Do people always think of an object in the way that it usually is? Does an object represent only one thing? The answers are two nos. The way people think of an object depends not only on its characteristics, but also on the cultural context one is in and the experiences within one’s life. Ilya Kabakov, an American artist, once said that, in the Soviet Union where he grew up, what an object is or represents always depends on its surroundings and could never on its own. It’s not important for us ͞what kind of thing it is͟ and how it works, but where and in what sense it is presented. For us, a thing doesn’t speak about itself, but the one who owns it and why he owns it.1
Augusto Boal, a left-wing Brazilian theatre director, also talked about an object could represent something special to someone because of what one has experienced. In 1973, he took part in some experiments carried out within the theatre projects in Lima, the capital of Peru.2
In one of the experiments, participants got a camera, tried to photograph things to answer the given questions, and then discussed the photos. All the participants were not photographers and responded from their own experiences; so did the photos they took. They were once asked what exploitation is. A child photographed a nail as his answer. The photo seems unusual, but all the other children understood it because most children at the age of five or six make a living by shining shoes there. Their shoe shine kits are too heavy to be carried every day from home. So some shops owners hammered nails into walls and charge the children every day for hanging the kits there. For the children, the nail itself
James Elkins, an art historian, in his "heterdox" publication, Pictures & Tears, raised an interesting question which causes people to reflect as well.4 Why do people cry over paintings? He took tears as signs of strong feelings and sent his inquiries to friends and colleagues. The replies he got show that people cried for various reasons. Some people are moved deeply by characteristics of paintings and others cry for very personal reasons. They might be, for instance, in turning points in their lives and could cry over anything. But it’s the painting in front of them at that time and moved them into tears.
In the given examples, an object is like a personal allegory linking to a situation or an experience within one’s life in an obscure way. Even though artists have used objects in their works for hundreds of years, today’s artists have undergone a change in attitude towards objects. First, they do not take objects simply as media without contexts like collages. They think objects are elements which construct the sensibilities of works. Second, they do not treat objects like the Readymade, which links objects and concepts of art with languages, carrying out a naming ceremony for objects in an artistic way.
Marcel Duchamp, for instance, selected a snow shovel and gave it a title, Prelude to a Broken Arm, in 1915. Or his comment on his own pseudonym, Richard Mutt, "he CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view –created a new thought for that object."5
On the contrary, it’s obvious that contemporary artists think of what an object means to individual. Due to the return of narrative, contemporary artists brought back the social energy of art by telling stories, which impact on the established reality of the world. They also know how complicate a narrative project is. It is not simply a narrative image aradigm as in college tradition, or a monologue only the speaker can understand. It is, actually, based on an in-depth study of a story and on an understanding of narrative medium. Though there are still some shadows of history painting in narratives of contemporary art, they do not depict macro history or lofty implications, expressing instead personal histories in a more delicate way. Creation method develops over time, emphasizing the interaction of processes of creating art, and describing or changing particular personal experiences by anthropological research or personal history study. See ART invited FAN Hsiao-Lan, CHIU Chen-Hung, and LEE Jo-Mei to showcase how objects became means of metaphor in a modern sense.
LEE Jo-Mei usually studies objects in everyday life, learns their production processes, and changes them. For example, November 10th, Sherbrook Forest Walk (2016) originates from her study of eucalyptus in Sherbrook Forest. To reproduce the scenery in her memory, she had the bark mounted on planks of wood, painted with charcoal stick, and created a three-panel screen. She depicted the idea with different forms such as At Sherbrook Forest (2016), a landscape depicting eucalyptus; Go Straight! Go Slice! (2016), a work representing the production of bark: she cut and processed blocks of white oak discarded in veneer process by manufacturers, which represents the production of veneer; She’s Laying down (2016), discussing the relationships among wood, trees, and forests on a handscroll. Works of CHIU Chen-Hung show his care for the marble factories in his hometown Gift No.10 (2016) is a metal frame in which black marble he picked up from the factories arranged in order. Trolley No.3 (2013) is a discarded hand trolley from a marble factory repaired and gilded with gold leaf, representing various meanings: a tool, a consecrated item, and a symbol for labors and memories of workers. For the
same topic, The Marble Workers (2013) is a video of two workers from Thailand unloading the gilded hand trolley from a truck and pushing it into a mining area.
In FAN Hsiao-Lan’s Soi Nana (2012), an art project held in Thailand, she observed a karaoke which provides sex services and knew the women works there while she stayed in a village. FAN payed for a period of their working time, invited them to have parties in their workplace, and interviewed them individually. The scenes of the parties and the interviews are recorded on video and displayed parallel to each other.
All the works mentioned above show different thoughts on objects. On the one hand, the artists care the footprints left by objects. They carefully restored some features of objects and added new marks as well in order to give several meanings to objects. On the other hand, they took objects as bridges between relationships, connecting the artists and their subjects. As a result, objects in Contemporary Art are deemed as "allegory of objects" which could lead viewers back to history and make them start thinking.
1 (…) it’s not important for us "what kind of thing it is" and how it works, but where and in what sense it is presented. For us, a thing doesn’t speak about itself, but the one who owns it and why he owns it. Ilya Kabakov,"In the Installations", Charles Harrison and Paul Wood ed., Art in Theory: 1900-1990 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), p.1176.
2 These theatre projects were part of the Integral Literacy Operation (Operación Alfabetización Integral [ALFIN]), which was the project of eradicating illiteracy by Peru government. See in the chapter «Poetics of the oppressed», Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed, Charles A., Maria-Odilia Leal McBride and Emily Fryer trans. (London: Pluto Press, 1974 / 2008), pp. 95-135.
3 Ibid, p. 101.
4 James Elkins, Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings (New York: Routledge, 2001).
5 He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view -created a new thought for that object. Marcel Duchamp,"The Richard Mutt Case", Charles Harrison and Paul Wood ed., Art in Theory: 1900-1990(Oxford: Blackwell, 1992) p.248.