At the Wellcome collection, an exhibition called ‘Charmed Life’ showcases the Victorian collector Edward Lovett’s 1400 amulets, with responses by artist Felicity Powell. Her delicate wax traces on mirror-backs are far more ethereal than the stumpy rough-hewn objects invested with magic power by the Victorian poor of London. The other exhibition on there, of Mexican ex-voto paintings, collects hundreds of hand-painted images of near-death experiences and salvation, naïve offerings in gratefulness to the divinity who has prevented catastrophe.
I then visited the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and come across more charms and ex-votos. Wax castings of body parts giving thanks for healing; diverse objects with magical powers to cure (including a potato carried around for 3 months as a cure for Rheumatism); a bottle carrying a witch. What is fascinating is the solidification of the spirit; the investure of the material with power so strong it can kill or cure.
I bought a book called Dime Store Alchemy, a series of texts by American poet Charles Simic about Joseph Cornell’s boxes. I find one box I keep coming back to, called Untitled (“Dovecote”). It is reminiscent (on a different scale) of Alexander Brodsky’s works, which I saw him talk about last week at the Royal Academy. Between art and architecture, his works frame or contain vanished memories. For one work, ‘Grey Matter’, he used unfired clay to recreate lost objects from memory.
In one text by Simic, titled ‘Totemism’, he talks about the secret rooms inside everyone. “Every once in a while an object on the table becomes visible: a broken compass, a pebble the colour of midnight, an enlargement of a school photograph with a face in the back circled, a watch-spring – each one of these items is a totem of the self.” These totemic objects ‘give the soul something to grasp onto’. (Michel de Montaigne, Essais, 1580 in Charmed Life Exhibition catalogue)
So, is it possible to fabricate totemic relics in response to a specific set of narratives? I wonder how might they become visible, be displayed, and contained – the reproduction as a deliberate attempt to render loss physical, to retain loss.
All photographs taken at the Pitt Rivers Museum.