241 Things

1000 Things is a subjective encyclopedia of inspirational ideas, things, people, and events.

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things


Every product in Euroland costs one euro. The countries that don’t carry the euro have similar stores like the Pound Store or the 99c Store where everything costs a pound or a dollar. While travelling through foreign lands, I’m always on the lookout for these stores. There’s always one. More than the touristic highlights, the cathedrals, or museums, I visit Euroland. I’ll easily skip a gallery, but I’ll never pass up a so-called junk store. Because although these stores are the same everywhere, they always carry different merchandise. Each country imports its own range of cheap crap.

Plastic ringen van Euroland

Photo by Dirk Vis

Many of the products have a second layer in addition to their direct function. A pistol is likewise a dolphin, a penholder also makes noise, a globe also serves as a stress ball, and so on. It’s this second layer that makes them so fascinating. And it’s the reason why, regardless of whether you use them, are special. As if that second layer is an excuse for their cheap appearance. I collect second layers. Their second layers bewilder, they’re silent witnesses of a world that could have been different. I like to imagine a world in which these strange products are the every day norm, where all pistols really are dolphins. And pink. Or where all penholders speak.

They’re sold in mass quantities. They’re made to earn money. For the makers, there is no ulterior goal (no urgency, no sanctity, etcetera.) These products are common objects without much consequence. In that sense, they’re the exact opposite of what economics terms the black swan: an unlikely occurrence with great consequence.

But just as in folk art and folklore, they find themselves relating to the mysterious directly and without pretension. They’re the least mysterious objects imaginable: stress ball, ruler, notebook; and yet it’s astonishing how strange they are. Why a stress ball in the shape of a globe? Accidentally, they often speak in beautiful terms. Like the butterfly that spins thanks to solar energy: the mechanics that drive the butterfly are bigger than the butterfly itself.

For a euro, you can own something that’s been envisioned, sketched, designed, assembled, shipped, packaged, and arranged. While they’re every day objects, they’re also completely absurd (a combination that could make the best absurdist jealous.) I often take one-euro objects home to use as artefacts in short stories. Without a doubt, they’re just as effective as inspiration for animations, design furniture, comic books, pieces of music; the list goes on.

Recently, I’ve been examining these objects ever more closely. With the advent of 3D printing, we’ll probably be able to print these objects ourselves in the near future. Of course, the euro shops won’t stop existing, but will their products remain as inventive, fantastical, and surprising? It’s for this reason that I collect them, a collection which is turning into a swan song for the euro products. Because it’s hard to imagine, and it surely isn’t a problem, but they eventually will disappear.

Pick up the plastic globe and shake it, and the world within it transforms into a snowy landscape, despite the bright blue sky within. They’re called snowstorms, but are also known as snowballs, snow globes, shake domes, water globes, or snow domes. Each name stresses a different aspect of the object: shaking, globe, water, or snow. The first example was shown at the world exhibition in Paris in 1878. These were made of glass. And the snow wasn’t made of plastic, but from flakes of rice, porcelain, bone, or wax. Since then, they’ve grown to be a true collector’s item; sometimes you’ll see whole windowsills full. One also comes across them in thrift stores. But why snow? And why would you collect one, only to throw it out?

Shake one and you’ll know enough. Each dome houses a small, adjusted world in which time stands still and everything remains the same forever.

In the globe you’ll see that which you’ve seen in the big world; that moment, that experience, that building, locked in a frozen state for eternity. That little world is yours. And because it’s yours, you can change it. The snowstorm that ensues is merely the symbol of that. Your thoughts can travel further, past your memories. Further than that one moment. Past the blue sky and the nameplate to the horizon, to where the snowflakes

Better than buying postcards or taking photos, snow globes are collected. At home their value is revealed. Not only does looking at the snow domes bring back memories, but the collector’s thoughts remain a voyage through which he travels. With one swift movement of his hand, Paris is not just the Arche de Triomphe and the Notre Dame, because there, behind the right tower, begins his Paris. The city of his dreams. The journey he once made to Canada and the United States likewise continue forever. Past the captured monuments of St. Louis, Minneapolis, Toronto and Montreal. Even past the idyllic coast of Nova Scotia. Further, always further, to buildings that will never exist, forests that have disappeared forever, and places that only he knows.

But one day, the globes will reveal their true identity. The cheap plastic begins to tear. The once clear water grows clouded, begins to evaporate, and turns into a sticky substance full of chemicals. The dancing snowflakes can no longer keep with the rhythm and lie at the bottom like dirty plastic bags. The collector, unconvinced of his defeat, once again picks up the snowstorm, tips his hand and sees that, actually, all his dreams come from Hong Kong.

Grand Tour souvenir: painting of vulcano
Grand Tour souvenir, small items
Grand Tour souvenir: painting of vulcano

The Grand Tour, a journey to discover the classics, the arts, and social conduct, was exceptionally popular with the British upper class. When in the 18th century, Oxford and Cambridge lost much of their esteem many aristocrats decided to send their post-Eton sons off to explore the world instead. Their accrued knowledge and life experience would prepare young men – and from the 19th century onwards, women too – for key positions in society. Most travellers were younger than twenty, no more than boys for whom sowing their wild oats was implicit on their journey: the first lessons in love and gambling learnt.

Paris, and especially Italy, were the most important destinations on the Grand Tour. Travelling was time consuming and programmes were filled to the brim. Usually, the Grand Tourist’s voyage would last anywhere from six months to two years. The Venice carnival, Easter in Rome, an erupting Vesuvius had all to be seen and taken in.

To ensure the Tour’s success, the young traveller was assigned a bear leader (chaperone.) This would often be a man who knew their destination well and would show the little lord his way. Depending on the budget and the duration of the voyage, the Tourist might have been escorted by one or more chamberlains and a coachman. Many travellers hired a local to make sure that there would be at least one member of the party who could make himself understandable. The family’s foreign relations, local guides, or antiques dealers provided tours and introductions.

