When I visited the south of France, I collected various trinkets to take home: postcards from museums in Toulouse, a silver bracelet with a purple gem that I found in a shop that only sold lavender-themed items, and one pinkish seashell from a beach in Marseillan that, to this day, still has a few grains of the white beach sand inside of it. Despite the recent popularity and practicality towards a minimalist lifestyle, I could not help but go the opposite way and relish in the materiality of collecting. –These could be tokens I could show my family and friends to inspire wonders of my travels, or maybe one day they could be passed on to my loved ones. I recognized the value inherent in these items through the context I found them in, but I also enjoyed knowing that I imbued my personal history with these objects to layer more meaning–a new body of knowledge. I have arranged the postcards on my bedroom wall and have placed the seashell on my window sill, but I wear the silver bracelet whenever I leave home. It is fascinating to think how some collected items are concealed and some are revealed. What about their meanings—are they too concealed or revealed to those I wish to share this story to? Would these memories be preserved or become a lost secret once I pass on?

These are some of the internal dialogues I have when I think about the Spring 2019: Collected Works exhibition at the rennie museum. In the first exhibition room, Louise Lawler’s photographs hang on pristine white walls. Amongst the row of black and white photographs, my gaze falls on an image of orchid flowers and other antiquities. This is Lawler’s Orchid (2008), a black and white photograph depicting various objects found in the home of Yves Saint Laurent in Paris, France. Lawler’s photograph crops the items within the frame, reminding me as a viewer that this is only a small portion of Saint Laurent’s collected objects. In a sense, this is simply a glimpse of the items he liked to collect, or that he acquired throughout time for a certain reason, which are unknown to us. Upon further reflection, I am particularly taken by Orchid (2008) serves as a fascinating allegory to the history of collecting, and for the history of photography.

Orchid (2008) is an image without central focus, thus making visual rotations from the items that frame the image itself: the flowers, a bronze sculpture in contrapposto position, a blurred vase, and a nautilus cup. These items make me wonder about Saint Laurent. This is a small glimpse of his taste in art and cultural objects. What could these works mean for him? Why did he collect these items? Lawler does not provide us with answers, but leaves us with ambiguity. Beneath the photograph, a French phrase is on matting: “Il m’aime, un peu, beaucoup, passionément, à la folie, pas du tout,” which translates to “he loves me, he loves me not.” This addition adds a playful quality to the photograph itself, as it echoes the lively composition in the image. Nevertheless, my gaze is held by the nautilus cup and I will focus on it for my remaining discussion of Lawler’s work.

The nautilus cup was an item that was collected in the 16th and 17th century. *They were created by gilding the shell of a nautilus with precious materials to add decorations that echoed the shape of sea monsters and pointed to the marine origins of the material itself. *In Lawler’s image, the nautilus cup has a man riding a ‘seahorse’ (a horse hybrid with a fish tail). The nautilus cup was not a practical cup to drink from and as such was an item simply collected for its decorative exuberance. And yet, the individual histories of these cups are lost. There are barely any records in history that discuss how nautilus shells were collected, where they were sent to, or which companies or individuals crafted these objects. The nautilus cup in Lawler’s image bears the maker’s mark attributed to Elias Adam; however, little is known about this 18th century Prussian craftsman as well as the patron who commissioned the cup that ended up in Saint Laurent’s collection.

Once more, we are confronted with the notion of a lost secret inherent in the object, a history now lost to us. All I can do is see the object at large and attempt to reconcile with the bits of historical information available to me. Nautilus cups truly encompass the instability of collected items: objects are often unstable vessels of historical information. Similarly, the items I collected from my trip to France have the history of my travels imbued in them, but how will this personal history be disseminated? For the moment, all I can do is provide them a transient space in my home.

