Found objects, Found art
Many of Agora Gallery’s talented artists use found objects in their work – things that they come across, are struck by, keep and set by. They might be manmade, intended for a particular purpose or job, or they might be part of the natural world. These objects may wait some time – in a shoebox, on a shelf – until the artist is ready to use them, or until the right combination of objects come together to provide the necessary inspiration. Then they appear as part of a work of art; in collages, like those of Hidekazu Ishikawa, or to complement the main work in the way that Apolo Anton Arauz uses objects found on the sites he photographs to bring an extra level of meaning to the photographs themselves. Samantha Churchill, who presented some of her most recent work in Agora Gallery’s latest exhibition, started recycling wire to make sculptures back in college and has developed this idea to become a firm advocate for using found objects in art. Found objects can be a source of inspiration in their own right, or play a role in the development of a piece through their connection to other ideas.
Objects are often intriguing in their own right, as well as in terms of what they add to the overall work. But the use of found objects in art has a history of its own, too. The Dadaists are credited with beginning the trend in the 1910s, incorporating both found objects and images into their works. Perhaps the most notable and radical was Marcel Duchamp, whose display in 1917 of a ceramic urinal which he entitled ‘Fountain’ scandalized the art world of the time and was greeted with cries that this was not, and could not be, art. Despite this, though, the innovation was greeted with interest and delight among artists of the time and quickly developed with works of assemblage – which involves putting various found objects together to create something new – and pieces which combined the old and the new methods and incorporated found objects into works to illustrate or draw attention to one aspect of the painting or sculpture. The concept became an important one to many of the evolving schools, including the Dadaists and the Surrealists and thus was established as a legitimate tool of the artistic workbox.
Those who later worked with the concept of found objects, although in a real sense developing this theme and idea, often differed from the original artists in the important sense that whilst Duchamp, for example, used the object itself, they tended to to use them in a ‘processed’ sense – for instance Warhol, who used a Brillo soap box as his model but recreated it on a huge scale, or Lichtenstein and his famous comic book paintings.
More recently, too, found objects came into use by artists such as Jeff Koons (who again uses found objects in a processed way, recreating them in aluminum) in work focusing on the marketing of products, or reflecting on modern consumer culture and materialism. The Young British Artists also employed them, alone or in conjunction with many other objects – famous examples include Tracey Emin’s controversial unmade bed and Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde. The objections to the pieces indicated that the resistance encountered by Duchamp had by no means disappeared over the years – although pieces which use found objects as a part, rather than the entirety, of the work, tend to receive a less rocky reception.
The most interesting aspect about found objects is not their relation to controversy in the art world, however. Rather, it is the fascination that attaches to the objects of the everyday world around us, and the gift that an artist can give that allows us to see them afresh. This is one of the things that set Duchamp’s innovation apart from previous materials that were used in creating artworks, like the gold or jewels used in medieval religious paintings. Found objects are not, in themselves, particularly valuable or especially rare. They are, on the contrary, likely to be the sorts of things we have seen hundreds of times, even used hundreds of times, without remarking on them. Combs, bicycle tyres, leaves – all take on new meaning when an artist takes them and presents them to us in such a way that we suddenly take time to reflect and gain new insight into the world around us.
However, the ‘satori’, or moment of illumination, is short-lived. The impact that comes from the contemplation of found objects diminishes over time. This happens as the shockingly banal objects become rarer and rarer in everyday life. As the objects age and become more divorced from our everyday experience, they gain the patina of a kind of antiquarianism. Objects which were not in themselves interesting when taken out of the context of the artwork suddenly are, by dint of their age and rarity, the representation of an age gone by. Warhol’s brillo boxes, for instance, have a retro charm. An ordinary object becomes the relic of an age gone by. This has interesting implications for the works themselves, because their meaning and impact changes drastically over time.
Other kinds of found objects shed light on a different aspect of what we think we know – humanity and human lives. Found Magazine, for example, collects stray letters, postcards, shopping lists, stamps – the sorts of things that are part of the background of everyday life – and presents them in such a way as to encourage readers to pause for a moment and appreciate them for what they are; a glimpse into someone’s life. Yet these collections, again, whilst a fascinating insight into a moment in time, also change subtly with the passage of time, becoming a way of viewing a period which has passed.
In a sense found objects symbolize something fundamental to art as we know it; the desire and ability to show us, the audience, something novel about something we were convinced we knew already, to show another layer in the everyday and to contribute to our understanding of the world we live in, and the lives we live in it. They also come to represent time gone by, and allow us to connect to the past at the same time as appreciating its difference to our present, reminding us of the ever-present power of change.
Have you ever kept an object you found? Why? What did you do with it? Let us know in the comments!