There is a particular magnetism in things. I feel the way they cling to me especially now, as I travel from one country to another by train, wanting nothing (I tell myself) but to travel lightly, and instead weighted down by what I cannot throw away. Even as I am having an “experience” (travel), I am tethered to my objects. There are the essentials, or what must come with—my dog, for instance, a toothbrush, underwear, and some clothes—but a lot more of the inessentials: three dog toys, a pair of yellowed goggles, a cigar box full of art supplies that includes two pairs of scissors plus an X-Acto knife, a curved sewing needle and bits of ribbon, thoroughly read copies of the London Review of Books, and a board game with instructions only in Spanish, a language I do not read. The last item I managed to offload onto a friend I met up with in Croatia. A best friend, to be sure (who else takes on the burden of your things?), who begrudgingly agreed to bring this and a heavy, hardcover exhibition catalogue back to the United States ahead of me.
Her argument against retaining these objects—“Why not throw away these things, if you won’t miss them for the next three months?”—was pretty sound and worth considering, a sensible rubric for that moment when one must decide what to keep and what to bin. But I’d venture to say that for most of us, what we keep has little to do with rational considerations. Our cultural fascination with hoarding (think Hoarding: Buried Alive) and purging (think The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up) suggests not so much a relationship of utility to the things we carry, but rather an emotional one.
My inability to throw out what I do not need (and what is in fact a downright nuisance to carry) is evidence that the culture industry—that nefarious mechanism of capitalism Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer outlined in their book The Dialectic of Enlightenment nearly 100 years ago—is alive and well. Their description of the culture industry as, “the necessity inherent in the system not to leave the consumer alone, not for a moment to allow him any suspicion that resistance if possible,” is what keeps us all (or at least me, and I do suspect, also you) collecting. Even a peripatetically inclined soul such as myself, resistant to careless consumption and an accumulation of wealth, is swept up by a capitalist industry that wills me to be the “eternal consumer.” The system works so well, that even as I observe it, I remain beholden to my objects. They are what is constant, offering solace in my solitude.
The current exhibition, Things and Words (in Czech, Věci a slova), now on display at the Museum of Applied Arts of the Moravian Gallery in Brno, and curated by Lada Hubatová-Vacková, Martina Pachmanová, and Pavla Pečinková highlights 100 years of this long-standing emotional grip of people to things. As someone who accumulates things and is inclined to write words about it, I was naturally drawn to Things and Words, which I first saw in Prague last fall, at that time wandering into the exhibition by the allure of the title alone. The organizing principle behind the exhibition–and the things within the show itself–were so compelling that I was happy to have another chance to see it in the Moravian capital of the Czech Republic this summer, to take in all of its objects once more (plus some new ones, as the Brno revival incorporates the collection of the Moravian Gallery).
The exhibition displays examples of Czech “art industry” and design from 1870 to 1970 in a “non-hierarchical arrangement of the objects,” as an accompanying pamphlet puts it. The exhibition was installed by the sculptor and conceptual artist Eva Kot’átková, who is said to have taken the thrift store—where “accumulated things” are “treated equally, regardless of their origin, style, material, function, ideological import or cultural status”—over examples of traditional museum or gallery curation as her guide, and has arranged her chosen objects in three temporal “islands” dating from 1870-1918, 1918-1945 and 1946-1970. An anthology of essays from this same period was published alongside the exhibition in an effort to “be a historical record of the effort to introduce, through concepts, some order into the chaotically expanding world of objects.”
In the 1946-1970 island of the installation, a glass cat perches next to a record called Czechoslovak Jazz and a book with the title The Meaning of Modern Art. There is a gramophone next to a vacuum cleaner and a blender on a shelf nearby. Some steps away, back in the 1918-1945 era, are a violin and a typewriter, machines for making music and making words, respectively. A delicate metal table set by the master of Czech design, Ladislav Sutnar, is displayed in a grand wooden chest with glass display planes. Next to it are ball bearings, a favorite object of the interwar avant-garde, representative as it was of the potential beauty of the machine. There are homemade embroidery patterns and textiles with geometric designs and striking colors by Marie Teinitzerová. From the earliest island in the exhibition, there is a gas stove and some Viennese cutlery, a sewing machine operated by foot pedal, and an eggbeater whirred by hand. There is a tiny table and chairs for children and a wooden devil in chains. There are early photographs of medieval armory and a bearded, blurry man.
These are just some of the items in Words and Things, a real Wunderkammer of the sort our contemporary moment would generate. The Wunderkammer (or, Cabinet of Curiosities) experienced their heyday in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe, and travelers with means journeyed around the continent to take in these early iterations of the museum, with their often-whimsical collections intended to represent the natural and art world together. And in a development Adorno and Horkheimer might have anticipated, they have experienced a revival of sorts in the last several decades, most obviously, perhaps, epitomized in the work of Mark Dion, who creates what he sometimes explicitly calls Cabinets of Curiosities for museums and universities around the world, often working with items from their own existing collections.
In Wonders and the Order of Nature, Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park write of the catalogues that were meant to guide the early modern, enlightened traveler around the Wunderkammer hotspots in Europe and beyond. “Some even lectured readers on cabinet etiquette,” they write: “make sure your hands are clean, follow the guide obediently, don’t admire things that aren’t particularly rare—you’ll make yourself ridiculous.” There was probably not too much risk of making oneself ridiculous in the sixteenth century Wunderkammern because these collections generally “excluded […] all that was regular, ordinary, or common,” and in this sense, they differ from a contemporary revival like that at the Moravian Gallery, which insists on setting the uncanny right up against the banal.
Kot’átková’s installation also subverts Adorno and Horkheimer’s criticism of our collective, constant consumption of culture via the objects and entertainments it produces. In essence, their display status is an act of veneration, a call for us to look and admire and draw meaning from what we might otherwise throw out. For despite Kot’átková’s interest in bringing a thrift store mentality into her installation, the museum is no junk shop. Wandering amongst what the exhibition literature itself calls “useless and kitschy things” besides what is beautiful and utilitarian within the hallowed walls of the museum, I feel justified in maintaining (and adding to) my own pile. Even if I’m at the stage of recognizing the problem, I’m no further on the road to recovery. And that, Adorno and Horkeimer might say, is their point: “The triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them.”
“Words and Things” is on display at the Museum of Applied Arts, Moravian Gallery in Brno, Czech Republic through September 27th.
Images © Ondřej Přibyl; objects arranged by Eva Kot’átková.