The Grand Tourist found himself in an endless stream of site seeing; too much, perhaps, to remember upon his return home. For this reason, most travellers wrote letters home or kept a travel log.

Of course, souvenirs that served as tangible memories of the trip were acquired along the way. Sometimes these would be original antiquities, other times the Grand Tourist would buy (scale) models of artworks, architectural structures, monuments, sculptures in bronze or marble, prints, drawings, paintings, and so-called dactyliothecae, made especially for this purpose.

The souvenirs gave status to their owners, acted as ‘conversation pieces’ during dinners with relations, friends, family members, and illustrated the Tourist’s gained knowledge and experience. Ultimately, they were used in art education and had a great deal of influence on the development of art and architecture. Every important art academy in the 19th century owned a collection of plaster sculptures, cast from famous sculptures from antiquity.

Grand Tour Souvenir: Hercules Farnese
Grand Tour Souvenir: sculpture
Grand Tour Souvenir: model of a temple

I’m on my way to a house of retreat to sit through four days of silence. I’ve been anxious for weeks. My friend tells me I’ll be constantly preoccupied with sex because her friend staying at a similar retreat was overcome with all-encompassing feelings of lust that wouldn’t leave her alone. Similarly, there are two other silence seekers that I know of who fell prey to erotic fantasizing about fellow lodgers. One of these examples resulted in a wild a love making frenzy, the other triggered a stream of tears when the silence was broken with words that proved dishearteningly disappointing.

At this point, I’m expecting to find myself in a hermit-like state, without others, and without raging hormones to worry about. I’m mostly anxious about meeting the hostess. What if my stay is silent from the start, or we only every exchange an absolute minimum of words? I feel like an addict to words who’s being subjected to cold turkey withdrawal, after all, I’m an absolute novice when it comes to staying silent in the company of others. There’s no doubt that this experience won’t be the same as simply not speaking. I’m trying to put myself at ease. I’m normal, and normal people talk every day. For thirty years now, I’ve been speaking, although I naturally do my best to listen every now and then as well. It’s very reasonable that the prospect of complete silence instills fear in me.

Everything seems strangely normal upon arrival. The doorbell rings, the hostess extends her hand, speaks her name. After a tour, the day’s rituals are described: besides the permanent solo-silence, there are three communal silent meals and two communal silent moments lasting a half hour each day. In the evening, one can converse if desired. I’m the only guest and am seated next to hostess A at a gigantic table suited for a dozen or so lodgers. The silence begins when we start our lunch. That is to say: verbal silence. With the lack of conversation, our bodies take the opportunity to make become loudly manifest. I can hear my jaws grinding and the muscles in my throat swallowing, alternated by the muted thundering of my intestines.

I thought I was an experienced eater, but it turns out that anything you focus your full attention on stops being straightforward. When has a mouthful of food been chewed sufficiently to swallow? How big should a bite be? A mouthful of fruit dwindles to nothing when chewed, while a bite of compact, home made bread expands to disturbing proportions. Could it be that one of the prime functions of conversation is to distract us from the noises our bodies make? I’m extremely aware of A to my left, and am constantly attuned to her rhythm. We finish our sandwiches at almost the exact same moment. My chewing is slower, but it takes her longer to pick what she wants on her sandwich. I watch her movements from the corner of my eye. This crooked gaze is difficult to sustain, and so my pupils escape every now and then to take a flight of exploration.

My eyes might, for example, travel over her plate and see how far she is in eating her meal. If I glide my gaze, making sure it doesn’t hang over any one thing for too long, I brave looking halfway between her elbows and her armpits. Beyond the plate lies a border: that’s where the forbidden terrain of her upper body begins, and above that the face where the food enters and disappears.

It’s only when I offer A tea in three words that I dare to make eye contact with her. Could it be that you’re only meant to make eye contact with one another during an exchange of words? Could it be that the reason we speak to each other is mainly to be allowed to look at one another?

Column on a stay at a house of retreat, published online in art magazine LUCY from CBK Utrecht on 30th of Augustus 2011.

Souvenir erotique , detail
daktyliotheek
Souvenir erotique , detail

The dactyliotec is the equivalent of the modern day digital photo album. Dactylioteca were stacked boxes containing prints of gems bearing depictions of Roman emperors, philosophers or art works from for example Vatican museums. Most of the imprints, also called intaglios, were done in cast. Some of them were cast in a beautiful red sulphur paste.

The Grand Tourist started buying them from the beginning of the 19th century at specialized studios and could customize the content description to the latest scientific advances of his time.
Already during the 18th century P.H. Lippert gathered 13149 of these casts in three cabinets in the shape of books. He named the collection a dactylioteca, derived from the Greek word for depository for signet rings with gems. The Amsterdam drawing Academy bought one copy of Lippert in 1792 which is now part of the collection of the Rijksmuseum.

Famous makers of these 19th century collections of casts were Odelli, Liberotti and Paoletti. They all set up their studios in the same area in Rome between the Piazza del Popolo and the Spanish Steps. This was the area where most travellers found shelter upon arrival in Rome and was therefore called the 'English ghetto'.

daktyliotheek, detail

A remarkable copy is the shown here: a set of prints of erotic gems. Since the first half of the 18th century there was a 'gabinetto segreto' in Naples, a secret cabinet that contained the excavations from Pomeï with an erotic tone. The cabinet has known a long history of closings and opening and was even closed with a brick wall in 1849.
This collection of casts is an extraordinary souvenir of a traveller who might have had the luck to find the cabinet opened.
daktyliotheek
Souvenir erotique , detail