Gathering Being: On Collecting and Making. Part 2 of 5: The Drive to Collect

Published: 08.07.2021
Pravu Mazumdar
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In March/April 2020, an exhibition of works by ten artists was hosted by Gallery Meme in Seoul, seven of them from Korea and three from Denmark. The exhibition was curated by Bogki Min, Professor at the Seoul National University College of Fine Arts, who was also one of the participating artists. The curatorial concept was to reveal the role of collecting in the process of making. In the following, I would like to unfold some thoughts on collecting as an inherently human practice and explore, how such an ancient practice, which persists unabated in contemporary societies, is interpreted in this rather exceptional curatorial experiment.

The text will be presented in five successive parts, starting out with a few theoretical observations in the first two sections: Part I and Part II, and proceeding to discuss the exhibits and their makers from Part III, Part IV and Part V.
At this point, I would like to thank Amador Bertomeu and Leo Caballero of Klimt02 for their unwavering generosity and support throughout the years of our cooperation. Working with them has been practically indistinguishable from friendship.  
Part II: The Drive to Collect

3. The primordial treasure trove

An ontology of gathering suggests that jewellery has its beginnings in archaic situations of attraction: when a stray object in the environment attracts sufficient attention to be picked up and attached to the body, enabling a transfer of its power of attraction to the body of the wearer through “contagious magic”, in James Frazer’s sense of the term (10). Since the need for jewellery transcends the sphere of elementary physical survival, its power of attraction cannot be of the same nature as the attraction of food or water for a hungry or thirsty body. During the millennia of prehistoric life long before the discovery of metals, jewellery is known to have consisted of partially or totally modified materials like amber, jet, unfired clay, or in trophies like bones, teeth, antlers, shells, mammoth tusks, or fish vertebrae. Prehistoric jewellery and miniature sculptures include pieces of jet or lignite as exact reproductions of insects or molluscs or large hipped female figurines like the legendary Venus of Willendorf, displaying three precisely sculpted bracelets or bangles on each forearm that stand out against the abstraction and lack of individual features in the rest of the piece. This signalises, how important jewellery must have been felt to be in this period of human history.

The Palaeolithic reverence of jewellery, which existed long before the advent of gold and coinage, gives us a sense of its enormous power of attraction, derived from the twofold fountainhead of value in archaic societies. On the one hand, there is the magic of the form – Frazer’s “imitational magic” (11)–, rendering value to recognisable shapes reminiscent of totemic power, such as those of the insect pendants. On the other hand, there is the magic of the material – Frazer's “contagious magic” as mentioned above –, investing a specific material with a value derived from its original contact with a totemic source, as in the case of the trophies mentioned above. Any piece of archaic art, constituted by a shape and a material, derives its power from a confluence of these two sources of magic in varying proportions. Functioning as vehicles for materials on the one hand and shapes on the other, gleaned by the eyes and imitated by the hands, such objects constitute ultimately what can be termed the archaic treasure trove, identifiable as the genealogical precursor of the later treasuries, cabinets of curiosity or art collections. Correlative to the treasure trove is the drive to gather.

4. Gathering, attraction, value

The drive to gather is intimately associated with fateful moments of attraction, when one stops short one of the trajectories of daily life, struck by an object of attraction emitting something unique like beauty, rarity, power, or, in one word: value. Baudelaire depicts the human urge to be attracted as a “spirituality of the toilette” that he attributes to the archetypical figures of the “savage” and the “child”, both of whom are susceptible to the power of “things that glitter, [and to] the flourish of colourful feathers and dazzling fabric” (12). Correlative to the process, in which the objects of attraction get identified as things of value, the treasure trove begins to correspond to the practice of gathering. Wilhlem Gerloff regards the treasure trove as the origin of money – within the context of an economy of gift exchanges – and discerns in the act of gathering beyond the dictates of subsistence something like a primordial thirst for status and power in the context of archaic vanity (13).

One can sum up such connections in the archaic theorem: Gathering things is gathering being. Gathering being can be taken in the social context as a technique of consolidating oneself by absorbing the value of the things gathered, positioning oneself in a community, and constructing an ephemeral fiction of status. In Foucauldian terms, therefore, the gathering can be depicted as a technology of the self, which is no different from fasting or analysing dreams or writing an autobiography, which can be all regarded as methodical processes of self-transformation.

Gathering thus unfolding in a series of concrete steps: being attracted by objects and selecting them; sifting, classifying, and assembling them as members of a collection; displaying them in accordance with a curatorial vision; unfolding a complex practice of loans and exchanges on the basis of the collection. A veritable logic of lineage connects the modern collection with the archaic treasure trove, which functions as a rudimentary mechanism for generating value and represents the common genealogical foundation of contemporary economic categories like wealth (assets, corporate stocks, bonds, etc.) and contemporary cultural categories like collection (libraries, archives, museums, etc.).

