Meanwhile, the child was gazing intently, wordlessly, at the underwater world. Perhaps a child could conjure up what he wanted to see from what was reflected on his retinas. - Yuko Tsushima, The Watery Realm
Rows of silver spoons, beady-eyes, gleaming;
feather boas, berets, guitars out of tune and with missing strings;
hollow-bellied shells, which whistle a far-flung sound, of beaches, and waves;
necklaces and bracelets inter-entwined, brooches, and rings, opalescent;
trinkets, trays and toys:
everything we consider as bric-à-brac exudes a sense of the forgotten, the fragmentary, the fantastical.
There is a strange feeling of mystery and sorrow in gazing upon other-people’s once-owned objects, laid out on a charity shop shelf. It seems somehow vaguely grotesque and a kind of voyeurism, this giving-a-look-over the piecemeal remains of former existences: earrings from once-warm earlobes; a locket once hidden behind a pillow; trinket boxes that once held buttons, medicines, condoms, now jumbled together at car boot sales and sold for ten-pence pieces.
Normally, we consider liminality in terms of places, or rather non-places - liminal spaces are those intermediary, purgatorial locations that lie between origin and destination, like airports; or motels; or shopping malls. They are the ordinary places we recognise, and understand, caught out of context. Think supermarket aisles in the middle of the night, school corridors in the summer holidays. We are alienated by the indefinable ‘in between’ nature of liminal spaces, but fascinated and afraid of them, also. And it seems strange to think of objects as liminal, so inherently do they seem rooted into reality, yet bric-à-brac also resides in this ‘in between’ state, also indefinable.
Jarves writes of bric-à-brac as ‘roba’, which is not only the Italian word for ‘stuff’ but also shares the same etymological root as the word for stolen goods, and this is an important basis for our understanding of bric-à-brac as objects of uncertain ownership. For bric-à-brac found in charity shops this is easy enough to understand. There, bric-à-brac is the dregs of someone’s life, home, travel, relationships, with their original possessor long forgotten. But bric-à-brac doesn’t only seem to reside outside-of-possession after the original owner’s lifetime. Except for those who simply have a penchant for tat, we never seem to consciously own bric-à-brac, but instead we accumulate it over time as little benchmarks of our life - gifts from the people we love, souvenirs from the places we’ve been, childhood toys or charms we simply can’t get rid of. Across our lifetime, bric-à-brac happens into our possession, and indicates towards the memories we have collected.
Marc Augé describes how the mundane and arbitrary are comforting landmarks in the overwhelming magnitude of our own uncertain and ill-defined existence. Like how the chiming of a clock punctuates the vast swathes of an empty day, bric-à-brac provides us inane comfort, by grounding us with an illusion of security about our identity, purpose and sense of existence. We take solace in our little china dogs, our ornamental piggy banks, our personalised mugs and office paperweights: these outside-of-possession objects to keep us firmly rooted inside-of-existence. And so just like bric-à-brac reminds us of our experiences, it also marks the passing of time.
But whilst we use bric-à-brac to ground us into the definite, and distinct, bric-à-brac itself seems to exist wholly outside of it. After all, what constitutes bric-à-brac? Partially objects of art, almost objects of use, they do not quite fully occupy any category. Consider a tooth-pick dispenser of elaborate design, or an ornate penis-shaped bottle opener from a long-ago holiday, or an ornamental jug: neither completely practical, nor utterly decorative, nor totally sentimental, nor entirely pointless. Bric-à-brac resides in a place between presence and absence, with no necessary relation to anything, and as both the object’s abstraction, the most concentrated form of its inanimacy and uselessness; and its negation: an inherently non-thing, indefinable, vague. ‘Bric-à-brac’ encompasses the objects that confuse us; it serves to classify that which can’t be classified.
Perhaps we can begin to understand bric-à-brac if we look at it in a different way, or rather, if we start to look at it at all, in any meaningful way. Normally, we look upon objects of bric-à-brac much like the average tourist looks upon objects in a museum, as a spectator, ‘without paying much attention to the spectacle’3 . We view these objects with a completely empty consciousness, more aware of the fact that we are gazing than what we are gazing upon. And we never seem to be able to consider any one item of bric-à-brac in isolation, but only as objects in relation to one another, with no especial regard for any individual thing. Historically, bric-à-brac was displayed in glass-panelled curio cabinets of middle class homes as a collection of items and we still struggle to separate them visually today. Indeed, bric-à-brac begs viewing on mass; the word itself is plural. Artist Tom Friedman attempts clarity in perception of the object by consciously presenting items of bric-à-brac, isolated, in an out-of-place setting. When he first began making bricolage, he emptied his studio of any objects and reintroduced objects slowly, one-by-one, so he could properly and carefully consider them, and his works aim to make us do the same - to jolt us from our passive consumption of objects. By slightly warping the mundane, he forces us to acknowledge the non-temporal, half-state, indefinable nature of bric-à-brac, using a liminal setting to reify the liminality of the thing.
Partaking in a consumerist culture means we are desensitized towards the objects around us as a general rule, but this is most acutely realised in how we consider bric-à-brac, the objects we consider most obviously destined for landfill. It is human nature to project values onto objects, and however illusory this may be, it gives them a defined status in our world. Yet bric-à-brac defies this as the manifestation of the emptiness of consumerist ideology. And we are fascinated by this, as well as alarmed by it, like we are with liminal spaces. We feel a kind of perverse pleasure in considering bric-à-brac as the embodiment of capitalist excess - think of our vague sense of disgust and delight at Portia Munson’s installations of masses of objects from the ‘backside of the mall’.
And we delight in the possible value amongst the value-less-ness. The suggestion of treasure, hidden amongst the bric-à-brac, captivates our imagination. Stories of the Muse of Cortona, a unique easel painting of classical antiquity, found being used by a peasant to stop a hole in his oven, and shows like Salvage Hunters or Antiques Roadshow, foster our desire to discover something of magic, mystic or of utmost value amongst the broken utensils, old CDs and discarded photo frames at a car boot sale. And yet it is not something as tangible as wanting to find something of monetary value amongst bric-à-brac that draws us to hunt through it. No, when bric-à-brac is categorised as valuable, it loses its indefinable, liminal status; no longer bric-à-brac as such, these items ‘enter civilised life once more under new outfits’4 . And it is this very state of liminality that we are so attracted to in bric-à-brac. Not only does bric-à-brac escape the constraints of classification by value, it also defies definite categorisation in any sense - and this is what both fascinates and frightens us the most. The sense of mystery amongst bric-à-brac, the hidden magic we are looking for, is held in the very fact of their indefiniteness, their inaccessibility and vague incomprehensibility. We are sure these objects must have a kind of occult meaning by their attachment to human life, and as we sift through this detritus, we act as archaeologists of the everyday, determined to find it.
And in this sense, bric-à-brac exists most vividly in our imaginations. The magic of bric-à-brac exists only within the myth and image we have imparted upon them. Like the child in Yuko Tsushima’s The Watery Realm who dearly covets a glowing underwater castle for his fish tank, only to bring it home and see it is made of hard plastic, rather than magic or fairytale, we desperately want to believe in the importance of objects.