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  • Neshan Tung

What Can We Learn from Patti Smith's Reverence for Objects?

By: Neshan Tung


Legendary artist and punk-rock poetess Patti Smith writes about the places she has been and the people she has loved. She does this through intimate recollections of objects that have weaved their way into her life. In her 2015 book M Train, Smith takes us in and out of dreamscapes, childhood memories, formative eras, and relationships as she ponders how objects are intertwined with these lived experiences. They remain with her in memory, dreams, and waking life long after being lost to decay, time, natural disasters, and death. Despite inevitable disappearances, their colossal impact and the memories embedded within them remain perpetually, even strangely, alive. The objects live on, not only in the photographs she takes, but also in the hearts of those who relate, connect, remember, and feel. Whether it is Frida Kahlo's bed, Virginia Woolf's walking stick, or Hermann Hesse's typewriter, these objects will eventually be lost to time, just as we will be. Yet the heartening and uniquely individual impact of these items burns bright, even when they are no longer present. The courses of our lives are reoriented, interrupted, and created by this impact. As Smith says, "all of these things, they're memories. They all speak of someone."

Patti Smith, 1978. Source.

French writer Jean Genet, who was one of Smith's idols, lamented over wanting to visit the Prison of St. Laurent du Maroni: a dream left unfulfilled. Smith decided that she would bring stones from the floor of the St. Laurent prison to his grave. Smith and her husband Fred journeyed to French Guiana to retrieve the stones, however Fred passed away before they could complete their mission. Years later, Smith visited Genet with a few of her friends. A curious local child joined them to watch as she placed the prison stones on the grave, washed the headstone, and photographed it. She later wrote: "eventually I would place the Polaroids of Genet's grave in a box with the graves of others. But in my heart, I knew the miracle of the rose was not the stones, nor could be found in the photographs, but was within the cells of the child guardian, Genet's prisoner of love" (Smith 161).

The objects inside museums are part of a greater dynamic ecosystem of layered meanings, not only in the lives of those who created them, but also in the lives of those who observe, admire, and are inspired by them. As we busy ourselves with living, it is our endless interactions — some banal, and others impactful — with objects that create the blooming rhapsody of narratives which make up the very fabric of our lives. As Smith proves to us in her dizzying book, objects such as the prison stones never exist in a vacuum. They live in a shuffling Russian doll matrix of people, culture, memories, and time. It is no wonder that we, most often in the western museum world, wrangle with the neurotic impulse to preserve, restore, and save at all costs. Perhaps we can learn something from Smith's lucid vulnerability and touching reverence for objects. There is a kind of gracefulness in accepting the finite material reality of things. To accept the necessary loss and death of objects is to appreciate them in their entirety, being humbled by and honouring the greater celestial schema in which we all play an equal role.

I want to know how we can adopt this awareness of the life cycle and interconnectedness of objects through the lens of making meaning in museums. The longevity of meaning seems to be inseparable from human connection and experience, which lends itself to a heightened recognition of how objects are absorbed into the essence of our lives as "talismanic souvenirs of the past."

M Train by Patti Smith. Source.


Smith, Patti. M Train. Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.


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