We are surrounded by objects, but it is in the context of our encounters that we make sense of them. With whom, when, and where we engage with an object can change its meaning and significance.
JEFFREY MURER, UNIVERSITY OF ST. ANDREWS
ISRF Flexi Grant Recipient 2019
Reconstruction of a child’s bedroom from the 1980s in the DDR Museum, Berlin. Image by the author.
At first, I could not discern what I was seeing: thousands of small metal disks piled on top of one another, covering the floor of the stark hall of unadorned, brutalist concrete. At the other end from where I was standing, two people, an older couple, walked delicately across the metal pieces, nonetheless causing a horrible crashing sound. The sound disturbed me; but when I recognised that the disks were small abstract cut-outs of human faces, I burst into tears. In that moment I could hear the faces screaming, and I was transported on a wave of sorrow and loss. I do not suspect that everyone, or even most people, have the same emotional reaction when they encounter Menashe Kadishman’s 1997 installation sculpture Shalekhet (Hebrew for fallen leaves) in Berlin’s Jewish Museum, but for me the encounter was demonstrative of the interplay between objects, the meaning and significance that we give them, and the space or environment in which we encounter them. The same object in a different space may have a different meaning, or at least one’s understanding of the significance of an object may change when it is juxtaposed in space or time or with other objects.
I was struck by my own experiences of this when I visited a number of museums and monuments with colleagues while in Berlin last August as part of the ISRF small research group residency programme. The differences in presentation were particularly stark in a comparison between the Jewish Museum’s attention to experience that was enhanced by the materialities of the space—textures of concrete, the sounds of metal, the smells of foliage—and the primacy of material objects in the DDR Museum where there was an emphasis on a direct engagement with objects themselves. In these encounters we can explore how the spaces of the museums can invite us to think differently about our interactions with material objects, become more aware of our senses, reflect upon our reactions in the moment, and to contemplate our assumptions, prejudices, and projections that inform those reactions. In the best of museum spaces, we are challenged to interrogate our assumptions of the order of the world, the placement of things within it. We can think of the museum space as a space of rupture, one that interrupts our everyday relationships with ourselves and with the material world around us. Moving objects into and out of museum spaces can change our understanding of those objects.
In 1980 the German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys created a new piece which was a reflection on contemporary German life, but also the history and path that brought Germany to that point in the then present. Wirtschaftswerte (Economic Values) was a multipiece installation that included iron shelves, such as those found in a workshop or warehouse, filed with everyday items and food stuffs purchased in what was at that time the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany. Beuys intended that the installation appear in a contemporary gallery space or museum, with white walls and bright light. On the walls behind the shelves Beuys had paintings hung from the mid-nineteenth century, with their dates loosely corresponding to the life of Karl Marx (1818-1883), presented in gold leaf frames as an expression of bourgeois tastes and providing an opulent contrast to the simple packaging of the objects on the shelves. Importantly, the objects on the shelves were allowed to deteriorate over time, with the food stuffs dissolving or becoming desiccated, and the packaging fading and yellowing. Beuys said of the condition of the objects, “my sculpture is not fixed or finished; processes continue in them: chemical reactions, fermentations, colour changes, decay, drying up. Everything is in a state of change.” As the piece continues to be exhibited, its deterioration becomes immediately apparent, as was the case when it was shown at the Tate in London in 2005.
When first created, Wirtschaftswerte was a reflection on the Cold War; after all, these were products made in the anti-Capitalist DDR. Beuys also wanted to make a statement about the human need for art and ideas, and to not make a fetish of things, on which both the East and certainly the West appeared fixated at the time. Beuys said, “We do not need all that we are meant to buy today to satisfy profit-based private capitalism”. That remains true today, perhaps even more so.
Here we can see, on the one hand, the significance of what Arjun Appadurai calls the “social life of things”: objects have context and contingency, and their significance is made socially. Appadurai saw the social life of things as part of a life cycle of their significance, most directly in terms of commodification and valuation. A material object has different value and social meaning at different times, to different people, in different contexts. Some objects of similar type have different value from one another due to some biographical aspect: this comb was on the Titanic, or this sequin came from a cape worn by Sir Elton John. “The commodity situation in the social life of any thing [is] defined as the situation in which its exchangeability (past, present, or future) for some other thing is its socially relevant feature.” So the items on Beuys’ shelves have a number of different social lives and valuations: as consumer items in the former DDR whose value is reckoned in terms of their official exchange value; as items that could be used for simple barter exchanges or on the black market and their value determined by two people in a particular social moment, with particular material desires; as items simply from 1980 in 2020; as found objects; as part of a Beuys art installation, which has been in a number of museums, including the Tate. But are we to understand the significance of a thing only through its value?
