Monday, 18 January 2016

What is a 'found object'? I'm at a loss

Moffat Takadiwa, Smell of Foreign Policy. Bottle tops 

As so often happens, a series of idle thoughts have coalesced to become a burning issue. In this case, what constitutes, in art terms, a "found object"?

Moffat Takadiwa, Superhighway of Coloniality. Computer keys  

Does a found object first have to be lost? Is it less "found" because you set out out to find it?  Or does a random object stumbled across unexpectedly somehow have a higher artistic value?

Shells, unraveled plastic fisherman's rope
and silver foil from the inside of  a coffee packet

Can a shell or stone picked up from the beach be a found object? It is, after all, exactly where you would expect it to be. And if not, are a sand-worn piece of coloured glass, the rubber sole of a flip-flop or a fragment of fisherman's net washed up on the beach more authentically "found"?

Takeaway menus, fused plastic fruit netting

Is a used bus ticket picked up from the pavement more "authentic" than a bus ticket you have paid for yourself? A beer bottle top from the gutter more deserving of being transformed into art than one from a bottle of beer bought, and drunk, with the sole purpose of obtaining the top?

Rings cut from party balloons

I first raised these issues with myself at a recent exhibition by the Zimbabwean artist Moffat Takadiwa at the Tyburn Gallery in central London. His large, intricate installations, draped on the walls like textiles, are made from "found objects including spray-can debris, plastic bottle tops and discarded electrical goods". Not only are they beautifully crafted and visually stunning - see the pictures at the top and below - but they aim to highlight the "cultural dominance exercised by the consumption of imported consumables in post-colonial Africa". But I paused at the term "found object".

Moffat Takadiwa, Toothpaste

Some of the works relied for their impact on the hundreds of matching objects - toothpaste tubes of the same brand, identical bottle tops. Had he, I wondered, retrieved all these from the town rubbish dump, or did he buy them? I have no quarrel either way, but I was intrigued.

Then I went along to a regular get-together at the Constance Howard Gallery and textile archive at Goldsmiths college. There I met the textile artist Jane Hoodless, whose most recent work is vintage children's clothing embroidered with lichen, hinting at the poignant gravestones in Victorian cemeteries. The small pintucked smocks and white cotton bonnets, she insisted, were not found objects, as some had suggested, but were "sourced". (Which opens up a completely different can of semantic worms: what is the difference between "sourced" and simply "bought"? But let's not go there.) During the ensuing conversation, it was suggested that if you came across an object that then led to an idea for a piece of work, that was a "found object". If the idea came first and you then went out to find the materials for it, however unconventional, then it was not.

Amazon Indian style neck decoration made from painted takeaway cutlery

I like to think that my way of working with "found objects" is somewhere between the two: I have the idea, and then find - or "source" - objects that feed into the idea, allowing it to change and evolve.

My most exciting such objects were found in the sadly now closed Little Shop of Horrors in Hackney where, over the years, I have bought a stuffed crow, human bones and, unexpectedly, what looked like a haberdasher's card of a dozen little plastic male torsos in a state of excitement. Who could possibly have set out to "source" those? Yet they were just what I needed for my then current project.

Plastic snake, skeletons, doll parts and excitable men, spray-painted red

Indeed, at one stage my mania for found objects was so great that when I was out with my husband at my local urban farm, and we spotted a half-hidden blow-up doll, her mouth agape at the indignity of being left in the bushes, he asked me jokingly if I wanted to take it home to incorporate in an art work. It should have been funny, but I have to confess my mind had been running along exactly those lines.

Caught up in this nerdy obsession over words, I decided to google the term "found object". One definition seemed promising: "In modern art, the term 'found object' is used to describe an object, found by an artist, which - with minimal modification - is then presented as a work of art." But then it listed "typical found objects": stone, curiously shaped pieces of wood, a human skull, newspaper cuttings, photographs, pieces of textile fabric. Oh really, is all textile art "found" art? I think not.

The Poisoned Heart, 2011, incorporating found objects as previous picture,
plus beads, sequins, skull studs and artificial flowers

Finally, in the Tate glossary, I discovered this: "A found object is a natural or man-made object, or fragment of an object, that is found (or sometimes bought) by an artist and kept because of some intrinsic interest the artist sees in it."

Which seems to hit the nail so firmly on the head that it made me think that if I had come across this definition at the beginning of my somewhat ridiculous quest I would have been saved from expending precious grey cells from my dwindling supply. Like the abandoned sex doll, I felt excited, then somewhat deflated.


1 comment:

  1. The Tate glossary is a very useful definition. The requirement of Art is that there is Intention, I think that is what is meant by Jane Hoodless' "sourced" description but the word doesn't quite do it for me.
    I'm working with a "donated" item at the moment so it's a useful discussion.
    Maybe we should guard against too much word-picking though. Michelangelo didn't inscribe the Sistine Chapel et al with labels citing "stalked handsome thigh".