I’m interested in the wear and tear and ultimate demise of material things. Having lost my father over a year ago I have become acutely aware of how things breakdown, stop working, wear out, fall apart and disintegrate. Everything has a life span whether it is a human being (0 – maximum 117 years, although in the future we may push this even further) or a mahogany chest of draws (0 – 1,0000 years at a guess) all depending on the condition they are kept in and the quality of the materials they are made from.
When I touch (with my body) an object, I am aware of the impact I am having on its life span. (Life span here I am referring to the timeframe an object/thing maintains its complete/whole, before it breaks down into smaller parts. So, with the mahogany chest of draws its lifespan will be defined to when it is a box with draws and not bits of rotting wood on a scrap heap.) The computer I am writing on right now, each time I press a key I am slowly wearing away its plastic surface and the shape of the individual keys. Even when I am very careful to preserve an object it will still deteriorate. I notice this particularly with clothing, the effect of wearing, washing and even storing individual items degrades them – the material qualities of fabric are quite unstable and change very easily. I relish the qualities of new clothes, crisp lines and defined shapes, those visualised and created by the designer and manufacturer opposed to the ones moulded, stretched, disfigured and worn-down by my body.
The environment – air, water, light, heat, dust, dirt landing and settling on objects without me even touching them affects an objects makeup, appearance and lifespan, and then when I touch with my hands putting pressure on as I lift/hold, this impacts on the object even more, the object absorbing the grease from my hands which react causing it to discolour, alter its texture, change shape and breakdown, as well as other affects such as to alter its smell. While reading ‘The Smell of Fresh Rain’ by Barney Shaw, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the complex experience of smelling, I learnt that metals do not smell, it is only when they come into contact with moisture such as when we touch metal, the sweat from our bodies reacts with the metal releasing the metallic odour we most commonly associate with this hard cool material.
It may be hardly noticeable with some things but over time the deterioration becomes more evident. You see this very clearly where an object has been repeatedly touched or handled, such as religious objects/relics, hand tools, children’s toys, a library book, handles and railings in public spaces and on public transport, or monuments where the act of touching has claims to bring good luck, such as the famous snout of the bronze boar sculpture in Florence, made in 1634 which since 1700 people have rubbed its nose for good luck, a very slow erosion of the metal brought to attention by the golden shine created by this bodily interaction. This wearing away is incredibly slow with materials such as bronze, but never the less it is still changing and is never fixed.
The need to stabilise things is very common in our culture, to preserve in museums for future generations, however I find there is something reassuring about the inevitable demise and unavoidable state of flux of all material things in this world. I say this as the thought of all inanimate material objects remaining the same would create enormous anxiety – to what to do with all this fixed stuff! and would only go to highlight our own contrasting and inevitable demise.
We do however also live in a society of the ‘replacement’ rather than ‘repair’ – iPhones, computers, garden furniture – when it breaks chuck it away for a new version, probably buying the new one from Amazon or Apple and it being cheaper than repairing the old one. The need for the new even when the old is perfectly fine or repairable indicates that for some things we do not want to see the evidence of wear and tear, traces of age while other things we definitely do, such as admiring the qualities of antique objects, where the beauty is in capturing age, history and nostalgia and is embedded in the materials themselves. These extreme values we assign to different materials and objects is driven by the vast range of markets and environments, which categories of objects/materials sit within, and when investigated further often make little rational sense.
This constant state of flux is in all material things, and even when we come across something old and preserved – a piece of jewelry, furniture or a building we are not experiencing the original but an object that is a rejuvenation and reinvention, a continuous new. Walking thought the Richard Hoggart Building of Goldsmiths College where I have worked for the past 12 years almost all the surface furnishings have changed over that period – furniture, lighting, wall coverings – the windows replaced, doors and floors upgraded, bricks and mortar patched up and treated, electrical wiring replaced, drains redirected and so on, so really this building has very little of its original material makeup to the one I entered those 12 years ago, and almost nothing of the original that was built 150 years ago. This seriously questions my sense of nostalgia for things, such as the storage jar my grandmother had in her kitchen which she kept her teabags, and when she died I inherited as a personal reminder of her, however it is now a different object in my kitchen – different tea inside harbouring different smells, handled by different people transferring different grease and dirt onto the objects surface, which over time will affect the material mass of the object. So, even though very subtle it has been changing its appearance and properties extensively over the past 10 years since I took ownership of it. I wonder what it is I have left!
Accepting that everything is affected by time prompts me to appreciate things more in the present and embrace the inevitable death of all things – or maybe more specific the inevitable transformation of all materials from one state to another, however we might choose to evaluate and judge those different stages.