No. 13 June 2001

The Meaning of Objects

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This month I want to write about objects.  You see I have always had a very interesting relationship to objects.  I have never been drawn to them simply on account of their monetary or status value.  Objects come into my life because of a combination of serendipity and the sheer aesthetic or symbolic delight they give me.  Some examples:  long ago, in a thrift shop in San Francisco, I found a beautiful gilt mirror that was intricately shaped, beveled, and inset with three hand wrought brass rosettes.  It was $15.  At that time (1968) $15 seemed quite a lot of money and the next payday was a long way off.  (I was working at a miserable, menial job – sitting in a cold attic room in the commercial district for eight hours a day using a graphotype machine.  For those of you who don’t know what that is (I didn’t when I took the job but soon learned) this is a machine that allows one to type addresses on metal plates to produce mailing lists.  I’ll never forget how cold it was and the loud clang, clang, clang of that machine echoing in the huge, drafty attic room as I typed.)  Anyway, I produced a $5 deposit thereby securing the mirror and two weeks later was able to collect it.  I have never been sorry.  Another time, my mother flew from New Jersey to California to be at my wedding.  Her carry-on was a stout paper bag in which she had carefully wrapped up her wedding present to me – a three-footed cut crystal bowl that had been in our family for generations.  My first husband once gave our last money to buy me a small, oval, green marble box that he knew I would love.  My 18th birthday present from him was a milk white porcelain tea set decorated with gold and lavender flowers with green leaves.  There was a jar of old colored glass marbles I successfully bid for at an auction one hot summer day in Lincoln, Nebraska.  My second husband gave me an ancient Chinese porcelain vase with a gorgeous stylized bird on it.  I still cherish a pair of thick, dark orange socks a friend impulsively brought me in Paris after we saw them in the window of a shop.  Just last Mother’s Day my oldest daughter brought me a small crystal apple that is sitting on the desk where I’m writing this.  All but the socks, the apple and the green marble box are in a depot in the mid-west along with hundreds of other objects awaiting the day I can afford to ship them here.  Each one of them has a history.  Each one of them still means something to me.  I sometimes think of making an annotated list so that when I die and my three daughters are going through everything they will know what each thing represents.  My partner tells me nobody but me will care.  Perhaps he’s right, but I like to think that it is possible to pass on meaning along with material bequests.

Turkey is a paradise with respect to finding amazingly beautiful objects.  Here, the phrase “hidden treasure” does not only evoke a reality from the spiritual dimension of existence -- daily life in Turkey veritably teems with hidden treasures.  When I first came here I had nothing with me but some clothes.  While 21 cartons of books were eventually shipped from Paris, clothes and books have never been enough for me to make a life with.  I have to have wondrous things around me – furniture, objets d’art, dishes, paintings.  I love to look at them, touch them, clean them, polish them.  Things had to change and my first antique-hunting foray here was when I went with a woman friend to a used furniture shop in Üsküdar where I found two carved dining chairs, an oak kitchen table, and a very, very old marriage chest made of chestnut.  Since then I have found or been given many other things, including an enormous oil painting, probably Russian or Armenian, depicting what looks to be a European Renaissance pastoral background glimpsed through carved stone arches with a turbaned scribe and a woman holding a black-haired baby on her lap sitting in the foreground; a wood and iron device used to imprint fabric with a pattern; a beautifully carved and painted marriage chest (a present from my students); various copper pieces, one of which has a sultan’s mark; an entire set of antique solid silver (initially ink black with tarnish and sold for a song); Turkish carpets and kilms; and a series of presents from my partner:  a copper water canteen from World War I with a great, raised star in the center, three Osmanli sedef (pearl) pieces with a pierced design like lace made from shells, a carpet so fine it’s hanging on the wall, and a portrait of an exquisitely beautiful boy, with black hair and black eyes.  Just this morning the latest object entered my life:  an incredible wood, brass, and iron coffee grinder.  (This was sheer serendipity.  I was on my way back from buying flowers from the gypsy woman who sits outside the neighborhood Migros when I ran into Naci Usta, who’s lived in this neighborhood forever, and asked him what on earth he was carrying.  He explained – it was an antique coffee grinder -- and intrigued, I brought him back to the house to show my partner, who told me after we had completed the transaction, that I’d done very, very well.) 