We must also be aware that there are other ways to understand these objects. Any object, but perhaps most readily seen with an art object or text, has a meaning that the viewer brings to the piece that may not have been intended by the artist or author creator. Further, in a self-reflexive, hermeneutical practice we must also be open to reading the object or the text, and not immediately superimposing our pre-existing judgements and prejudices on the objects. We can imagine then that multiple perspectives and positionalities inform our encounter with any object: The position of the creator and her intention for the piece, both conscious and unconscious. The object itself, and our position, the position of the receiver or the audience, again at both a conscious and an unconscious level. Recognising the simultaneity of these perspectives, and being aware of how they interact and inform one another is what Hans-Georg Gadamer described as the process of “fusing of horizons”, which requires an extensive openness with ourselves, and to ourselves, as well as to the other:
In reading a text, in wishing to understand it, what we always expect is that it will inform us of something. A consciousness formed by the authentic hermeneutical attitude will be receptive to the origins and entirely foreign features of that which comes to it from outside of its own horizons. Yet this receptivity is not acquired with an objectivist “neutrality”. It is neither possible, necessary, nor desirable that we put ourselves within brackets. The hermeneutical attitude supposes only that we self-consciously designate our opinions and prejudices and qualify them as such, and in so doing strip them of their extreme character. In keeping to this attitude we grant to the text—to the other—the opportunity to appear as an authentically different being, and to manifest its own truth, over and against our own preconceived notions.
If we return to Beuys’ collection of everyday objects from the DDR, there is now a whole museum of such objects on the bank of the River Spree across from the Berlin Cathedral. The DDR Museum, which describes itself as the “interactive museum of East German life”, has a collection of over 300,000 artefacts; 11,000 of which are registered on its accessible on-line database. In the on-line database items are photographed but are not accompanied with any information other than a simple title and organised in sub collections, such as the “ignition distributor cover cap” (Abdeckkappe Zündverteiler) in the “Home improvement accessories and tools” collection (Heimwerkerzubehör und Werkzeug). Even in the museum exhibition space where items are organised thematically, there is little indication of how or for what purpose items were used.
This is a difficult balance for a museum space: providing a context from which the object came, providing the biography of that object and how it came to be in the museum collection, and explaining its use and its significance. And yet its significance is fluid. Like Duchamps’ urinal, does an everyday object gain significance because it has been moved into the museum space? This was Beuys’ view for Wirtschaftswerte. In the DDR Museum, on the other hand, the whole museum is trying to capture a sense of the quotidian. Everyday items were collected together and placed in display cabinets. However, in another part of the museum whole rooms of a typical worker’s flat were reconstructed and filed with everyday items. Upon entering these rooms, I said to a companion that this seems more like a museum of 1983 than necessarily a museum of the DDR, as the room could just as easily have been a reproduction of a Council flat in Glasgow or Birmingham. There were also some inclusions that seemed to dramatically misrepresent life in the DDR. For example, there is a display of a typewriters on which children gleefully banged on the keys, enjoying the clang of the metal block hitting the cylinder on which the paper would be rolled. The weight, the sound, the effort it takes to press the keys are all so very different from the light, plastic keyboards of our laptops or the virtual keyboards of our iPhones. “How primitive!” one can imagine a visitor saying. But this is a confusing display, as the typewriters are in the same exhibition space as the reconstruction of an East Berlin flat’s living room. Typewriters were powerful machines of communication of course, and they were highly monitored, for according to the British Library all typewriters in East Germany were numbered and registered with the state security services, the infamous Stasi. Jens Reich, a well-respected and accomplished molecular biologist, who became an outspoken dissident, remembers that one had to apply for a typewriter and wait “for months or even years to get one.” They were far from being the ubiquitous household item the display suggests.
