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

I am looking for a small frame for a postcard with some deer on it. I find exactly the right size, somewhere in a box. In the frame is Ms. De Boer. Or at least: an image of her, of course. I don’t know Ms. De Boer that well, so I flip her face out of the frame. Another Photo falls out. On it, a young woman and man with white Dianthus flowers on their blazers. Seems like an engagement photo, not one of resistance, considering the smiles on their faces (although the gentleman grimaces rather sarcastically).

An indistinct sense of guilt creeps up on me. I remember Ms. De Boer. For hours I have sat next to her, in her service apartment, in the middle of busy Schilderswijk.* It smelled musty, of old perfume and fabric softener. The sound of the oxygen machine constantly in the background. On the TV a soap series.

She did not tell me all that much about her life. She had drunk and smoked much, as a result of which she now had COPD. Her ex-husband was in a home for the elderly. She didn’t take kindly to that. Or to people generally. All the more to her little children, though. They were displayed on the upper ridge on the walls of her small sitting room. The dogs. Different German shepherds, of which one was the sweetest of them all, but I have forgotten any names. I also forgot the name of that epileptic Keeshond that (volunteering for the animal foundation) I came to walk for her. And in spite of the fact that it was everything to her.

In general, Ms. De Boer complained most of the time, but when her little dog was concerned, she would radiate. When things were going worse and worse, her anxiety over her dog took the upper hand. “For me, I’m done here, but who will take care of my little dog?” The dog wagged its tail, rain tapped against the window, Moroccans threw stones at the tram. The sound of the oxygen machine. The tears of Ms. De Boer.

After having been lying in hospital once again, she told me she had seen Death. A large black man had stood at her bed. She was afraid to die, and cried softly.

A while later was her cremation. It was by far the most depressing service I have ever witnessed. Besides me, there were four other service workers. And there was the church. Ms. De Boer was afraid and lonely in her last couple of days and for some reason or other, that attracts the church like a lamp does flies. All of a sudden there was talk of God and some conversion, whereas Ms. De Boer was the least religious person I knew. For a finish, they placed a large wreath with a religious text onto the ribbon beside the coffin. I can remember that this considerably obstructed my attempts at serious morning, especially for the bad spelling mistake they had made. I don’t remember for certain, but I think it was: “The Lord leeds me.” A grave matter.

So now I flip her face out of a frame and realise that the chance exists that I am the only one who still thinks of her. That is sad. She might not have been the most pleasant person to be around, but how much she cared for her little dog shows that she could feel love. And loneliness, pain and fear. She has given me the picture when she knew she would die. It was one of the few photos she had of herself. I will look for another frame for those deer.

* A neighbourhood of poor alloy in The Hague.

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
Souvenir erotique , detail
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.
Souvenir erotique , detail