OBJECT LESSONS; Part 1. OBJECT ALCHEMY: Who is the Possessor, the Object or the Self?

Rebecca begins her Object Lessons series, exploring what objects mean to us by analysing a series of case studies written by colleagues at the Whitworth.

When you change the way you look at things,

the things you look at change.

Max Planck, Quantum Physicist, 1858-1947, The Law of Physics[i]

OBJECT ALCHEMY: The act of collecting; of acquiring objects and object groups, is unique to every individual. The term object alchemy can be applied to the act of seeing objects in different ways.[ii] We all uniquely find meaning, connection, and inspiration within objects. There is an abstract metamorphosis to be found in any one object within any one timeframe; sensed through our engagement with it. Our perception of an object in the moment and through time can modify. In a way, the object, by simply just existing, as an object, mirrors or reflects our state of being, namely our very moods, tastes and wants as we change and experience altered states. The object can simply be an extension of ourselves, or the Self.

We all acquire and collect. In truth, we may not even be aware we do it. Most of us own an array of objects yet would not even class ourselves as a collector. It is our natural affiliation with the objects that surround us that might prompt us to consider at any one time: who is the possessor, the Object or the Self? According to, Russell W. Belk, leading authority on mass consumption, consumer culture and behaviour and materialism,

‘Our possessions are a major contributor to and reflection of our Identities. We cannot hope to understand consumer behaviour without first gaining some understanding of the meanings that consumers attach to possessions. A key to understanding what possessions mean is recognising that, knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally, or unintentionally, we regard our possessions as parts of ourselves. As Tuan argues, “Our fragile sense of self needs support, and this we get by having and possessing things because, to a large degree, we are what we have and possess.”’[iii]

These observations were triggered following my attendance on an ArtsMethod, University of Manchester workshop, Object Lessons: How do our objects tell stories of us and we of our objects? All participants were briefed to each bring several objects for presentation and discussion; an object of personal importance or significance, an object related to research, a lost object, and a re-discovered object. The session was short yet intriguing, enhanced firstly by the individual uniqueness of each presented object together with their stories, none of which I could ever have second guessed. Following our object readings, an in-depth group discussion was prompted in response to the two key questions: What is an object? What is the self?

It became clear over the course of the session that there is no easy answer to the question; What is an object? The discussion provided plenty of food for thought. One perspective for example was that any ‘thing’ that exists or even anything living can be an object. It is visual, has a physical presence; it exists, and it is there. However, now I start to look at this, it is clear there are shades of meaning, and that there are different types of objects too. For example, a wafer-thin piece of paper is a 3D object as it still has a thickness, however slim. You can hold it in your hand and turn it around. However, some theorists would go further and argue that the drawing on it would be considered a 2D object.[iv] This is where the initial sense that everything that you can see is an object gets called into question. Does this mean then that the sky is potentially a 2D object? We see its colour yet cannot grab or touch it. Yet in contradiction, surely the sky must be a 3D object because of the space it occupies? And is a living creature like a dog, an object? On the day, differing perceptions were shared and challenged. I was left with a sense we had only just scratched the surface and a desire to know more.

My reflections

Object lessons are influenced by different cultural and social backgrounds. Object Lessons have a universal, worldwide application. How do we communicate what we know from the objects we own? There are educational and religious lessons to be learnt here. Distinctions emerge out of similarity. We all understand in different ways. Yet, it can be argued, objects ‘need help’. They will not tell their personal stories automatically and ask for human engagement. An object goes unnoticed until a certain level of interaction with its form and/ or function. It starts with the gaze, then the desire, then the interaction. Once ‘activated’, it is then that an object takes on a whole new level of meaning and is recognised as such in its story. It is the ‘gap’ between; its journey along the way, to its heightened status and newly acquired language of the object, through its material properties, stories, hidden or evident histories attached, not forgetting spatial energies, which makes it so interesting so informing us.

There is such a thing as Object Elicitation too, which is the collecting of intelligence from people in association with objects, not forgetting spatial relationships, for instance across aestheticism, time, memory, and usage in an object. An example of the latter will be discussed shortly. Our relationship with an object can become overly complex. We become emotionally intwined with our things for a multitude of reasons and motives. One person’s rubbish is of value to another. Rehabilitation and reappropriation of things is common and can be key to one’s ethics and a sustainable lifestyle. An object’s path can be long and fascinating before it is deemed as absolutely of no further use. ‘Constellations’ of objects exist universally; archived, as do collections of photographs; already established objects. They are donated, acquired, or found. Yet, whether they exist individually or within a collection (i.e. seemingly all the same), they are all the same only in that they have a story to tell yet remain unique to their own individual story and history. The process of recording that object or objects perpetuates their story through continued engagement, with memory, possession, and good practice.

