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Going Once, Going Twice

simon-evans-everything-i-haveSimon Evans, Everything I Have

In recent years, a number of artists have transformed the sum of their life’s humble possessions into works of art.  Some have done so by simply creating some kind of inventory or archive.  Other artists, following a long tradition of artistic self-abnegation, have gone so far as to dispose of everything they own, either by giving it all away or selling everything they own on eBay.  An underlying motivation for art actions like this is often to suggest or challenge the belief that a complete inventory of one’s material goods says something about the life of the owner.

As readers of Vertigo know, because of my interest in the works of W.G. Sebald I often write about novels with embedded photographs.  I think Leanne Shapton’s new book is perhaps the most unusual I have encountered that manages to fit into this category.important-artifacts-cover

Leanne Shapton, illustrator, writer and “art director of the New York Times op-ed page “, takes a new angle on the concept of inventorying one’s possessions with her book Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009).  The book emulates the celebrity auction catalog (think of the six-volume Sotheby’s catalog for the many personal collections of Andy Warhol and you’re on the right track).  The twist is that Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris are fictional characters and their joint possessions, carefully itemized and offered in rough chronological order in the auction catalog, are supposed to reflect the arc of their relationship, beginning with “the first known photograph of the couple together” (Lot 1005) and ending with various lots suggesting two lives going in different directions.

Shapton’s auction catalog mimicry is pitch perfect; her lot descriptions satirize the dead-pan verbiage of the high-brow auction house.  And, in fact, Shapton’s “auction catalog” appears to have fooled the Library of Congress, which catalogs the volume not as fiction but in the CT class, or Auxiliary Sciences of History: Biography.  Shapton must have had a blast collecting or faking the items to be included in the 332 lots: fake snapshots, tourist postcards, lingerie, clogs, 18 bras for “Lenore” and 18 tee-shirts for Harold, cheesy paperbacks, vintage sunglasses, stuffed squirrels…

important-artifacts-page

On the other hand, Important Artifacts and Personal Property is less successful in giving much depth to the relationship between the two characters.  Auction catalog language is deliberately wiped free of emotion and subjectivity, so Shapton often resorts to personal notes, letters, and annotations by Lenore and Harold themselves, buried in the descriptions of the various lots, as a vehicle for depicting the status of their changing relationship.  For example, here is Lot 1253:

An unusual chair and a handwritten note
A vintage 1930s leather and oak chair.  Good condition, some marking to leather.  A note on the back of a receipt for groceries reads: “You said you’d be back at 8, you could have called.  Have gone to the movies.  here’s your present – Happy Birthday. L 9:45
24 in. wide x 30 in. high x 18 in. deep
$700-900

The problem, of course, is that most of our personal possessions don’t really say much about us in isolation.  (The fact that I have a Hello Kitty mug of Badtz-Maru in my office won’t tell you anything about me unless I tell you the story behind it.)  When items in Shapton’s book do point to biographical traits of their owners, the message often seems forced.  Yes, it’s clearly meaningful when the couple start reading sad novels and self-help books about relationships, but those clues are so watered down they don’t really reveal anything. This is definitely not Anna Karenina. Shapton really has two overlapping projects here – one about a relationship and one that pokes fun at the auction world.   Enjoy the book for the latter, ignore the former, and you’ll have much more fun.

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