The V&A, 2015

The V&A
Matthew Offenbacher
September 29–November 14, 2015

The V&A is what I call the big Goodwill store near my studio. For a long time I avoided it, because I couldn’t leave without buying some little knickknack that I didn’t want: a ceramic mask, a koala bear in a snow globe, a frog with a birthday cake. It made me sad to leave these things behind, but it also made me sad to see them in my studio. A couple of years ago, I realized that if I pretended the Goodwill were a museum, something like the grand Victoria and Albert Museum in London, I could visit without buying things. The more I thought about it, the more resemblance I saw between the V&A and Goodwill. Both contain vast collections of decorative and utilitarian objects, largely organized by what they are made of: ceramic, glass, paper, wicker, brass, plastic. Both emphasize education as a way to enable class mobility. Both encourage a kind of hands-on connoisseurship, or, as the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would put it, the work of ‘distinction’.

In the 1950s, psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott coined the term ‘transitional objects’ to describe things like special blankets or stuffed animals that an infant uses as they begin to recognize that their mother is a separate being from themselves. A transitional object is an infant’s first possession, providing a sense of comfort and security in the absence of their mother. For several years it is the most important object in a child’s life, until one day it isn’t. “It becomes not so much forgotten”, Winnicott wrote, “as relegated to limbo. It loses meaning, and this is because the transitional phenomena have become diffused, have become spread out over the whole intermediate territory between ‘inner psychic reality’ and ‘the external world as perceived by two persons in common’, that is to say, over the whole cultural field.”

My cat died a year ago. Around that time, my friend Jeff generously offered the use of his ceramic studio while he was out of the country. I knew little about making ceramics, but working in Jeff’s space, using his stuff, made anything seem possible. One thing about Turtle (this was my cat’s name) is that he was taken at a very young age from a feral colony. As a result, he was bottle-fed by humans and never properly weaned. Many years into adult life he exhibited classic displaced juvenile traits: kneading and drooling, sucking on buttons, hoarding and hiding favorite objects. There were also things he seemed to have invented himself, such as an elaborate ritual before and after any drink of water. He would solemnly dip his foot into the water several times, scrape it across the ground, drink, then spend a few minutes making suckling noises while staring into space.

According to Winnicott, attachments to transitional objects transform over time into the psychic glue that connects people together. They become the source of artistic creativity and appreciation, religious feeling, dreaming, fetishism, “the origin and loss of affectionate feeling, the talisman of obsessional rituals, etc.” This makes me think of something I have been puzzling over in Ben Lerner’s recent novel. Lerner writes about working towards an art which is made of “bad forms of collectivity that can serve as figures of its real possibility.” These forms create our social world by organizing meaning in ways that “belong to nobody in particular but courses through us all.”

glazed and unglazed earthenware, glass, seashells, laminate, steel shelving

photos by Sol Hashemi