There is no beginning, middle or end to an object’s story. There are numerous beginnings, middles and ends to an object, perhaps starting with the person(s) (also the storyteller) who made it or handled it as it was being made. Its stories overlap and mingle on an existential plane. Hence, we define the object. In essence, the object gets activated through its narrative, which in turn enables both the story and the storyteller to have an emotive relationship on any level with it; a certain level of engagement, with relative meaning; generating both repeated and new types of narrative.

Object Lessons in its very engagement can be likened to mapping, in terms of the consideration of and the recording of space in the realms of visual culture. In explanation, mapping,

‘argues that the field of visual culture is already a spatialized construction in that the visual occupies social space. Space is taken up as an active component of seeing and thinking that, if considered as such, cannot be overlooked when considering meaning in relation to the visual.’[v]

And in this case the object is deemed the visual. The object is not only defined by us in terms of narrative, as discussed above, but the object defines us too. In terms of social space, who you are in the first place; your own individuality and idiosyncrasies matters. Identity is mapped through individual experience, within your ethnic, cultural, educational, and social background. Due to our very own unique makeup, we will experience and perceive the same thing, like an object, very differently to one another. What one person will identify with, another will not. The social distinction of taste stems from our very being, who we are at that very point in time (and it will change); namely our very strong individual and unique identities.[vi] In order to understand our individual identities, including why we are drawn to some things (and not other things) then we only have to look at who we are, our backgrounds and life experiences. To quote, the 19th-century American philosopher and transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), ‘Perception is a mirror, not a fact.’ It is all based upon and a question of reality. Each individual’s reality.[vii]

We each occupy exceptionally different and distinctive spaces or (even existential) worlds in regard to our individual conceptual understanding of and connection with our personal and intimate objects. A term for our affiliation for the objects around us is ‘objecthood: the condition of being an object. Broadly speaking, objecthood defines as ‘something placed before the eyes, or presented to the sight or other sense; an individual thing seen or perceived, or that may be seen or perceived; a material thing[viii]. However, place this term within the unbounded realms of visual culture, highlighting ways of seeing, namely perception, reasoning and understanding; and a myriad of possibilities in defining the immense complexity of objecthood is set free.

Case studies

An object is known by the application of senses.[ix]

Curious, I decided to ask my work colleagues at the Whitworth to share my experience, with Object Lessons of their own. Sticking to the original brief, How do our objects tell stories of us and we of our objects; I requested a written piece and an accompanying photograph on an object (or even objects) of their choice that they felt connected to in some way. Colleagues were asked to tell the story of their object. What is it? Why did they choose it? What has it meant to them?

Each submission was clearly written from the heart, offering a glimpse into personal lives through the objects chosen. Participants’ names have been anonymised to protect their identities. I would like to start with the first Object Lesson, a story which powerfully highlights A’s strong bond with and love for her family, through her object.

A’s great grandmother’s handbag

‘My object is an old handbag which belonged to my great grandmother Bobby. She passed away earlier this year at the grand old age of 98 very peacefully with a close friend with her, before lockdown and all the chaos that ensued.

My mother and I went to help clean out the house and find objects which would remind us of her and her husband, Den, who passed away about 15 years ago, before the house was to be sold. We found some amazing, and often hilarious, objects which included a scary owl cushion, a collection of knitting needles and even a Happy Mondays album! But the handbag was the final belonging we found, tucked away in a wardrobe, waiting to be discovered, it seemed, by specifically me and my mum.

I should clarify that Bobby never told us about this bag or what was inside it or where it could be found, because inside the bag were almost exclusively photographs of me and my great-grandparents from when I was a child. It was her last gift to us, these memories which she had of me and her husband, photographs which I have never seen and memories I don’t remember.

She had passed away a few months before this point, but it really felt like a goodbye in the best possible way. I had a very close bond with my great-grandmother, which I know is very unusual for someone of my age. We would sit together chatting for hours holding hands and smiling the same slightly mischievous smile, as she told me stories of her life working in the land army, volunteering in hospitals and with the RSPB, and then she’d usually get cross about the next-door neighbours.

I miss her a lot, but her life and character still give me inspiration and strength when I need it. I was very lucky to have known her.’


A’s story really spoke to me and was loaded with meaning. There is much more to this story than just the finding of the bag and its contents. A powerful signifier, the bag and family photographs possess a beautiful construct, of histories and time, place and memory, of important generational family ties. The precious memories and moments may be buried deep in the past, locked away in another time and place, yet these objects really do help to connect A with her Great Grandmother as if it were only yesterday. It was a parting gift and I am struck by A’s conviction that Bobby was hoping A would find it. The photographs are the memories that bind them together.

