The solace of objects
“It seems that the soul… loses itself in itself when shaken and disturbed unless given something to grasp on to; and so we must always provide it with an object to butt up against and to act upon.” Michel de Montaigne, ‘Essais’, 1580
I recently visited The Wellcome Collection in London to see the exhibition ‘Charmed Life: The solace of objects’, it was the result of the artist Felicity Powell’s engagement with a collection of 1400 amulets, gathered by Edwardian Edward Lovett.
The cabinets were full of strange found and created objects believed by their owners to protect them or those they loved, some were beautifully carved as if the endeavour and skill heightened their power.
This connects closely with my own work (see Art as Talisman page) and my interest in how we use objects or routines to comfort and reassure us and how we can use art, our own art, to help us cope with life.
I think this is particularly true in times of difficulty when we are unable to control our world, our vulnerability and fragility can become overwhelming, and if we aren’t able to gain reassurance through science or logic then we turn to more ephemeral sources of comfort.
In the past when medicine couldn’t see your child safely to their fifth birthday parents would give them red coral to signify long life or blue beads to protect from bronchitis.
Even today most of us will own an object whose importance is far greater than its intrinsic value. A lucky mug or our grandmother’s left over knitting, or perhaps it’s the blackbird you see each morning that makes you feel well with the world. When we encounter problems and feel cut loose in a sea of uncertainty those objects can become even more important.
For me, the weeds that I saw quietly and yet determinedly growing amongst rubble or through frozen earth gave me my own determination. Now I am attuned to them and I watch for their appearance in my life. I am not giving them supernatural powers but just allowing them to reassure, they have become a small part of my own private scaffolding that supports me.
Even Edward Lovett who collected these objects through a purely anthropological interest and was dismissive of their powers when faced with his youngest son going to the front in The Great War tied a talisman around his neck to protect him.
When despair threatens we are programmed to protect ourselves with hope.