The lives of objects

The biography of objects was the subject of an autumn conference at the Oxford Centre for Life Writing at Wolfson College.

From the many presenters I sought out just two, Neil MacGregor and Edmund De Waal.

MacGregor spoke of how ordinary things can become extraordinary over the course of our lives, and about the powerful symbolism of objects. He talked of nations becoming defined by objects not people. He spun a tale of the Cyrus Cylinder from Babylon in the 6th century BC charting its passage through time and space. This clay object was possibly the first written charter for the governance of an ancient multicultural state. Fought over during the wars of the ancient Persian Empire, a cornerstone of the Shah of Iran’s Monarchy in the 1960s, it was charged, then found guilty and written out of history as a pre-Islamic object of faith by the new Islamic Republic in 1979, only to be revived and appropriated by both sides in the Iran/Iraq war of the 1980s. More recently, it was appropriated as a symbol of western values by President Bush on a flying visit to the USA.

He spoke also of a Kestor sculpture made only of reconstituted armaments of several makes, all of European provenance and all used in the Mozambique Civil War,1977-1992.The arms have been re-shaped into a throne. It had been used at a 9/11 commemoration in New York, sent to Northern Ireland on Good Friday and now Mozambique want it to come back to their country as part of their post-war truth and reconciliation process.

De Waal moved us on to gentler but still noble pursuits. And rather like throwing his delicately crafted pots in his studio, he threw his audience a selection of perfectly formed thoughts and observations on making:

“Believe in not touching objects with hands but with eyes and smell”; ” the Chinese world of pottery is all about austerity and concision”; “breathing in and breathing out and in between the making.”

To conclude, De Waal picked up a plain white shard. It was Tang Dynasty Porcelain, rejected by its makers one hot humid afternoon in China long ago. “You cannot recall what you make, me keeping this is a synapse, from me to them, passed across a thousand years.”

Paul Murphy

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