Documents of Contemporary Art: The Object


The Object is the latest in the Whitechapel gallery/MIT press series “Documents of Contemporary Art”, and is a book that does the breadth of its topic justice. Exhibition texts, interviews, manifestos and essays are amongst a dizzying array of material in this relatively compact survey.

Collectively The Object is not so much grounded by the topic of the object in art, but explores its boundaries, the wider issues in philosophy and society that then feed back into it. The subject/object divide, the ripple effects of mass production, and consequences of the fetish are among many of the concepts examined and cross-referenced.

The Object Book Sculpture

Interior quote (Phyllida Barlow). Image by writer.

Edited and introduced by Anthony Hudek, the collection of writing from artists, critics, philosophers and those around and in between is a sprawling and at times contradictory overview – a certain parameter is loosely set for “the object” within one text, whilst in another it is quickly counteracted, even along the same train of thought.

As a collection it does not make for light reading. Whilst the texts are divided into five areas, and unusually each writer’s entry is no more than a few pages in length, this does not do much to quell such a topic’s span and heavily theoretical nature.  As it is mostly compiled of extracts from a writer’s longer text, each entry is a new deep end in which to be immersed.

The first section, titled “Subject, Object, Thing” is the most philosophical of the book, focusing on the ontological distinctions of the three. Jane Bennet’s Vibrant Matter touches upon personhood as an arena for sexual objectification, the dissemination of bodily material, and the moralities of the subject/object boundaries, whilst Hito Steyerl’s A Thing Like You And Me discusses shifting the focus of emancipation of subjugated beings away from being considered a subject, to changing their role as object, to be “an object without a subject”.

The Object Book Sculpture

Interior quote (Robert Morris). Image by writer.

“Everyday Objects, Useful Objects” pulls the book to a more physical focus, with standout texts from Mike Kelly in The Readymade and the Double, discussing the connection and dissemination between Duchamp and Manzoni’s signed nudes, and Mel Chin on the progression of tobacco as a background for his work. “Found Objects, Lost Objects, Non-Objects” hosts Ursula Meyers 1969 text De-Objectification of the Object that seems to have become more relevant in time, touching upon the effect of technology’s increasing immateriality. These two chapters, along with “Discursive Objects, Affective Objects” and “Event, Object, Performance” segue into one another as the human implications of the object – from society to personal sentimentality and utilization – comes more deeply into focus.

As an artist or theorist reader, this book is perhaps most useful when employed as an index, allowing one to locate particularly resonant texts for further reading. It is also an ideal starting point for those that wish to locate further conceptual placement in their three dimensional work. With each text longer than an abstract but quickly cutting to the heart of the matter, it is a book for the long and accumulative read.

By Dorothy Hunter

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