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‘Junk Sculpture’ and Fetishism in the New Forest

June 9, 2014

I was thrilled to discover this construction composed of objets trouvés in a ‘contemplative space’ of a garden I visited on Sunday (less thrilled by evidence I need to clean the lens).

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The central wooden pillar with the carved and painted arcs was retrieved from a Forestry Commission skip, while the ‘tusk’ suspended on the right is a piece of driftwood from the beach. Antlers and animal skulls, found on forays into the forest, juxtapose ‘the wild’ with the artificial, illuminative detritus of lanterns and an outgrowth of an electricity pylon. A spider’s web suggests the collaborative nature of such improvisations.

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On the back of the pillar carved snakes writhe. The carvings – arcs and snakes – I am told are the work of Adrian Hosney, a Portsmouth artist. Plastic frogspawn clings on, out of season.

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The gathering together of all these disparate objects and their arrangement – almost as a kind of ‘forest shrine’ – put me in mind of some of the creations of the Danish painter and sculptor, Henry Heerup (4 November 1907 – 30 May 1993), in particular, his junk sculptures, for which old perambulator wheels, bedposts, broken toys – old rubbish that Heerup would find on his daily bicycle rides – were assembled into odd and fantastic figures. As the write-up on the Holstebro Kunstmuseum website puts it: ‘In the art work of Heerup common objects become universal symbols of the big and impalpable sides of existence’.

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This delightful little film about him, by Jens Jørgen Thorsen, shows Heerup out and about on his bike and tinkering around in all seasons in his garden/studio.

The ‘junk sculpture’ in the New Forest, evocative of archaic rituals, reminds me of the discussion of fetishism within nineteenth and twentieth century anthropology, summarised in an article by T. Masuzawa, where it is seen as inchoate, erratic, and unprincipled, marking the nadir of cultural value, ‘the polar opposite of the telos of the civilizing process’ (Masuzawa 2000:247). Dismissed as being no more than an incidental assortment of ‘the worship of odds and ends of rubbish’ (Andrew Lang 1893,  Masuzawa 2000:247), fetishism was characterised as a misguided adoration of objects that are ‘intrinsically worthless’, causal objects such as ‘stones, shells, bones and such like things’ (Max Müller 1879, in ibid.). For Max Müller fetishism was not a form of religion, nor a stage of religious development, let alone an original stage, but ‘a certain inferior disposition or weakness to which anyone at any place or any time is, in principle, susceptible’ (Max Müller, in Masuzawa 2000:245).

And yet… although the pleasure derived – at any place or any time – from such ‘odds and ends of rubbish’ may be classed as an inferior disposition or ‘weakness’, it remains alive in our hearts, even in the shadow of the elevated, monumental institutions of Art, Religion, Politics and Economics and their disavowal of the common, the ordinary and the everyday.

Reference

Masuzawa, T. 2000. Troubles with materiality: the ghost of fetishism in the Nineteenth Century. Comparative Studies in Society and History. Vol. 42: 242-67.

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