We all know the adage “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”. Perhaps. My grandfather, for instance, kept 1000s upon 1000s of old soda and beer bottle tops in his basement. A couple of times I crept down (not that doing so was barred from me, but what child doesn’t descend into the depths of any home without a measure of caution and trepidation?) there when I was young and would investigate his heaps, most of which were stored into overflowing 10 or 15 gallon trash bags. Decades worth of bottle tops. Many different designs, colors, and iconic logos – the timeless Coca Cola, the difficult to find these days RC Cola…minor changes in certain logos throughout the years. Certainly little points of interest, but, at least to my eight or ten year old taste, nothing to really pore over for hours.
This is in no way to criticize my grandfather’s choice of material, but sometimes I do wonder what drives people’s desire to collect in bulk, especially when it comes to commonplace items that serve little or no practical or moral utility when decontextualized and oftentimes places in storage chambers to reside under wraps, as it were, for years or decades. When my grandfather – also an avid Norwegian fiddler, dancer, and dairy farmer – passed away, his sacks were still lying right there in the basement, to be hauled away by my uncles to the down dump, presumably to either lie in a perpetual state of glacially-paced decomposition in some western Wisconsin landfill, or be processed down into constituent metals (I’m not sure if this was possible for bottle caps back then).
And then there are collectors who take their loads of chosen material and recreate different aspects of the world. If my grandfather had been differently inspired, he may have used his bottle caps to recreate famous paintings in history. Think to various Mona Lisas and Starry Nights you’ve seen throughout the years, faithfully reproduced in chewed bubble gum, yarn, paper clips, crushed glass, lego bricks, etc. My grandfather didn’t have an art history background and had never been able to travel much, given 16-hour days on the farm. And so, had he been so inclined in his silver years, I imagine he might have made a huge jersey cow out of his bottle caps…some kind of riff on the Trojan Horse, perhaps. I can picture it as written in the local travel guides: ….Made over the course of fifteen years, the Trojan Cow of Hixton, WI is made of over 25,000 bottle caps…
Big Ben out of toothpicks; Hogwarts out of Gummy Bears: Such are the products of a peculiar brand of hoarder/artisan. Perhaps they are driven by some unknowable, secret power that demands a certain material be used, for unbeatable symbolism and instructive potential, but more often than not I think it comes down to a generally unimpeachable human impulse to “make do” of excess. “Hmm,” says the archetypal hoard-ist/hoard-isan, “I’ve sure got a heck of a lot of twine….if I just had some more I could….” And boom.
Then there are collectors that, through their acts of mass accumulation, preserve certain portions of culture from the brink of extinction. Last month, Beijing-based collector and archivist Thomas Sauvin spoke for our A.M. Brainstorm series about his “Beijing Silvermine” project. Consider hundreds and hundreds of thousands of film negatives from the Capital of the most populous country in the world, taken at a time of momentous shifts in consumption patterns…For whatever usual reasons – moving apartments, deaths in the family, consolidations – they find themselves about to be recycled for their silver content. Each negative, no more than the size of half a gum wrapper, holding memories and impressions of humans who had found it fitting to capture each other for some future’s sake (back when photography was more intentional): The flames are approaching…And suddenly they are grasped from the edge of nothingness, viewed, and archived.
Picture the faces, patterns of dress, behavior, and affect of countless people at a very specific time in human history. Perhaps not the most representative portrayal of “society” writ large – for here we see a segment that had had enough money to spend on cameras, film, and the kinds of travel, experiences, and items deemed “photo worthy” at the time – but a body impressive enough to spin a million yarns and inspire hundreds of collaborative ideas. Some of these are predictably ludicrous, crass, and/or baldly commercial, but others – for instance the stop-action animation film by Lei Lei and Sauvin – are as democratically embracing and psychologically engaging as are only works of art that should and (by the grace of guardians with foresight) often do last.