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What Is an Object?

by Michael Blum on April 23, 2014

(all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Before even opening The Object, Whitechapel Gallery and the MIT Presss latest installment in the
Documents of Contemporary Art series, the books title stares back, interpolates itself, asking
questions: What is an object? Which object? Aestheticized and spiritualized objects, like the artwork or
the idol? Or flotsam and jetsam, rejected objects and other dejecta? Can we consider imaginary things
objects dreams, concepts, others still more formless? And what about objects that, though dead or
lifeless, are nonetheless not mute, like fossils, glyphs, and other excavated objects, which can be
animated and made to speak across centuries? Indeed, how are we to think about this rapport
between objects and subjects? And what role does this subject play the one who apprehends,
dominates, and make use of the object?
The Object, edited by Antony Hudek, proliferates and attends to these kinds of questions. The books
aim is to defamiliarize the inquiry into the object, as well as expand the perception and experience of
the object in more everyday, playful, or artistic contexts. As Hudek writes in his introduction:
Objects are not reducible to the material, perceptible, and consumable goods we
commonly refer to as objects. The world of objects, however ordinary, is a trove of
disguises, concealments, subterfuges, provocations and triggers that no singular,
embodied, and knowledgeable subject can exhaust.
The books survey of the world of objects takes the reader through the domains of art (both its
practice and criticism), theory, science, politics, literature, as well as less rehearsed, more sui
generis engagements with the subject.

Gabriel Orozco, Sandstars (detail) (photo by Kyle Chayka)


For those unfamiliar with Whitechapels ongoing series, Documents of Contemporary Art is a collection

of anthologies, each one dedicated to the elaboration, interrogation, and illustration of a single theme,
such as memory, ruins, participation, dance, and failure. Each book is comprised of a number of texts
in the expanded sense: selections include essays, manifestos, artist statements, interviews, poems,
and other textual material like magazine clippings and transcriptions of performed events.

Page from The Object


What distinguishes The Object in an essential way from many of its sibling volumes is its structure and
the multiple parameters for reading that this structure allows, not to say dictates. Whereas previous
books in the series are comprised predominantly of longer, more conventional essay-type pieces, The
Object is formed out of an abundant constellation of excerpts, many of which dont even exceed a
pages length. (The Objects table of contents is more than three pages longer than Participations.)
Owing to this dispersed formation, the book summons the active involvement of the reader to organize
meaning and navigate more personal trajectories through the disparate and in some cases
opposing or incompatible texts. The reader can also duck in, consume a page or a paragraph, and
then set the book back down. Either way, The Object is not a uniform literary product with definitive
boundaries and prescribed modes of reading.
The book is a choral work and nearly a cacophonous one at that. But there is nonetheless some
order to it. The first section, Subject, Object, Thing, serves as the philosophical scaffolding. In it can
be found a grasp of the object as it occurs in the (mostly French and German) philosophical tradition of
the 20th century. Hudek draws upon structuralist psychoanalytic theory, for example citing Lacans text
on the true secret of the thing (das Ding), which stands for the dumb object that precedes and
therefore resides outside of representation, consciousness, and language. As an ontological analog to
Lacans argument, there is Marcus Steinwegs defense of the foreignness and uncanniness of the

object, or in his words, the side of the object that is necessarily turned away from the subject.
Though its the dominant trend, the texts in this section dont exclusively study the object from so
abstract a perspective. Hito Steyerls A Thing Like You and Me, another highlight, proposes a
renewed consideration of the image as a material thing subject to contingent forces and energies,
rather than an idealized representation: [the] image is a thing simultaneously couched in affect and
availability, a fetish made of crystals and electricity, animated by our wishes and fearsa perfect
embodiment of its own conditions of existence.

The rest of the book takes aim at the object


from the perspective of its obsolescence, its everydayness, its use and standardization, its
psychological projection, its role in performance, its monolithic presence, its function as a memory
agent, and its occurrence in art from the classical medium (marble, canvas) to the readymade to the
post-medium art object and beyond. The object is explained, attacked, defended, and mystified. It is
treated sentimentally or plaintively for example, by Song Dong, who enlists objects in his mourning
of his mother and other passed family: The reason Ive tried, by every means possible, to hold on to
these things is so as to extend their lives. Statements like these are accompanied and practically
countered by pragmatic, sardonic, but still lyrical formulations, such as Louise Bourgeoiss Do not fall
for the fetish you can do better, do not waste your / time. example: the because clothes from your
youth so what sacrifice them, eaten by the moths. is it a sacrifice yes it is.
Ultimately, the book is a messy but fleshy and substantial weave of very diverse material, and is
therefore meant more to be used as reference, inspiration, education. One may also choose to take
some of its lessons more seriously and manipulate the book, convert it, and use it beyond how it was
meant: as a doorstop, an oversized coaster, a bludgeon, as tinder, as decoration (its not a bad looking
book), or as a present to an MFA candidate you know who, inside or outside the classroom, is liable to
complain about societys limited conceptions of objects and objectivity.

The Object, edited by Antony Hudek, is available from the MIT Press.

Antony HudekMIT PressWhitechapel Gallery