This story evokes a chapter (titled Drawers, Chests and Wardrobes) from Gaston Bachelard’s critique, ‘The Poetics of Space’. It is almost as if had been specifically written with A’s Object Lesson in mind and as ‘one becomes a psychologist of houses,’[x] Bachelard is careful to distinguish between image and metaphor referring to ‘the images of intimacy that are in harmony ..with all the other hiding places in which human beings, great dreamers of locks, keep or hide their secrets.’ The wardrobe is a signifier ‘of daydreams of intimacy… Every poet of furniture -knows that the inner space of an old wardrobe is deep. A wardrobe’s inner space is intimate space, space that is just not open to anybody.’[xi]

It seems to me; Bobby’s intricately stitched handbag with the exquisitely decorated clasp, is a metaphor. For Bobby, for the Self, for a life well lived, for intimacy, for love. It identifies Bobby. As a highly personal keepsake, it reveals fragments of the past. It tells us who she was and reveals just how much her family, especially A, her great grandchild meant to her. Clearly this was an item of intimacy befitting to the purpose of storing such cherished photos. She held them close to her heart. Isn’t it so, that the best kept secrets are often kept close by, protectively hidden out of sight and safe, because they really are special, somewhere intimate and personal, stashed in a cupboard or the bottom of a wardrobe; somewhere only she could know about? By the very placing and careful positioning of the bag, Bobby was already subconsciously telling a story, the wardrobe became a metaphoric indicator of memory,

‘In the wardrobe there exists a centre of order that protects the entire house against uncurbed disorder. Here order reigns, or rather, this is the reign of order. Order is not merely geometrical; it can remember the family history.’[xii]

What secrets, different lives, could the bag tell? It appears deep. Deep enough to hold, and hide, all manner of secrets. In imagining its past life, were there boiled sweets stuffed deep in its recesses for the Grandchildren? Or a profusion of lavender scented lace hankies embroidered with delicate initials? In the early days did she match it with elegant tea dresses and take it to dances? 

The intimate act that was the placing of the bag, had the power to create new intimacies upon the finding of the bag. All meaning stopped, no distinction between the inside and outside, until the wardrobe was opened, the ‘key’ turned, and the secrets unlocked. Despite being found though, metaphorically speaking in terms of the intimate Self, ‘…as a small object that may be opened … we shall never reach the bottom of the casket.’[xiii]

Bachelard’s casket can also be likened to the bag and/ or wardrobe too. He refers to the poet too; in this case A and/ or A’s family. The poet is likened to a dreamer, a dreamer across space and time, in this case. The following passage summarises what opening the ‘casket’ is like.

‘In the darkness of the casket, it is the enclosed reflections that reproduce objects. The inversion of interior and exterior is experienced so intensely by the poet that it brings about an inversion of objects and reflections. …after dreaming of this tiny parlour… the poet opens the casket. …the parlour remains empty, silent and clean. …In reality, however, the poet has given concrete form to a very general psychological theme… there will always be more things in a closed, than in an open box. To verify images kills them, and it is always more enriching to imagine than to experience.

The action of the secret passes continually from the hider of things to the hider of self. A casket is a dungeon for objects. And here is a dreamer who feels that he shares the dungeon of its secret. We should like to open it, and we should also like to open our hearts.’[xiv]

In the placing of her secret, Bobby opened her inner most heart to A and her family. Here was a similar analogy of the Bachelard’s interior and exterior; in the first place, the hider of Self, yet here too was the poet, the dreamer. The lady who placed the ‘casket’ in the wardrobe was the provider of all the dreams.

The alchemy of objects, their secret mystery and narrative, is illuminated through interception of their very language, which we engage with and decode. Clearly, objects do make us who we are. And yet, at the same time, they are indeed a measure of ourselves, of the Self. They shape us; our identity, our lives, how we live. Perhaps just a little bit of our soul is invested in our objects. The expression, ‘mirrors of our soul’ could be applied to our objects, hence, again-by return, they influence us, and we are caught within an eternal rebound.

Could it be that in serving as objects that identify us, our objects are also mirrors of the psyche, of the ego? Without intent, unaware, we project our inner most desires and expectations onto the objects we surround ourselves with. They may be poor mirrors of our dreams, of our ego, as this can fall short. We constantly chase the dream in today’s ‘throwaway society’, hence the ever-changing transiency and fickle nature of our object possessions. French psychoanalyst and philosopher, Jacques Lacan, theorized:

‘What we see in a mirror is always an illusion. Lacan demonstrated that our identification with our reflection relies on méconnaissance, or misrecognition. When we look in the mirror, we see a pleasing image of wholeness and project onto it a mental fantasy—the ego ideal.’[xv]

Just a parting thought, is this what we are unwittingly doing with our objects?

Object Lessons Part 2, will be along with more Object Stories from the Whitworth Visitor Team, in early 2021. Watch this space!