I brought the coffee grinder into the garden and went to fetch an array of cleaning items:  fine sandpaper, triple 0 steel wool, Arap sabun, a bowl of water, cloths, brass polish, furniture polish, and Old English Scratch Polish (I cannot function without Old English Scratch Polish and had a friend bring me some from the U.S.).  Thus armed, I started to work.  First I washed the wood with Arap sabun using the steel wool.  The rinse water became black as decades of grime came away.  Then I dried it and started working on the wood with the furniture polish.  Slowly the grain started to appear and so did some designs – an inlaid star and two fan shapes, also inlaid, emerged in the base.  The inlays were made from a different wood than the base and their colors enhanced the patterns.  To finish off, I rubbed all the wood with the Old English whereupon it began to glow.  Next, I attacked the knob on the small wooden drawer that is meant to hold the ground coffee.  I discovered that the knob was brass-plated copper and after polishing it derived great pleasure from opening and closing the drawer. Now the knob looked like a jewel and somehow added to the strangeness of there being a drawer in such an object at all.  One somehow expects a drawer in a chest, but not in a coffee grinder.  Then I polished the bowl that was hand-forged solid brass and incised with two lines all the way around the inside.  It had a small maker’s mark impressed in it.  Finally, I began working on the iron handle.  As layers of black disappeared I saw that the iron had brass inlays.  There were more maker’s marks enclosed in circles  – three of them -- and the date, all in Arabic, carved into brass pieces inlaid in the iron handle.  Voila!  The coffee grinder was resplendent.  It gleamed.  After lying neglected for God only knows how many years it had been reclaimed and called into the circle of lived experience once more.  There’s surely something holy about working on an object in this way, as Gaston Bachelard writes about in his beautiful book, The Poetics of Space. 

“Objects that are cherished in this way really are born of an intimate light, and they attain to a higher degree of reality than indifferent objects, or those that are defined by geometric reality.  For they produce a new reality of being, and they take their place not only in an order but in a community of order.”

For some reason, living in Istanbul has brought me into even closer connection with objects.  Each new acquisition takes on added value to me – they seem more precious, not things to be taken for granted, but cherished, perhaps because I miss the ones in the depot – those from my “other life” -- so very much.  I really do take the time now to look at and take care of and just appreciate the things I have in a way that I never did when I lived in California.  The space that I created in which to live here also seems more valuable too, probably because there is so much about the new Istanbul that is harsh, ugly, and graceless.  When I come home and close the door behind me I really am aware that I am entering into a veritable community of order that belongs to a different order than the one “out there.”  Cherished objects evoke interiority, an inwardness that seems characteristic of this place, of this very particular city.  Thus, another level of meaning has been uncovered and named, and so it goes.  Istanbul?  Oh, yes indeed, Istanbul.    

No.1- April 2000 No.11 April 2001 No. 20 July 2002 No 29 April 2003
No.2 June 2000 No.12 May 2001 No. 22 September 2002 NO 30 MAY 2003
No.3 July/August 2000 No. 13 June 2001 No. 23   October 2002  NO 31 JUNE 2003
No.5 October 2000 No.14 July 2001 No 24 November 2002 NO 32 JULY 2003
No.7 December 2000 No.15 August 2001 No 25 DECEMBER  2002 NO 33 August 
No.8 January 2001
(No. 8 Ocak 2001 - Türkçe tercume
NO 16 September 2001 No 26 January 2003 No 34 September 
No.9 February 2001 No. 17 April 2002 No 27 February 2003 No 35 October 
No.10 March 2001 NO 19 JUNE 2002 No 28 March 2003 No 36 January 2004

No 37 February - March 2004 No 38 April 2004

 

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