Animal Vegetable Mineral
Animal Vegetable Mineral was produced in response to the London Borough of Southwark's Cuming Museum Collection.
The project takes as its starting point a period in the recent history of the museum, where the objects and artefacts were re-categorised according to their material constitution rather than their historical, geographical or social context. There is a box in the collection labelled ‘Whale bone (baleen); and inside it, among other artefacts carved from whale bone, is a fragment of whale bone found in 1868, 15 feet below the surface of the road, in the city of London. The bone, according to the label, ‘exhibits tool marks’; deep welts etched into its surface which can also be understood as wounds, signifying both material presence, and affective potential.
The images, and accompanying text, is fragmented and non-chronological and focuses on the few days in winter 2018, soon after encountering the bone for the first time. The project seeks to explore existing connections between time, material, people and place and also to establish new ones.
Mixed media: b/w bromide prints, C-type prints
The man in I.T.
“She’s a Mac user'
The phrase muttered to his colleague, in my opposite direction, conjures an array of associations, from which I feel utterly disassociated. He asks me to log in to my account, and as I do, he looks away, exaggeratedly.
I press Return, and together we look at the screen, my Outlook profile void of content, an icon on the screen with the generic outline of a figure. There must be a name for that – unpopulated? I feel uncomfortable, awkward as I stumble through my account of what happened, aware that the chronology doesn’t make sense, that my accounting of, my accounting for not being able to open any of my documents is fragmented, partial. The basic message I am trying to relay is that I have lost all my data, and I’m hoping the people in this office will be able to help retrieve it. I am trying to explain what happened, and when.
“The file seems corrupted… the file names have changed… I can’t open them anymore.”
“Excuse me, can I interject”
The colleague slides over on his chair, its castors on wheels, a spinny chair, my daughter would call it. And round she would spin, squealing with delight.
“Those were not real files. The application you were using writes temporary files. Those files you were writing in were not real files. Your material was not being saved”
He slides away, his back to the window, face in shadow, a church steeple behind him, and a flat office block roof with a giant puddle, a rusty fire escape, an old air conditioning unit clunking away on its 12 monthly service contract.
It takes a while to adjust both to the bluntness of the delivery, and to the consequences, but even at that moment, I’m conscious that on some level it’s a loss that makes me feel free.
The collection, when I find it, has a different kind of mass, weight, volume; a very material presence. It’s not far from the IT department of college, and maybe if I had have sought it out from that crittal window up there on the 14th floor of the tower block, home of LCC’s IT department, I would have seen it there, far below, half a mile to the east.
The collection has survived intact since its inception in 1806 when its founder, Richard Cuming, purchased many ‘significant items’ from the sale of Sir Ashton Lever’s Leverian Museum. The collection now holds over 30,000 objects and artworks, many of them reflecting the lives of ordinary people of Walworth. It was donated to the Borough of Southwark when Richard’s son Henry Syer Cuming died in 1902. It survived, intact, moving to Walworth Town Hall, where it was popular with generations of families, kids and art students as I remember – but in 2013 there was a fire, and the collection has been wrapped in storage ever since. For a while, I’ve wanted to make something out of the collection, do something with it, be inspired by it, but repeated visits yield nothing. Each time I explore, I experience a weariness that I can’t overcome. I can’t seem to find a way in, a way to make it my own.
I’m sitting at a desk, perched, uncomfortably at its corner, at my knees an electric heater that’s wafting warm air into the cold space.
“It takes a while to get going”
I wander around, the narrow corridors created by the boxes themselves, mostly white plastic stacked floor to ceiling, with identification codes and descriptions.
A taxidermied baboon is wrapped in thick, opaque plastic. I can just make out its face, the curve of its body, its hands, its feet. Its once fleshy, flashy magnificent arse so withered, so dry, not a lick of condensation, no smell. No wetness inside, no breath, nothing. Like the collection itself I think, so far from an ideal state of being, suspended between the future and the past. Not even a photograph could bring it back to life.
I open some boxes here and there, and come across an object, buried in tissue. I pass over it quickly, experiencing it as a hunk of wood, whilst knowing that doesn’t make sense – it’s too heavy to be wood, and the texture isn’t right.