[i] German physicist Max Planck, is known as the founder of Quantum Physics for revolutionizing the entire world’s way of looking at things and demonstrating that when an individual looks at an object, the characteristics of the object actually change at the molecular level. To be concise, Quantum Physics originated from the discovery that radiations or energies emitted by a blackbody (or black body) are in a quantized form (broken down into packets of energy) instead of delivered in a continuous form. Wikipedia defines blackbody as ‘an idealised physical body’ or object. By way of further reflection, Wikipedia explains:

‘In common usage, a physical object or physical body (or simply an object or body) is a collection of matter within a defined contiguous boundary in three-dimensional space. The boundary must be defined and identified by the properties of the material. The boundary may change over time. The boundary is usually the visible or tangible surface of the object. The matter in the object is constrained (to a greater or lesser degree) to move as one object. The boundary may move in space relative to other objects that it is not attached to (through translation and rotation). An object’s boundary may also deform and change over time in other ways.

Also in common usage, an object is not constrained to consist of the same collection of matter. Atoms or parts of an object may change over time. An object is defined by the simplest representation of the boundary consistent with the observations. However, the laws of Physics only apply directly to objects that consist of the same collection of matter.

In physics, an object is an identifiable collection of matter, which may be constrained by an identifiable boundary, and may move as a unit by translation or rotation, in 3-dimensional space.

Each object has a unique identity, independent of any other properties. Two objects may be identical, in all properties except position, but still stay distinguishable. In most cases the boundaries of two objects may not overlap at any point in time. The property of identity allows objects to be counted.

The common conception of physical objects includes that they have extension in the physical world, although there do exist theories of quantum physics and cosmology which may challenge this. In modern physics, “extension” is understood in terms of the spacetime: roughly speaking, it means that for a given moment of time the body has some location in the space, although not necessarily a point. A physical body is assumed to have such quantitative properties as mass, momentum, electric charge, other conserving quantities, and possibly other quantities.

An object with known composition and described in an adequate physical theory is an example of physical system. (In physics, a physical system is a portion of the physical universe chosen for analysis. Everything outside the system is known as the environment. The environment is ignored except for its effects on the system.

[ii] An  alternative understanding of the ‘art’ of alchemy: ‘Alchemy is defined as the process of taking something ordinary and turning it into something extraordinary, sometimes in a way that cannot be explained.

An example of using (object) alchemy is a person who takes a pile of scrap metal and turns it into beautiful art.’


[iii] Russell W. Belk, Possessions and the Extended Self, Journal of Consumer Research, Volume 15, Issue 2, September 1988, Pages 139–168

Reference to American-Chinese geographer, Tuan, Yi-Fu (1980), “The Significance of the Artifact,” Geographical Review, 70 (4),462-472. p. 472

[iv] https://study.com/academy/lesson/2d-3d-objects-properties-relationships.html#transcriptHeader

[v] Richardson, Jack. “Seeing, Thinking, Mapping, Moving: Considerations of Space in Visual Culture.” Visual Arts Research, vol. 32, no. 2, 2006, pp. 62–68. JSTORwww.jstor.org/stable/20715422.

[vi] Refer to: Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste by Pierre Bourdieu, publ. Routledge 2010. First publ. in 1979, yet still relevant today, we constantly choose between what we find aesthetically pleasing, and what we consider tacky, merely trendy, or ugly. Taste is not pure. Bourdieu demonstrates that our different aesthetic choices are all distinctions – that is, choices made according to social and class distinction. Our chosen objects can have the potential to serve as minute distinctions of taste which in turn feed the unconscious bias that has the potential to become the basis for social judgement.

[vii] ‘Reality is the sum or aggregate of all that is real or existent within a system, as opposed to that which is only imaginary. The term is also used to refer to the ontological status of things, indicating their existence. In physical terms, reality is the totality of a system, known and unknown.  Philosophical questions about the nature of reality or existence or being are considered under the rubric of ontology, which is a major branch of metaphysics in the Western philosophical tradition. Ontological questions also feature in diverse branches of philosophy, including the philosophy of sciencephilosophy of religionphilosophy of mathematics, and philosophical logic. These include questions about whether only physical objects are real (i.e., Physicalism), whether reality is fundamentally immaterial (e.g., Idealism), whether hypothetical unobservable entities posited by scientific theories exist, whether God exists, whether numbers and other abstract objects exist, and whether possible worlds exist.’ Wikipedia

[viii] https://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/objecthood.htm

[ix] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physical_object

[x] The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard, publ. Penguin Books, 2014, House and Universe, p.93

[xi] Ibid pp95 and 99

[xii] Ibid p.100

[xiii] Ibid pp106-7

[xiv] Ibid p.108

[xv] Objects of Depair: Mirrors article, Meghan O’Glieblyn, March 04 2019


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