but the Museum of Broken Relationships succeeds in capturing for the 21st century that very Benjaminian concern for how we -whether as collectors or consumers- project ourselves through through objects and objects through us. A concern for Benjamin was the concept of ownership, particularly what happens to the phenomenon of collecting when the object loses its personal owner and becomes public. Although all the original owners of the Museum's items are anonymous we still traverse that precarious boundary between the universalism of the shared experience -haven't we all been there?- and the voyeurism of peeping into the private lives of others, with all their vulnerabilities and raw emotions on show. One item that seemed to consistently command a flock of giggling hoverers, the aforementioned butt plug (with attachable tail), is accompanied by a fetish-frenzied account of body biting in the shadowy passages of the Barbican that would make E L James (or indeed Luis Suarez) blush.

There is also the ambiguity surrounding consent; donations only come from one half of the broken relationship. Given that at the level of ownership these objects were once shared between two, is it ethically acceptable for them to be unilaterally made public? While the majority of the exhibits have the sad old tale to tell of a couple drifting apart, there are also a fair few where wounds are clearly still raw and the wrongs of the cheating partner are laid bare. Here we're not so far from the territory of revenge porn. On the donors page of the Museum's website there is a striking failure to address this concern. Anonymity of person is presumably the sine qua non of ethical reassurance. But should objects themselves not have the right to be forgotten too?

The parts of the exhibition that are most worth remembering are those that don't so obviously call into question the dubious motivations of their donors. They are the ones that really think about how an object can come to stand in, however subjectively, for emotionally involved life experiences. And as these are some of the most important experiences in our lives, do those involved, to use a Benjaminian term, come alive through the objects that emerge during these moments? One admirably self-analytical text describing a 30 year old toy still preserved in its packaging captures this curious form of objectification. The donor writes of how he gave this item to a former girlfriend and has come to see in it everything that was doomed to fail about their relationship: his controlling nature, seeking to mould things to his own will and often unable to attend to the feelings and desires of his partner. He, the same age as the toy, was not ready to open himself up or perhaps, although not said, grow up.

The received meaning of objects is so often at odds with what they have come to represent for the exs. In a brilliant instance of curatorial thwarting of expectations*, a jewellery set is exhibited alongside a banknote. In the text accompanying the jewellery we discover that the partner who gifted this set was a philanderer and repeatedly exploited the donor/author. Pretty but worthless, she concludes. The Turkish banknote tells of quite a different relationship. The setting is a first dinner date: he settles the bill and refuses to accept any contribution from her. Later on, as they are parting, she slips a note into his coat which he discovers the next day. He puts the note in his wallet with the intention of returning it but it ends up remaining there untouched and functioned as a kind of lucky charm for two years, the length of their relationship.

In using the vocabulary of mementos, notions of containing and anchoring give what I'm talking about a degree of unearned fixity. It is precisely what is so subjective about objectification that makes the exhibition such a fascinating thing. They are not symbols because they do not aspire to any universal significance; they are merely things that straddle the boundary between two specific meanings. Is there a better way to think about objects when they become tangled up in this ontological game of public/private Twister? Divorced from their original utility or purpose but through the act of being witnessed and shared taking on new meanings, the objects of the Museum have a similar quality to that of evidence in a courtroom. They testify for the time, energy and emotion that we put into relationships.They are the physical markers of this experience and it would be a tragedy if they were to vanish into the algorithmic ether along with books and films and all the other things that once were real. 

*I owe this point to a JC