When an object is lost, a subject is found we learned from Freud over a century ago, but it is an observation that seems to have particular relevance today. Absence, as well as presence, I find myself thinking, figures increasingly into the experience of making things in the first decade of the 21st century. Our ability to engage with objects has as much to do with things we don’t have as well as with those we do have; sometimes it is even the absence and loss of things that most defines our connection to them.
The subject seems to resonate in the work of assorted contemporary artists, craftspeople, writers and designers, anyone, that is, who engages in expression with the material world. Consider the work of poet Mary Ruefle. If most writers have an interest in how words are strung together, how they add up, how one comes after the other, she is more engaged by how they come apart.
For the past decade, she has been producing “Erasures,” a series of altered books in which text is blotted out with white-out, pen or gouache, erased that is, leaving only fragments of words, thoughts, sentences. But because this is done on the printed page rather than with the delete key, the result is an investigation on the texture of silence, the imprint of the unsaid, the unknown, the forgotten. The volume erased becomes a study of how some words fade while others remain; and how meaning can be reconfigured by time, and how words can sometimes reposition themselves in memory. It is a layering of silence, the length of quiet between words and sentences, the rhythm of the unspoken and the retracted. And the silence that settles in after everything has been said.
But absence need not always be so fugitive. Ever contrary, it can itself materialize as it does in the work of ceramist Stephen Kent who has constructed bookends as green ceramic clouds with a lacquer finish. But these are found billowing across the shelf or mantle where the books themselves are meant to be. Rather than serving as a structure to support the books, they occupy that space that is traditionally meant for them. And in doing so, the bookends suggest the weight of unread books, what we have not yet studied and do not yet know takes up its own space. In an odd way, the green cloud on the shelf is a study of absence as an object itself.
The work of this writer and this ceramist lingers in my imagination because I think that they, along with those legions of artists who work in recycled goods and materials, are on to something. We are surrounded by signs that our culture of consumer extravagance may be winding down—the economic collapse, entire neighborhoods reduced by foreclosure and abandonment, over-burdened landfills. For generations, we have defined ourselves as consumers, but our identity now seems increasingly defined by how we reduce that consumption. It may be by conscience and choice—the reduced exploitation of resources, say, or efforts to get by using less, whether it is less fuel, less energy, less water, less money, or less of something else. Or it may be by economic dictate—the loss of a job, a house, a retirement account, a diminishment in quality of life. Either way, our relationship to the material world today has as much to do with de-acquisition as with acquisition.
Last year, Habitat for Humanity began to dismantle houses in Saginaw, Michigan, northwest of Detroit. It was the first time the humanitarian organization addressed deconstruction over construction. Not that the process didn’t demand a certain degree of skill, invention, creativity. As one Habitat volunteer told the New York Times, “It’s more challenging than building, where you go in linear steps. With deconstruction, you don’t know what you’re getting into until you tear that panel off the wall.”
You can’t argue with that. All of which makes me wonder if the art and design of the early twenty-first century is going to be as much about taking things apart as putting them together. We live in a time when how we undo things is as important as how we do them. Disassembly—its possibility, its eventuality, its inevitability—is part of the equation in any kind of contemporary production. And it requires a like degree of imagination. Probably more.
So much of what we do is informed by absence and as the makers of things, we need to recognize and appreciate the value of loss, what’s missing, what we no longer have, can have or will have. A green cloud that has settled on a mantle, a book that has been erased, or a house that is being deconstructed, all of these give us a new way to think about something. Or maybe just a new way to think about nothing.