The absence of any presentation of context in many ways erases the meaning and significance of the object as a thing in a previous time and space. Not knowing the significance of the typewriter as a machine that could be used for potentially subversive communication changes the meaning of the exhibit. Yet how might we listen to these objects for themselves, beyond the messages of the curator—or, perhaps, to the messages both from the curator and from the items themselves? How do we also listen to our reactions to these things? As Gadamer writes, the meaning of a thing is not immovably and obstinately fixed, but rather “understanding and interpretation are ultimately the same thing”. He continues emphatically: “understanding occurs in interpreting”. Objects do not have only one meaning or one quality, but rather they have multiple qualities simultaneously, and those qualities themselves are in flux. The understanding of an object may change over time both because the object changes and because those engaging it change. Therefore, to understand the meaning of an object in the past can potentially change how we understand that object in the present. The typewriter is not only heavy metal, but it is also potentially a weapon of resistance or subversion by virtue of its importance in the production and circulation of samizdat. It also represents state power as a tool of the bureaucrats who used typewriters to regulate life in East Germany. It also represents the paranoid extremes to which the state was willing to go in order to regulate the behaviours of the people: taking the trouble to record the strike pattern of every typewriter and register it in case a typewriter needed to be identified as the source of anti-regime writing. How might we understand our own response to a thing in a museum if we know more about how it was used in the past, in a range of contexts from the past?
Being open to Gadamer’s understanding and interpretation requires a mode of reflexive engagement. He wrote that if we listen to the other, expecting to learn something, both about the other and about ourselves, we can be changed by the encounter with the other. Perhaps this is easily understood when discussing a text or a work of art. If we approach the work of art, expecting it to teach us something, we not only can learn from the piece itself, but also if we listen to ourselves, the piece may change us. “A person trying to understand a text is rather prepared for it to tell him something. That is why a hermeneutically trained consciousness must be sensitive to the other … from the beginning.” But hearing the other’s voice might mean hearing what we might not want to hear. “Every encounter with others means the ‘suspension’ of one’s own prejudices…but this requires a readiness to recognise the other as potentially right and let him prevail against me”. This brings me back to the Jewish Museum.
When Daniel Libeskind designed the additions for what was then planned as the Jewish Department to the Berlin Museum, later to become the Jewish Museum, he included a succession of voids that cut through the building itself. He said that these empty spaces in the museum are meant to evoke “that which can never be exhibited when it comes to Jewish Berlin history: Humanity in ashes”. The voids are the absence of objects; they are spaces which cannot be filled, for they represent the experience of loss. “The voids address the physical emptiness that resulted from the expulsion, destruction, and annihilation of Jewish life in the Shoah”. When visitors come to the museum, they must encounter these spaces of absence, and contemplate them. How might we hear the silences, feel the void, taste the emptiness that is left when people die? This is the challenge to represent the Holocaust: what can represent such loss? Such destruction? Libeskind’s design is an interesting one, and a demanding one.
Rather than focus on objects in their materiality as the DDR Museum can be seen to do, the Jewish Museum asks its visitors to think about their experience of moving through the tactile and sensory space of the museum. Upon entering the exhibition space of the museum, visitors are presented with different three “axes” by which to navigate their movement through the museum: the Axis of Exile, the Axis of the Holocaust, and the Axis of Continuity, although all three axes are never visible simultaneously. The Axis of Exile opens to “The Garden of Exile,” a space outside of the museum, comprised of forty-nine concrete stelae, topped with Russian olive bushes to symbolise hope, but which are out of reach. Between the stelae the ground is uneven, designed to give visitors a sense of “unsteadiness and disorientation”, as Libeskind wanted this spatial experience to “recall the lack of orientation and instability felt by the émigrés forced out of Germany”. The Axis of the Holocaust ends with what Libeskind calls the “Voided Void” or the Holocaust Tower: a twenty-four metre, unheated, concrete silo, into which light from outdoors only comes through a single, tiny slit near the ceiling of this huge empty space. Cold in the winter, hot in the summer, with sounds outside of the tower muted and muffled, the space gives one a feel of oppression and can engender profound anxiety.
The pathways along the Axes of Exile and of the Holocaust are themselves undulating and uneven. As one approaches the heavy metal door that seals shut the Holocaust Tower, the ceiling and the floor angle to meet one another, creating a cramped accessway that suggests claustrophobia even before entering the tower. These cramped and uneven routes are contrasted with the third avenue, the Axis of Continuity, which rises out of the lower level of the museum along a steep staircase, filled with natural light from large windows at the top of the staircase, and offers a route of escape, both for the visitor and for “the city to move on from its heinous past”, as Libeskind explained in 1990. Climbing eight-two steps, visitors reach the permanent exhibition space of the museum, where there is no door that separates the permanent collection from the Axis of Continuity, as there is between the Axis of Exile and the Garden, or the Axis of the Holocaust and the Tower, inviting the visitor to further explore this engagement with German Jewish life.
