Screening (&) Kitsch (&) Consumption
(/or) Death & Trees & Flamingoes
My first day back after the Christmas holidays and the overwhelm is strong and I ache. I ache because I played waterpolo last night and I foolishly decided that an hour was enough time to do a normally thirty-minute bus ride on a tube-strike day, realised it wasn’t, had to cut out the luggage drop-off from my journey and drag it all to Stratford with me and then back again. The driverless DLR trains impressed their publics more than usual. The complicated machinations of capitalism.
And I wake up to delighted children and their incomprehensible babbling. They’re pleased to have me back even in my exhausted state. But the day is about organising and fixing and catching up and fighting all the programs that have locked me out or decided to retire my passwords. My research project, Heritage Futures, has a workshop to plan at Kew at the end of February. I need to think about endangerment and red lists. I have a lot to get through in the next few weeks and I really, really want it to stop, but the little mantra that’s been buzzing in my head since my dad died has to be about self-propulsion. I’ll be forty this year and there ain’t nobody gonna change this backdrop but me: you’re on your own kid.
So I daydream a little about what I would do if I respected my anxiety and stepped out of this game and into another less mentally demanding and more being-in-the-world-and-with-the-things sort-of-living. A kitsch merchant. I would become a kitsch merchant. A specialist in the buying and selling of exotica and curios, the unfamiliar and the familiar unfamiliar. A vendor of diverting melancholy. An antiques purveyor of bygone sunshines. I sometimes wonder if my love of kitsch is connected to my SAD. I’m a magpie for the Hawaiian shirt, pineapple punchbowl, palm print … anything. I have a pink plastic flamingo called Georgina. She used to belong to somebody else, but now she’s mine. And sometimes I seem to model myself on a colonial administrator. Queering it of course, c’mon.
Celeste Olalquiaga in her wonderful Benjaminian The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience says that kitsch is two bifurcated aspects of “perceptions of experience and cultural sensibilities” – in one, memories complete the fragmented event, mementoes prevent its decomposition; while in the other, the remembrance is glorified, in the decay of the fragmentary, is angst-ridden certainty. Its uneasy reading. Kitsch, on the top of the totem pole, says Benjamin, “…is the last mask of the banal, the one with which we adorn ourselves, in dreams and conversation, so as to take in the energies of an outlived world of things” (in Dream Kitsch [Traumkitsch]). The thing is frozen in time, preserving for us the moment in which it is already-dead.
And today, a commission. I’ve been tasked (maybe tasked myself) to find a screen on behalf of anotter. I found it and today I procure it. I could have been cooler, maybe knocked down the asking price, but I wanted to win. (An ex- used to laugh at my being sucked in to the notion that buying something at an auction is winning. Just another shopping compulsion, she said.) But never mind – this stuff is already out there. I need to watch Lovejoy again. My colleague Sarah thinks I don’t have the cutthroat requirements for the buying or selling part, while I secretly suspect I might struggle to resell my cabinet of curiosities due to besotment. Another friend says, prove her wrong, and another offers to learn to French polish and join me. And I wonder the provenance of the beauty that I’ve bought. Edwardian, says the catalogue. Mahogany. Those Edwardians and their mahogany.
My foray in the auctions is a delight and I reflect for the millionth time this winter on our culture of consumption. I’ve sporadically gone through times of not buying, and not buying-in, and not buying new. Kids make that harder. Christmas horrified me somewhat. The poor kids were overwhelmed by gifts from friends, extended family, that would have been so expensive to have only come from parents when I was a kid, not to mention the presents that they did get from parents. An excess of paper and desire. The wonder quickly turning to ambivalence. Disappointment. Ennui. Careless breakages. And of course the irony that one of the less expensive gifts from a family friend proved the indisputable winner of the affair for the boy-child, while the girl was mainly interested in the pink cake she had asked for, and generally behaving like Zsa Zsa.
Mahogany (the wikipedia entry is good). My mother’s house has a lot of it. From her own buying in auctions when we were little. It’s still an affordable way to get quality if you don’t have much money but do have access to a vehicle. Mahogany from Central America and the Caribbean is on the CITES lists now. The consumption crazes of the 18th and 19th centuries saw to that. Excessive feverish logging in those far-off places; trading and treaty shenanigans saw to that. Now, Swietenia mahogany comes from Asia or (mostly illegal) sources in Peru. The genus Swietenia was found to do quite well in India and Bangladesh, and plantations crossed the species. Other ‘mahoganies’ aren’t mahoganies and come from the Philippines, or elsewhere. But the exotic screen probably came from West Africa. American mahogany imports peaked in 1875; after which a hardwood wood from Africa began to replace the overforested Swietenia species. In 1907 159,830 tons of mahogany arrived in Europe, of which 121,743 came from Africa. African mahogany – Khaya – is related to the Caribbean one, and is now on the IUCN red list itself. It’s posited that the word itself is a corruption of the Igbo word ‘m’oganwo’ for the Khaya trees, transported to the Caribbean and used for their near relatives (so wrote F. Bruce Lamb in ‘On Further defining Mahogany’, Economic Botany, 17, in 1963). The Arawak name is lost. The economic botany collection at Kew has a lot of mahogany specimens. Kew – “central clearinghouse for the international exchange of botanical information” since 1759. Here are two Swietenia samples. One, collected in 1925, from British Honduras:
Botanical station 8 miles up river from Belize. This tree was originally on the ground, growing wild, not planted. Mahogany no3. Alt about 20`? Fairly numerous on good soil all over the colony but rare now close to the mouth of the Beliz e River owing to the continued cuttings during the last 2 centuries. Still unripe fruits, collected too early for same reason as given for the collection of flowers from Billy Webb no 2. This tree has been labelled and numbered as Mahogany no3 for continued botanical and silvicultural observation.
Another: Piece donated by London College of Furniture. Made by S Sesay. Mid 18th Century design. Mahogany became the principle furniture timber during this period, and the work of Thomas Chippendale was some of the finest to be seen. The tripod table was a very fashionable piece, and a particular feature is the raised moulded edge and carved rim round the tabletop, generally known as the pie-crust. In the original tables this formed part of the solid top, the surface being hollowed out within the raised rim. On reproduction tables it is usually possible to see the joint between the flat top and an applied rim.
I wonder at it. The hypocrisy and contradictions at the heart of it all. The creeping morality and conservatism that accompanied the creeping domination and subjugation. Creeping expectations of behaviour that smothered society as it changed in that heady period of mahogany mania. There’s something there in the moralism and assumptions of eco-system protection too – the speculative weeding out of successful foreign species by successful foreign species – that is problematic. Over lunch I read a review by Julian Baggini of a number of new books on moralism and meat-eating in the TLS. He ends by reflecting that death and killing is unavoidable: the only debate should be about the nature and extend of our contribution to the killing.
And I reflect on the recurrence of kitsch: those motifs of the exotic. Brought on by the drear of real life. An allowed escape from societal repression, the absence of sun. Death in the moment of life. Or vice versa. The proximity to the real sensuality, honesty of life: we are creatures of flesh and blood, says Baggini. Our ridiculous consumption. Was it ever thus? In these divided days we need the moralism less and less. Oh, the complicated machinations of capitalism.
This isn’t Disneyland and living authentically, as an adult, requires us to embrace fully the bitter-sweet nature of many of our most profound pleasures.