I’m having terrible trouble writing the exhibition essay for this show at the Menier Gallery. It opens on the 13th May, in just over a week, and I must have it completed at the latest on Wednesday, but ideally Tuesday, which is the day after tomorrow.

It’s difficult because it feels bound on all sides by constraints. It’s the first essay I’ve done ‘on commission’, which is a nice progression from writing academic essays but I’d assumed the problem of writing to a specific theme would be more or less the same. It seems it’s more difficult, and I don’t know whether that’s because I’m worried about the reactions of the curators and other artists in the show, or rather because I haven’t properly defined the questions I’m working with. Let me try to define the questions here, just to see if I can.

I want to write about the importance I think I can legitimately attach to things. The things in this room are important to be because they fill it up with receptacles of resonance which I collect into a composition, like writing.

The things are different from writing, though, because they are real things in the world. So they attach to the stuff of it directly and indelibly. When I hold a thing I held when I was little, it is the very same thing – not a memory or it or a rendering. When I build a raft to sail away on, it is a real thing, it really could relate to the ocean and oars and distance – regardless of practicalities. Sculpture does not act as a metaphor, it is.

And that peculiar characteristic of a real physical thing – of designating something that it in fact constitutes – stays with it, meaning that it carries resonances..

I think what we are trying to reach in the exhibition – some of us anyway – is the idea of the resonances held by real things. The aura around things, or just the edge, or the surface, differentiates them from the things around them and ..

No. What I’m trying to do here is integrate what I know about Valerie’s work which is heavily influenced by ideas of the trace left by things, which relates to memory, nostalgia, and so on. I can’t work that into what I’m writing as I didn’t arrive at it myself, so it’s truncated.

I have to think about my raft. My raft uses things for safety. It works because it contains all the things I need, and so I can go away and leave everything else behind. I made it because I really wanted it. There is reason to believe that if I went away and left those special things behind, then I would not be happy. And I made an effort to add many, many things, which cohere, so that it would be full of things – so that the things themselves populate the raft (and indeed fill it so full that there’s no room for me).

I keep coming back to this Septimus Prime quote, poor thing:

“He began, very cautiously, to open his eyes, to see whether a gramophone was really there. But real things – real things were too exciting. He must be cautious. He would not go mad. First he looked at the fashion papers on the lower shelf, then gradually at the gramophone with the green trumpet. Nothing could be more exact. And so, gathering courage, he looked at the sideboard; the plate of bananas; the engraving of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort, at the mantelpiece, with the jar of roses. None of these things moved. All were still; all were real”

There is something about the way things constitute what they designate – the way a chair indicates a chair and is a chair – that makes them comforting. It’s comforting to look at things because they do what they say on the tin. This is the thing about them that helps Septimus stop himself going mad, and he has to do it carefully, first, not insignificantly, practising by looking at the fashion magazines – representational things that designate something they don’t constitute themselves (they are pictures of dresses, not dresses).

Rosa’s work is pictures from magazines. They are comforting in a different way – they hold out an option of what’s possible, we might say. But at the same time the things in the pictures hold out their promises. Once you’ve got your B&B Italia sofa then you really have got it – the sofa is a sofa is a sofa, and that’s the end of it. Things are the end of the line.

So things are inseparable from what they are. They are it, inside and out. A word is sound, and then meaning. A thing is just itself, and coagulated together. In The Yellow Wallpaper the woman peels the wallpaper off the wall so as to get inside it. The thing dissolved, and seemed to stop ending in itself. When Septimus concludes that “[n]one of these things moved. All were still; all were real”,  I think his relief is that the things remain with themselves – they designate and constitute at the same time, and he knows that when these two functions separate, there’s trouble.

I want to work with Septimus, and think about the security of things being just what they are. Now I’ll look back at our various statements and see whether they fit together around this.

  • confusion between the invented and the actual
  • peeling off the skin once it’s dried and keeping the skin
  • the skin is the gap between the index and its referent
  • things are both index and referent

I think there is a need to find and name the space in between what the thing designates and what it constitutes. When those two things match, then there’s comfort. When you’re aware of the two of them, there’s the possibility for those things to differ, so that the thing is constitutes something, but also designates something else too. So a present thing can constitute a table and designate a raft, or constitute Jessy’s first dolly and designate what I feel about my mother. This is pretty obvious.

I can suggest that the concern of the work in the exhibition is to invigorate the space around things – or the make more visible the charged resonances that a thing (or a space) can have. The aim of doing this is a tendency towards security, sanity, familiarity, groundedness, and having a certain place in time.