Object Lesson

Accompanies Blair Brennan's installation work "Caretaker and Tenants" in The Apartment Show, March 15 -18, 2007.

Everything was stories1
- Harry Crews

...items explain one another, like words in a language.2
- Donavan Hohn

There's a gazebo in my back yard. More accurately, the realtor's listing for my house described a Home Depot style pre-fab shed with a screened area in the front as a "gazebo". The gazebo is currently filled with the crap that won't fit in our house or the other shed (because I have this thing where I can't throw away things) but when we moved in, the previous residents, the Muellers, had left only three things in the gazebo. A dirty, once golden, shag rug covered the floor; an antique car calendar hung from a nail on the otherwise bare and unpainted chipboard walls and a half empty (or half full -- depending on your point of view) bottle of Johnson's Baby Oil sat on the window ledge. 

Neighbors told my wife that Mr. Mueller would sit in the gazebo in the summer and drink wine made from the apples that grow in the yard. No impropriety was suggested but it was too late. I had already envisioned the most shameful debaucheries taking place on this soiled carpet. The calendar and baby oil (and later the wine) were also implicated. Such is the power of the imagination in the face of otherwise unexplainable objects. This is author Donavan Hohn's description of a similar, albeit less prurient, psychometric event at a farm auction: 

Gathered on lawns and hay wagons, items explain one another, like words in a language. However miscellaneous they seem, these belongings share a kind of logic -- the ordering principle of human personality. One can trace among them the lineaments of an inner life. Political affiliations, religious beliefs, memories, vanities, even dreams are spread out for strangers to browse through. Here is a man's hair piece, here his wooden crutches, here
his numismatic map of the world festooned with faded stamps. Here is the Carter--Mondale button he once wore. 3

There is unrelenting fiction in every seemingly disconnected assembly of objects. Like when you look a the person in front of you in the checkout line at Safeway and try to understand something about them from their groceries -- toothpaste, pork hocks, low calorie ice cream bars, tampons, the Spring issue of "Guns and Ammo". Whatever you've come to understand about that person, in that endlessly complex millisecond, is a "story". Volumes of short stories inhabit every pawn shop, Goodwill store and garage sale because we will impose a "kind of logic" on objects if one is not immediately apparent. This "ordering principle" will inevitably be some sort of narrative.     

I walk through this apartment one cold Sunday afternoon. There's an old kitchen table in one suite, an abandoned camping cot in another. Here, inside this kitchen cupboard, there's graffiti "KEVIN + DAN LIVED HERE AND IT SUCKED" and on Kevin's and Dan's fridge a business card for "Club Boaz" a place "where gentlemen treat ladies like ladies". How could life have sucked for Kevin and Dan connected, as they were, to an international organization of like-minded swingers? Here is an apartment where squatters lived. Young girls preened in front of make shift vanity dressers -- bricks and boards with mirrors leaned against the wall. And on the floor, below the mirrors, someone dry humped an Edmonton version of the American dream on this squalid pile of blankets and sleeping bags. Here are empty chairs, makeshift tables, unwashed dishes, cigarette butts and empty beer bottles. Here is a broken knife and, everywhere, pennies, lots and lots of pennies. People ate, drank, fucked, took drugs, smoked, daydreamed, listened to music on a stolen radio, stood, sat, slept, dreamt and argued, perhaps over pennies.    

While in this suite, I think about conversations I’ve had with my wife. As a cultural anthropologist, Simone is involved in a semi regular debate with archaeologists about the need acknowledge, to some extent, the subjectivity of their research.4    Simone makes a persuasive argument that archaeological interpretation of objects will, inevitably be based on “cultural context” and “personal preoccupation”. Still, most serious academically trained archaeologists will strive for plausibility. I propose the opposite, a sort of suspension of disbelief – a wilful misinterpretation of objects and the connections between things, images and text. Where did the Anasazi go? What were South American crystal skulls used for? Who built Machu Picchu and Stonehenge? Better stories exist than the explanations provided by conventional archaeology.

Here in the squatter’s apartment, I imagine the worst or most intense dramatic situations for my characters -- and "characters" are what you have in the absence of real people. All that my amateur archaeology can verify from the available evidence, however, is that someone came in from this interminable cold. They ate (dirty dishes, food still in the cupboard) they drank and smoked (empty bottles and butts) and they collected pennies. You never really know what goes on in the apartment next door. But a smell in the hallway, something seen through a door left ajar, a misplaced word or a few objects in a room and you can instantly create someone's rich "inner life" -- not factual accuracy but fiction and therefore more interesting for its inaccuracy. "Club Boaz", it turns out, is a Christian dating club but it doesn’t matter. For my purposes, it is something far more interesting.

Blair Brennan
February 2007   

Florida – based author Harry Crews appears (as himself) in the Andrew Douglas film “Searching for Wrong-eyed Jesus”. In the film, Crews states “The truth of the matter was, stories was everything and everything was stories. Everybody told stories. It was a way of saying who they were in the world. It was their understanding of themselves. It was letting themselves know how they believed the world worked – a right way and a way that was not so right.

Hohn, Donovan. “A Romance of Rust: Nostalgia, Progress, and the Meaning of Tools,” Harpers, January 2005, 45.   


Simone Gareau states “A sub-discipline of Anthropology, Archeology studies human remains in an attempt to describe, explain and understand human behavior. The emphasis is on the study of objects that have survived, and/or are left behind after any human occupation of a particular site or environment.”