The exhibition presents the most recent installations produced by the artist following a current research around the work of the archivist of objects and researcher of anomalous phenomena, William Corliss, initiated when in residency, at the archives of The Peabody Museum in Harvard.
A thing or two about strange artefacts
To unearth an object and call it an artefact. To place it among others and provide it with a context. To create a narrative and justify its existence, explaining it. Or perhaps doing nothing of the sort, out of a genuine inability to do so, or a genuine unwillingness. It matters little. Whether one ‘unearths’ or one ‘buries’, the object itself remains, its materiality unquestioned; its form unquestionable.
Our object was kept in a drawer, possibly in a climate-controlled basement, which was fortunate. Many other objects never reached those drawers. They were abandoned, left where they were found, deemed irrelevant. But ours was saved. Not in one of those streamlined midcentury vitrines, so authoritative in its architecture and display. Instead, our object was prevented from earning its place of visibility, of belonging to and generating the scientific discourse that would grant it the status of an artefact. It was a round peg trying to fit into the square hole of historical narrative. As such, it was cursed with the worst fate an object can achieve: invisibility.
We eventually lost it. We didn't literally lose it, of course. We forgot where it was or even how to find it. It was a crash course on invisibility: one cannot find what does not cast a shadow. Still something remained, as is often the case. Traces are always left behind. Narrative footprints if you will. Prior to its vanishing, the object had been inventoried, at least. It had been drawn, photographed and attempts had been made on several occasions to explain its existence, or at least to give the object a functional purpose. They even tried to make the hole rounder so the peg would fit, but the hole seemed never to be round enough.
What matters is, despite its apparent disappearance from the material world of artefacts, without ever having had the chance to become one, Our object was replaced by a written account of its own unlikelihood.
One may think of the strange case of the object that became invisible as myth, scientific lore from the old days of archaeological and ethnographical research. Either that or as some bizarre, unrepeatable, unexplainable circumstance. The fact is, and this may be surprising, it isn't either. It is actually true, it happened, and still happens quite frequently.
So frequently did this happen over the centuries, that an entire collection of anomalous objects went overlooked. Some were indeed forgotten, which is not the same, but trying to differentiate between invisibility and forgetfulness in such specific circumstances will get us nowhere.
One may think of the strange case of the object that became invisible as myth, scientific lore from the old days of archaeological and ethnographical research. Suffice to say that a whole population of objects became invisible to the eyes of those who found them and consequently to everyone’s eye. Hundreds of objects, thousands of objects, millions even. All around the world. They remain unexplained, their contribution to the world nonexistent.
Or so you were made to believe.
As with Our object, there were traces left behind. In fact, many volumes were produced addressing such strange objects, their quasi-artefact qualities, their utter inability to voice any sort of articulate story about themselves, and their eventual disappearance from the world. The unexplainable object, the uncanny object, the bizarre object, the freakish object; all were collated in large volumes, entering libraries, awing readers everywhere, and making thoroughly clear how little science was able to explain or how much there was still to explain.
It was a masterclass in not knowing.
However, before long, interest began to wane and all those volumes grew dustier and dustier. It wasn't so much a matter of the sciences having found the answers raised by the vanishing of the objects, as it was a genuine lack of interest in their disappearance. What casts no shadow casts no shadow. Tautological as it may read, it is the truth. And the same way our beloved objects once did, so did all those volumes become invisible.
And this tale could end there: the invisibility loop. If it were not for the irrepressible nature of the present. Objects being unearthed, then vanished, leaving behind nothing but some traces of their physicality. Those traces becoming objects themselves, meta-objects if you will. Also unearthed, not literally as the first ones, but still, and also vanishing at a later time. If the metaphor of the loop is too technological to address the idea of circularity within this context we would now evoke the image of the ouroboros as a more fitting way to observe the existence of these objects.
It comes as no surprise that the time that produced the online world developed a taste for the inner and outer workings of the archive.
Contrary to the physical world, internet does not forget. It’s a world-sized haystack. This new landscape brought with it the deployment of a myriad of strategies for engaging with our beloved strange objects. Tools emerged that seemed to carry the power to short-circuit the loop of invisibility.
But old habits die hard and the hole’s stubborn squareness persisted.
The only thing left to do seemed to try and bring them back from the permanent state of invisibility they were voted to. But how would one do that? Criticality and self-reflection were scarce and repetition and reproduction only produced more background noise. Something else was required. Performativity, reenactment, appropriation and quotation, on the other hand, seemed to have the potential to give the archive a powerful tug in the right direction. And for what concerns us directly, they could and they were the ways in which the traces of the objects and now also of all the volumes dealing with the objects were being brought back to the physical world. These and other strategies were employed to trace the objects back into the realm of visibility, not as replicas (since one could never replicate what does not cast a shadow) but as building blocks in a new lexicon. The faint traces which had made their way into the many volumes served as source material. They constitute a grammar from which new narratives were created. These new objects have a potential for beginning discourses that the ones they originated from were never able to achieve. This does not mean the new objects were better than the original ones. Any comparison is preposterous and would serve no purpose whatsoever.
What is relevant to mention though is that these new objects acquire something the original ones never managed: through their narrative ability they finally achieved the status of artefacts. Our objects have become visible, but this visibility: it is without resemblance.
Strange artefacts that are able to cast a shadow.
Text by João Mourão and Luís Silva. Courtesy Galeria Filomena Soares.