5. What is a collection?

At this point, I would like to draw attention to some of the basic features of what we call a collection.  

A collection is constituted by the space of its objects, in which each object has an environment consisting of all the other objects. Internally, the space of a collection function as a classificatory grid that determines the positions of its individual objects, excepting collections that can be seen as motley assortments of unclassified and yet attractive things. In a classified collection, the position of an object is an indicator of its essence. The logic of space in institutionalised contemporary collections like museums or archives harks back to taxonomic procedures of scientific knowledge like botany or grammar in eighteenth-century Europe, as Michel Foucault has laid out in “The Order of Things” (14). Externally, on the other hand, the space of a collection needs to be delimited against everything that cannot be accommodated within it. To achieve this, two steps have to be taken. Firstly, the collection has to be circumscribed physically by means of an encasement like a vitrine or an architectural space like a hall of the display. Secondly, the collection has to be demarcated thematically on the basis of a discourse and a set of criteria like, for instance, “Tairona pendants from 10th century Columbia”.

But a collection is also constituted by the time required by a thing to cross its external boundary or threshold to become one of its objects. Between the point of time, when an entity is a mere undefined and unclassified thing that one chances upon, and the point of time, when the entity has been transformed into a well-defined and classified object of a collection, is the fateful time of transition of a thing into an object. The time of transition is stamped onto each of the objects of a collection as an essential factor defining it. This applies to collections in the most general sense of the term. A basic illustration of the time of transition that constitutes a collection is memory, which is inseparable from our general experience of time, whether in a personal, volatile, and unaccountable sense, or in a discursive, stable, and historical sense of the term. If we take memory as a collection of remembered events, we see it incessantly transforming in the course of a lifetime through the ceaseless transition of current events into objects of memory, as well as the continuous dissolution of such objects of memory in the fog of oblivion. Each object of a collection bears the watermark of a very specific memory: the memory of its past life outside the collection and its transition into what it is now as an object of the collection.

With a space that is internally structured as a grid and externally demarcated by a physical and a thematic threshold, populated by objects stamped with the memory of their traversal across the threshold of a collection, the collection itself appears as a cultural device with three functions:
1. A collection resists time by transforming a thing into an object and immobilising it physically and economically. However, before crossing the threshold of the collection, the thing can move through air, water, earth, from hand to hand, or through the channels of the market from the seller to the buyer. But the moment it enters a collection, it morphs into something like a fixed star in a constellation and tends to remain that as long as the collection exists. It is usually not supposed to leave the space of the collection in general, and not meant to be sold in particular. If it does leave the collection, then for a temporary period of time as a loan, and is expected to return sooner or later. In such a sense, one can also consider any exhibition as a temporary collection, a kind of “flash-mob of objects”.
2. A collection adds a special layer of value and identity to an object through the sheer fact of its membership in the collection.
3. A collection constitutes the status of ownership and property: as a set of objects associated with an owner, who also possesses the objects of the collection. By crossing the threshold of a collection, a thing becomes the property of the person or institution that owns the collection.

To sum up: A collection consists of an ordered and delimited space of objects, which have been brought to rest, which acquire a specific value and identity within the confines of the space and bear the marks of their transition into space. Against the backdrop of this provisional and somewhat abstract characterisation, I would like to turn to the exhibits of FROM COLLECT and try to flesh out some of these observations.

(10) Frazer, James, The Golden Bough. A Study in Magic and Religion, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1991: p.
(11) Ibid.
(12) See Le Peintre de la vie moderne in Baudelaire, Charles, Oevres complètes, vol. II, Bibiothèque de la pléiade, edited, presented and annotated by Claude Pichois, Paris: Gallimard, 1976: p. 716. Transl. into English by P. M.
(13) Gerloff, Wilhelm, Die Entstehung des Geldes und die Anfänge des Geldwesens, Frankfurter wissenschaftliche Beiträge, Frankfurt/M.: Vittorio Klostermann, 1947: p. 29.
(14) Foucault, Michel, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of Human Sciences, New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

About the author

Pravu Mazumdar
 studied physics in New Delhi and Munich and has a doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Stuttgart. He writes in German and English, and his books, which use themes like migration and consumerism to unfold a diagnosis of modernity, are closely connected to French Postmodernism, in particular, the philosophy of Michel Foucault. His book on jewellery was published in 2015 under the title: "Gold und Geist: Prolegomena zu einer Philosophie des Schmucks" (“Gold and Mind: Prolegomena towards a Philosophy of Jewellery”), Berlin: Matthes & Seitz.