This is a museum of encounters, with objects, with architecture, and with ourselves. Following Gadamer’s invitation to allow the encounter with the unfamiliar to change us, we can think about our relationships with loss, and those whom we have lost. In this Gadamerian encounter, we might also, then, think of the losses of others. To imagine their pain, just as we examine our pain. Libeskind asks us to think about what we are projecting into the void from our own experiences, and then challenges us to think of the losses of others that cannot be present and can only be acknowledged as an absence. What are the prejudices I might carry into such an encounter? This for Gadamer, as we see in the quotes above, is one of the most important steps in facilitating a fusing of horizons: that we become aware of our prejudices and attempt to not let them inhibit us for hearing the other. We move between analysing our conscience and our unconsciousness. Moving between these within ourselves, we can prepare to meet the other outside of ourselves. This is similar to encounters in psychoanalysis.
In the Object Relations School of psychoanalysis there is a constant interplay between the inner psychic world, and the outer material world. Each shapes the other; there is a “recycling almost, of perception and feeling between the outer and inner worlds, so that both are experienced in light of the other.” We perceive the material; the objects do not stand for themselves in a static and perpetual way. Rather, our perceptions are shaped by our experiences, and those experiences inform our perceptions. We then remember and internalise these encounters with objects and experiences to inform encounters anew. We carry within us a multitude of memories and experiences of objects: part objects that represent aspects of the people in our lives in both the present and the past; memory objects as the images, sounds, and experiences of events that influenced our lives; and phantasy objects as representations of our desires and longings, both real and otherwise. How we engage these inner objects and experiences can show us the way forward in our relations with external objects and with other people. Can we be receptive to what they are saying to us, even if they are saying things we do not want to hear? To be open to change is to be open to the other, and to be prepared that the self might and can change as a result. To listen to the other, we must not speak over them, or to dismiss them if they are unfamiliar, for they are an encounter with the other. And in the end, it is these encounters that shape who we are. We are made by our engagements and experiences to which we are open and to which we listen.
 Joseph Beuys, Actions, Vitrines, Environments, Tate Catalogue 2005. Accessible online: https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/joseph-beuys-actions-vitrines-environments/joseph-beuys-actions-10.
 Appadurai, Arjun, The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
 Ibid., p. 13.
 Gadamer, H.G., “The Problem of Historical Consciousness,” in Rainbow, P. and W. Sullivan (eds.) Interpretive Social Science: A Reader (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), pp. 151-152.
 Chris Beckett, “The Lives of Typewriters and Large Data-sets: The Will Self Archive,” British Library Blogs, 12 March 2018.
 Reich, Jens, “Reflections on Becoming an East German Dissident, on Losing the Wall and a Country,” in Prins, G. (ed.), Spring in Winter: The 1989 Revolutions (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990), p. 94.
 Gadamer, H. G., Truth and Method (London: Continuum, 2004 ), p. 90 (emphasis in original).
 Samizdat refers to the clandestine producing, copying, and distributing of literatures and news banned by the state in the former Communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
 Gadamer, Truth and Method, p. 271.
 Gadamer, “The Problem of Historical Consciousness,” p. 108.
 Andenmatten, Stephen, Caitlin Walsh, and James Wisniewski, The Jewish Museum Belin: Rensselaer Case Studies (New York: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 2011), p.78.
 Klein, M. (1959) “Our Adult World and its Roots in Infancy” in Envy Gratitude and other Works, quoted in Gomez, L. An Introduction to Object Relations (London: Free Association Books), p.35
DR JEFFREY MURER
Senior Lecturer on Collective Violence, University of St. Andrews
Jeffrey Murer is the Director of the Centre for Art and Politics and a Founding Scholar of the British Psychoanalytic Council. Previously he was a National Fellow of the American Psychoanalytic Association. He is the author of “Four Monuments and a Funeral: Pathological Mourning and Collective Memory in Hungary” in Fomenting Political Violence: Fantasy, Language, Media, Action (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) and the co-editor of Perpetrating Selves: Doing Violence and Performing Identity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).