When you move a lot, you tend to downsize a lot. For me, there was no bigger downsize than coming from South Africa to the US. Somehow, with the help of a very meticulous friend, I squashed 29 years of life life into one big suitcase, one carry-on, a laptop bag and a handbag. But I have 11 boxes in storage at my friend’s house in Joburg that I still haven’t sent for – of things I collected in my life – books, CDs, photos, journals. My stuff. I often wonder if I should just tell her to get rid of them completely. But I can’t bear to part with them forever. There’s something about my collections that is part of my identity and I feel like if I were to throw the boxes away, I’d be throwing parts of myself away.
It’s thoughts like these that made me particularly interested in the latest exhibition at the New Museum called The Keeper. It’s to date, the museum’s biggest – the centrepiece is an exhibition itself, with 3 000 family-album photos of people posing with teddy bears. I never knew the word teddy bear came from Theodore Roosevelt. It’s an incredible thing to look into this collection, as is with many of the other collections on display – whether it’s Roger Caillois’ assortment of rare stones (I don’t think I can look at stones in the same way again) or Vanda Vieira-Schmidt’s 500 000 drawings stacked up, overflowing, on a table and chair (which made me wonder what a collection of drafts done on a laptop would look like in visual form).
There’s something reassuring about physical things and making sense out of the world through grouping them. So, even though I don’t have space in my cupboard of an apartment for those 11 boxes, they were how I made sense of my world, for a while at least. So they’re an extension of me. I don’t have shelves filled with books anymore. No CDs showing you my music taste (or lack thereof!) Those collection of “things” that would tell you a little bit about me – there’s no physical space for them in my world anymore, so I just don’t have them. I don’t collect anything anymore – other than hotel pens and matchboxes. I would like to, but physical space is a commodity in NYC, so most things exist online. Instead of buying a collectible Mondo poster, I’ll put a picture of it on Tumblr.
But it’s just not the same.
The other night I walked into a guy friend’s apartment. I have never felt particularly attracted to him but running my fingers along his shelf filled with all the classic books I love, like Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, and seeing his Al Pacino and Scorsese collections, I started to feel a stirring inside. I felt like I saw more of him; who he was, beyond just what I’d gotten to know from running with him.
What are we without these collection of things? And what does it mean that they’ve become virtual now? Beyond just the spectacle of the sight of the actual collections within The Keeper – marvelling at the physical space they occupy – is the internal feelings they conjure. How they create testimony for some, such as in the case of Ydessa Hendeles’ The Teddy Bear Project, which preserves history that would have been erased, or create a sense of self for others, like Hilma af Klint’s suite of abstract paintings, which she kept hidden for decades after her death, her assertion that she once lived. What is the value in a collection? Or what value do we put into one?
The curator, Massimiliano Gioni says these kind of reflections and questions are part of the intention behind the exhibition. If you’re in New York, I urge you to take a walk around it, and contemplate your own collections, be they in boxes or not.