A few days later, I have another look. I find it again, as I thought, in a container labelled ‘Whale bone, baleen’. Like that, in the singular. Despite the label telling me it’s whale bone, I can’t stop playing in my mind with the possibility that it’s wood. An old husk of wood, maybe scythed off a door, it has a vertical side. And what, I wonder, could have produced that burn mark? Its bark is a beautiful light olive brown with a lighter beige colour inside. It has a porous texture, like coral, or a sponge that has been dried out to the extent that no amount of water would ever infiltrate or soften the dense brittle structure of its core. I look at it from different angles, trying to connect my experience of it with the grim reality of the text. I turn it in my hands, and as I do it seems to splinter with tiny crystalline grains.
What is that? Salt? Sand? I’m confused. What is it?
It’s a bone.
I find that impossible to process. I wrap up the thing and pack it away in its box.
And my eardrum thumps, a painful distraction that has persisted for weeks. It had burst on a Wednesday morning, while I was teaching at college. A suspected perforation the doctor said on the day, but we didn’t at the time know for sure because the view through the otoscope was obstructed by thick brown fluid. It was the last time I rode my bike. I haven’t ridden since, and those two unrelated events have converged in my mind, a muddling up of cause and effect.
I press my phone to my ‘other’ ear, the good one. I’m talking to my mum, and nothing feels right.
“You shouldn’t put cotton wool plugs in your ears you know”
Advice delivered as a warning, something inferred, and then:
“Cotton wool has tiny fibres that can aggravate the sensitive skin inside the ear. It happened to me.”
It’s half term, and my son arrives home from a trip to the park. A design featuring the skeletal bones of a bronchiosauras is ironed in green felt onto the blue jersey fabric of his top. It’s strangely technical, somewhere along the line, specialist knowledge would have been consulted. If I look carefully I can just discern the edges of the printing plate, and I wonder about the method of production, whether it was produced from a digital file or an analogue image scanned. Was it rights free, how many generations are there between this version of the image and the hand that originally produced it.
His cheeks are burning with cold.
What did you bring back from the park?
A stick lands beside me on the kitchen table, crudely fashioned into a bow with a single piece of yarn tied to either end. The bark is glossy and smooth, a lovely warm tone, auburn and bright.
I pick it up and like his cheeks the twig is cold, a beautiful echo of the forest, so fresh, and inside me, a longing.
Judy tells me how in the 1990s, a curator of the collection oversaw a complete overhaul of the way it was archived. He reclassified it according to a different set of criteria – so instead of the categories being defined by natural history, social history, or the cultural context or place of their origin, the objects were classified according to their material – which is why there is now a box which contains only items made from whale bone (baleen), as well as fragments of bone itself.
I return once more – I need to see the bone again. We meet and talk, and I go once more to the box, this time alone. I find the bone and the other objects in their unmarked tissue wrapping, all crinkly and white. I don’t usually like the process of unwrapping, the claustrophobic ritual of it, the subtle strain of producing the right response, the thrill of expectation, gently dulled. But today it feels right, to be digging around, seeing things anew. I find out later that most of what I find is politely named ‘scrimshaw’ - three dimensional artefacts that are hand carved out of whale bone or ivory. I find a jagging wheel that is used to pierce and trim a pie crust, a piece of carved corsetry, made by a fisherman for his love, a bottle stop.
Right at the bottom is another box, that takes up half of the main white plastic container. I’d not seen it before. I open it, the labour of unwrapping, the crinkling of the tissue.
Another piece of wood?
This piece is heavier, more regular in shape. It’s darker than the one I saw the other day, although the label says it’s been cleaned. Ugly welts are etched, deep in its surface, thunderous blows pounded down repeatedly with a heavy blunt knife, or an axe. I wonder at the force of the brutality, such wild indifference. And then I feel ashamed.
I read the label.
SHAFT of an ULNA and VERTEBRA of the
RORQUAL or FIN-WHALE (Balaenoptera).
Found 15 feet below the surface of the
road on the site of Coleman Street,
Gresham Street, 1868.
Exhibiting tool marks.
“15 feet below the surface of the road”
Twice as deep as a grave … below the water table
I go to the site; the junction of Coleman Street and Gresham Street in the city of London, near Moorgate. The pavement is smooth, inscrutable, flattened wads of chewing gum, those bursts of spray paint that contractors make to relay information between them, authorizing works. I’ve passed by there before; I cycle up Gresham Street sometimes on my way home from work. Later I realise that the bone was found 150 years ago this year. A commemoration of sorts, a mark of remembrance, spontaneous, accidental, displaced.
When the present has given up on the future, we must listen for the relics of the future in the unactivated potentials of the past. – Mark Fisher