There are objects and there are stories, and sometimes the two entwine. Museologists embark on projects of assisted storytelling: the history of the world in one hundred objects, the history of India in two hundred. The latter, still being curated and inspired by the former at the British Museum, will find the objects catalogued into nine “stories”. Nine ways of telling, then. Nine connections of dots.
The objects have gravitas: articles of public religion, preserved scripts, art pieces. But something feels missing, scrolling through. This is not the history of the world as I understand it; this is only an arrangement of facts. Of course, that’s a matter of perspective. But what has always spoken to me is silence. The true history of the world, as I encounter it, is in that which didn’t get told. In the British Museum’s project, for instance, we find the Ain Sakhri lovers, an 11,000 year old Israeli erotic sculpture. It doesn’t move me, but it reminds me of artifacts that do: the 6,000 year old Valdaro lovers, skeletons laid to rest with their limbs embracing, ceremonial flint blades along the thighs. Or more poignant still, the 4,800 year old pieta skeletons: a mother cradling her baby, her skull tilted in a gaze toward her child, discovered in Taiwan.
What I mean to say is: the story of only what survived, or even the only stories that survived, can never be the whole truth.
How would she have measured that life – that mother? What objects – what everyday mortar-pestle, what tooth relic of the firstborn, what period rag – evidenced it? Imagine tabling them for ourselves too: the synecdoches of a history of the self.
Weapons are among the objects in those museum curations of the history of humanity. Handaxes of white quartz, jadeite, basalt. They are beautiful, if we forget their use. And they remind me of a gemstone I gave someone because among its properties was the capacity to distil the darkness from drink. I hadn’t known yet that he was addicted to toxicity. That object belongs to him but its history belongs to me. There is the reverse too: a pendant I don’t wear because someone terrible owns the exact same one. Perhaps other people’s objects tell our stories too.
Years ago, inspired by Marina Abramovic’s The Artist Is Present, I conceptualised an installation using absence. My absence, in fact. My departure from the country that was my home for 17 years, and all the things I left behind, not knowing that it was to be a permanent cleaving. What happened to that? Perhaps that artwork is a kind of object now, a question mark. For some reason, those photographs of workers on skyscrapers comes to mind suddenly: the way they posed dangling their legs over beams, eating lunch in high altitude without getting dizzy. Some things are like this. The frozen moment is best; all movement is precarious.
The object as narrative device. But that word’s the key I think. Device. Not a song, not a memory, not the way expressions flit across faces just long enough to tell the truth. A thing is only a thing.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 9th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.