By Ruty Korotaev and Sarah Mariotti
Most people have at least one object in their possession that holds sentimental value. Whether a family heirloom like an old ring or necklace, or something more mundane such as a favourite book, these treasured belongings hold special meaning to their owners. But people don’t often pause to consider the stories behind these objects.
Two Ryerson artists-in-residence, Taien Ng-Chan and Sarah Amato, set out to change that. Both explore the meaning behind everyday objects, hoping to spark discussion on each one’s social meaning and artistic value. Last week, the two curators spoke at an object-based art workshop at Page One Café on Mutual Street. The event, supported by the John C. Eaton Chair of Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the Jack Layton Chair, is one of their many interdisciplinary initiatives. The focus of the workshop is to enable people to discover new beauty through connecting old or plain objects to memories and nostalgia.
Ng-Chan was the first to present her participatory multimedia project, entitled The Trajectories of Things. She looks at the memory and poetic value of everyday objects that people carry with them throughout their lives, arguing that though they may not have much economic worth, they are both culturally and socially significant and have a great deal of individual meaning.
One example that Ng-Chan provided was her mother’s rice cooker, which she received as a gift when she first moved out of her childhood home. Although it was old and faulty, Ng-Chan did not get rid of it until it stopped working. Throughout her project, many people shared stories of things that held special meaning to them. This led to the creation of a box with the first 22 stories that she heard from contributors. The stories were written on one side of the card, and on the other side was a sketch of the actual object.
Throughout the workshop, Ng-Chan mentioned several times that the boxes of archives, or item-poetry boxes, were not for sale, holding only an “exchange value.”
“You can only get it, if you give me a story of your thing,” Ng-Chan said.
In her study, poetic value and memory held greater significance than economic worth. Ng-Chan takes inspiration from all over, constantly looking to “find a new sight” for each object.
Amato’s participatory project, Is This Yours?, documents the stories of things that are lost and found through interviewing the people who keep, lose and find them. The Alberta native has been going to different lost and found facilities, at both large and small-scale operations, to look at the kinds of objects people lose.
“This project started by something completely unremarkable,” said Amato. “I lost my hat. I couldn’t find it anywhere, and then I remembered that I’ve been on a bus. I called the Edmonton transit system, and the conversation that I had with the person gave me a eureka moment.”
From this seemingly random conversation with a worker from the bus company, Amato learned about the wide array of things that appear in lost and found bins. From ordinary items like wallets and credit cards, to sex toys, toilet seats and all kinds of prosthetics (dentures, eyes and all sorts of limbs, for instance).
“Then the conversation turned to underwear and (the transit employee) said, ‘I’ve never had my bra off and in my pocket when I take the bus, but people do and it falls out of their pockets.’
“Can you imagine what life is out there?” Amato thought.
This notion has been the driving question that has followed Amato throughout her journey. “I wondered if it was possible to get a view into the mysterious and wondrous life we lead by exploring lost things,” she said. “The answer is yes and no, because lost things are small fragments, they’re narrative possibilities, and they are really nothing more than windows into the lives that they lead.”
Amato has heard both strange and very “feel good” stories, all of which seem to reveal a lot about the people that once owned them.
“People are talking about their objects and they are of course not just objects, they’re describing their entire lives as they experience it,” said Amato. “My stories run the gamut of emotion, and I’ve spoken to all sorts of people.”
The workshop convened an array of interested spectators; from old to young, students to professionals, the crowd seemed engaged and relaxed. The concept that the ordinary objects people overlook day-to-day can hold so many stories made audience member Adam Fraser, a fourth-year psychology student at Ryerson, think about them in a new light.
“I definitely enjoy that otherness — knowing that a thing that I’m sharing my life with shared it’s life with something else at one point, or someone else at some point,” Fraser said, referring to his collection of objects from Toronto’s sidewalks and streets. “I think that’s really neat, it feels like I’m kind of connected to everybody in ways that, like, we will never understand each other, but we have that one thing in common no matter what.”
Amato and Ng-Chan effortlessly inspire those around them to reconsider the lives of objects. Both idealizing the art of objects and the kinds of stories they can tell, the journeys of their projects are truly organic. Though it is unfortunate when loved items get lost, Amato is confident there is a way to use art to recognize their significant value. “I have not yet found my hat, but I did find this project.”