When objects are more

japanese tea cupThe idea of attachment to objects is curious. We love certain things, detest others, and are probably quite indifferent to many objects we encounter in our daily lives. The kettle boils my water. I don’t think much about it. I’m attached to it because it works (plus mine is bright red so I admit there is some kind of aesthetic attachment there). And I’m affected by it if it stops. No tea in the morning makes for a pretty cranky me. But I can always boil the water in saucepan instead. So it’s probably fair to say, on the whole, the kettle and saucepan attachment is basically functional for me: it’s a way of making sure I have tea. And I’m very attached to my tea!

I have a small pile of handmade pottery, cups, plates and bowls, which I carefully gathered over the years I lived in Japan. They are exquisite and humble and full of wabi sabi imperfection. They bring me joy every time I open the cupboard where they’re stored. It’s fair to say I am very attached to those objects.

But not so for many other objects. I’m not attached to my car. Or many of my clothes and jewellery. Or most of our furniture. A few artworks, yes. But on the whole, these objects are just there, and mostly to serve a function. They don’t have much monetary value either. I don’t have those kinds of things. Aesthetics is a whole other topic – my eyes hurt when I see too much ugly. But that’s probably something for another post.

And yet, in the (very) end, we cannot take objects with us.

Like my father’s watch. A simple, plain, silver, chain link, man’s watch. Nothing fancy. Functional but no noteworthy design features to speak of. In no way expensive because he wasn’t that kind of man. He laughed at the idea of people paying lots of money for things. He saw little value in that.

Now he’s gone, and until recently we had his watch. But not anymore. Someone broke into my mother’s house last December and stole it along with a string of pearls dad give mum for her 40th birthday, and a gold bracelet belonging to a much loved great aunt. Not a lot else was taken. Because, on the whole, my parents aren’t the kind of people who have fancy steal-worthy possessions.

The watch. Well, the thief will get nothing for it. It’s not worth anything monetarily. Who knows why they even took it. But it’s loaded with value for my mother, my siblings and me. It’s something dad wore right up until the end. We packed it away in a small overnight bag along with a few other possessions at the hospital the day he died. And at that moment, the idea that we cannot take our stuff with us chimed as loudly and repeatedly in my head as a temple bell in Japan on New Year’s Day. Over and over.

You cannot take your stuff with you. It’s just there in the end. You go. It stays.

Yet we attach ourselves to some things. We load them with emotion. We connect them with people, loved ones, memories, good times and not so great. Objects are more than just their material qualities. They embody a connection with humans, whether it’s through their sheer materiality – someone made this thing, moulded the clay, cut the wood – or because of the reasons behind the giving, or the nature or intent of the giver.

Nina Simon talks about objects having a social life. They do this she argues, because they connect with the observer or holder through a personal element, they are active in some way, they provoke. Or they are relational in that they invite people to use them or work with others to do so.

Jyri Engeström claims that object centred sociality is they key to successful social networks. That is, when people are connected by a shared object there is a social element that kicks in and, in a way, amplifies the object.

And Sandra Dudley suggests there is a dynamic exchange that occurs between material objects and humans.

So clearly there is a lot of thinking going on about objects and our relationships to them, highlighting that there is more to things than we often think.

As for my father’s watch, my mother’s pearls, and my great aunt’s bracelet, they live on somewhere. Possibly in a pawn shop, hocked for quick cash. Crazy really, because as I said the watch has little monetary value to give the thief. But despite that, our connection with those things remains, even after they’re gone and we can no longer see or handle them. Yes, the thread between humans and objects is curious. It’s also immensely powerful. No wonder people are so fond of museums.