When I think of the antiquated items in Saint Laurent’s home, I am curious about the place where they were first displayed in. Objects, such as those found in Orchid (2008), would usually be displayed in a European wunderkammer, which translated from German is ‘room of wonders,’ or as they are now called ‘cabinet of curiosities.’ The wunderkammer was a place where items would be kept and arranged for private viewership. Furthermore, they were more of an organized, rigid design for seeing and admiring wonders of the world.

Collectors were also curators as they guided viewership of certain items. Sometimes these arrangements are seemingly nonsensical, or simply placed due to their visual appeal, but they are nonetheless reflective of their owner’s tastes. Nautilus cups exemplify the history of collecting, as the aim of the wunderkammer was to amalgamate various objects from around the world in an order that offered no set rationale for their composition, but rather for a visual experience to strike awe and wonder in a collector’s private audience. As a result, wunderkammer allowed a culture of collecting to flourish as objects were collected for the sake of collecting and for private display of conspicuous consumption.

Louis Daguerre
Arrangement of Fossil Shells, 1839
(image source: Wikimedia Commons)

The practice of photographing collectors’ items began as far back as when the photographic medium was invented. Louis Daguerre, recognized in the 19th century for his photographic invention of the daguerreotype, understood the profit that could be gained by marketing the photographic device, not only as an artistic tool, but as a documentary device to record history for archival purposes. *Daguerre was well aware of the double potential of photography and he would often take images, such as Arrangement of Fossil Shells (1839), to show photography’s ability to record the natural world and historical events that once occurred. *In this image, Daguerre has arranged the fossils into a grid-like composition, a regulated table chart as though each object was put in space as a specimen for scientific observation. Furthermore, the fossils themselves are indexical to the photographic medium. In Daguerre’s image, the fossils point to their own origins as they signify their very own imprint onto the natural world. The fossils within the photograph took thousands of years to be made into a particular configuration. With the photographic device, Daguerre is proposing that whilst organic ephemera is decomposed, it can be preserved by being printed onto another medium. Similarly, when collected objects are recorded by photography, they are preserved for all time. The index moves from subjective mediation of vision to something that has a claim to objectivity. Daguerre’s photograph proves that something was there and records a moment in time which leaves a ghostly trace of what was once alive. As a result, photography has been treated with objectivity in its ability to record events to be used for documentation in the archives.

Objectivity and truthfulness of the photographic medium is contested by the composition in Orchid (2008). As the collector Saint Laurent decided that these are the objects he wants to pull from his archive to display to an intimate viewership. This is further mediated by Lawler’s framing of the image, as she chose to not display the totality of the room but rather a cropped perspective of the items. Due to this, I find Orchid (2008) to contest the truthfulness of the photographic medium because the photographer and the collector are capable of manipulating viewership of an object and show a reality, a particular fragment of history, that they want others to see.

When I first experienced the Spring 2019: Collected Works exhibition, I found myself reflecting on items I have collected throughout the years. Orchid (2008) demands moments of self-reflexivity to my attitude towards collecting and challenges me to consider if I know myself because of the objects I have amalgamated throughout my lifetime. Within art historical discourses, the debate between the truthfulness of the photographic medium is often discussed and Lawler’s photograph reminds us that Saint Laurent’s collected objects were purposefully chosen to provide us a controlled and indirect portrait of him. When looking at Orchid (2008), I urge viewers to wonder: Why do I collect items? What do I hope people will think of me? What secrets will be concealed or passed onto these objects?

Written by Fiorela Argueta

*Zuroski, Eugenia. “Nautilus Cups and Unstill Life.” Journal18, no. 3, 2017, doi:10.30610/3.2017.3.

*Zuroski, Eugenia. “Nautilus Cups and Unstill Life.” 

*Daniel, Malcolm. “Daguerre (1787–1851) and the Invention of Photography.” Metmuseum.org, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oct. 2004, www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/dagu/hd_dagu.htm.

*Daniel, Malcolm. “Daguerre (1787–1851) and the Invention of Photography.”