The idea of a lyrical archive originated in the Russian conceptual art
movement of the 1980s, with the intent to reveal the elusive significance
of everyday objects that become adapted to human use, as clothing, for
example, grows softer and more comfortable in the process of being worn.
Archivists collected old, often discarded things and attempted to create
descriptive histories to convey the unique emotional content associated
with them. “Lyrical objects” may be items of mass production such as keys,
pens, or pop cans; their significance lies, not in economic or aesthetic
value as these are normally understood, but in the unrepeatable personal
experience of the individuals who have interacted with them. The archival
project aims to enhance our awareness of the values that lie hidden in
the objects around us in contemporary life, in hopes this may lead to a
more thoughtful appreciation of things we normally dismiss as insignificant.
The idea of documenting the significance of everyday objects was developed over the course of the 1980s by Moscow thinkers associated with the school of conceptual arts, including poet Vladimir Aristov, culturologist Mikhail Epstein, and artist Il’ia Kabakov. Their efforts sought to reveal the indefinable meanings lodged within the mass of “inconsequential,” often disposable things in which contemporary culture swathes our day-to-day existence. One theorist explains that this project expands the typical criteria whereby civilizations have bestowed value on physical objects:
along with the material, historic, and artistic values that are characteristic of very few things, every thing, every object, even the most insignificant, can possess a personal, or lyrical value. This is derived from the degree of experience and meaning that the given thing has absorbed, the extent to which it has been incorporated into the owner’s spiritual activity.
The Russian conceptualists, who collected lyrical objects for display and contemplation in their small Moscow apartments, tended to focus on extrapolating philosophical ideas from the humility of things that had served their human masters over the course of time. In America, a different approach has emerged, emphasizing the role of things as silent witnesses to human beings’ emotional lives. As they patiently serve our daily material needs or unwittingly become the tools of precipitous passions, objects receive the imprint of our feelings, be they fleeting or eternal. At the Lyrical Archive of Tontogany, Ohio, we believe it is emotional experience that forms the basis of lyrical value.
Interactions of Nature and Culture in Lyrical Experience
Many specialists agree that “culture” may be defined as the set of practices and products created by human actions and imagination, as opposed to such natural forces as weather, plant growth, and geological processes. From this perspective, the majority of our lyrical objects are cultural in a dual sense: they were produced by some form of human industry and then endowed with emotional content in a further process of actual use. We humans, however, are ourselves creatures of nature, and our basic emotions have much in common with those of other animals, suggesting that the traditional dichotomy of nature and culture should be seen as largely conventional. While natural scientists explore the material bases of life in chemistry, genetics, and biopsychology, it is appropriate that culturologists should extend these explorations to the less tangible, or less discrete, phenomena that emerge from our material conditions. Clearly, lyrical experience is one phenomenon of this type.
Although human life relies on undeniably physical necessities, physiology alone can in no way account for the emotional power expressed in such adages of popular wisdom as “Love conquers all,” “Regret is a cancer of the heart,” and “Death shall have no dominion.” Lyrical experience is a phenomenon that reveals both the limitations of materialism and the transcendent aspect of material life in the potential of thoughts and feelings to move us beyond immediacy, or to open unsuspected meaning within the immediate. It is in lyrical experience that nature and culture, as well as materialism and spirituality, most closely intertwine.
Observers will notice that several of our items, for example St 381 “A small stone,” are thoroughly organic in structure and lack any obvious signs of human intervention (other than having been brought to our archive). While these are not “doubly cultural” in the sense mentioned above, they have been acculturated by their selection for emotional interaction with a human being. This is a far more subtle process than those involved in other uses of natural resources. Whereas lumber, for example, is harvested and invasively transformed in the production of such cultural items as board footage or furniture, a person who selects some natural object for lyrical interaction need do no more that touch or look at it while pursuing particular thoughts. Recognition of the importance of lyrical contemplation and the objects that motivate it can thus provide a corrective to the detached exploitation of nature’s materials that has led to so much thoughtless destruction of our earthly environment. Lyrical value accrues to nature’s wealth as it also slows the rapacious consumerism whereby products are quickly bought and just as quickly discarded in favor of something new, “improved,” and more superficially seductive. Archival practice hopes to transform human ecology by giving a place to old, worn, and no longer commercially appealing objects that, nonetheless, preserve the neglected values of individual emotional experience.
B 025 A buckeye
A man on his way to work could not resist picking up this buckeye, or horse chestnut, from the sidewalk. It was satin smooth and beautifully rounded. He rubbed it with his thumb and absent-mindedly slipped it in his pocket. He walked on, thinking about his wife and hoping she was pregnant.
B 026 and 027 Two buckeyes
A girl of 13 was walking home from school, taking measured strides over the broken slabs of stone that formed the sidewalk of her street. She refused to look either to the right or left, especially as she approached the territory of her enemy, a nine-year-old neighbor boy, who was, in fact, awaiting her behind the spirea hedge that circled his house.
Even without turning to look, the girl saw that the boy and a couple of his friends were moving along the hedge, so she knew they would emerge onto the sidewalk momentarily.
The boy stepped into view, while his friends lagged a short ways behind. Under the enormous horse chestnut tree in the corner of the yard, he scooped up several buckeyes and passed them from hand to hand, as the girl approached and he prepared his taunts.
“I know you’re a queer!” he announced loudly. “Or are you a boy? You walk like one. Let’s see which it is!” And he pelted her with the buckeyes.
The first time something like this had occurred, the girl had been mortified, but by now she was merely disgusted. She knelt and gathered up two of the buckeyes that had glanced off her shoulder.
“Are these your nuts?” she asked the boy, displaying them on her palm. The boy’s eyebrows shot up in surprise and his mouth dropped slightly. The girl looked to one of his pals, who had come up behind him. “Maybe these are your nuts?” she asked the second boy.
He shook his head. “They’re his,” he answered.
“That’s what I thought,” the girl said, as she placed the buckeyes neatly on the sidewalk. She took a brick from beside the hedge and brought it down on the nuts until they were thoroughly smashed. Before standing up, she seized two more of the buckeyes and squeezed them in her fist for a moment, then said quietly, “That’s all your nuts are good for.” She turned away and walked on.
After a moment’s pause, the neighbor boy screamed, “You goddam queer! You donno what yer talkin about!” But his friends had moved away toward the vacant lot across the street, deciding it was time to start playing baseball.
Not confident that her nut-crushing demonstration would put an end to the harassment, the girl took pains to avoid her neighbor in the future. She went a few blocks out of her way after school in order to take a route that didn’t pass by his house.
B 028 and 029 Two more buckeyes
A boy and his father built a snowman after the first big snowfall of the season, shortly before Christmas, 1993. The snow packed well, and their creation soon reached a height of almost five feet. They tied a red bandanna around the snowman’s head and found a few remnants of charcoal in the grill on the back porch, which served nicely as teeth, forming a broad smile. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough pieces to make the eyes as well. “Don’t you have some buckeyes stashed somewhere from last fall?” the man asked his son. The boy remembered that he did have some and fetched a couple from his room to make large, round, satiny eyes that completed the snowman’s face.
About a week later, when the snow melted in a sudden change of weather, the buckeyes gradually found their way to the ground and lay there for several days on the damp grass. The father picked them up one morning and set them on a window ledge by the mailbox. A neighbor girl, passing by with a group of friends, caught sight of the buckeyes. In fact, she had noticed them earlier, when the snowman was still intact — they reminded her of how that little punk had often pelted her as she walked home from school, to her great humiliation. “Go take those buckeyes,” she told a boy from her class who liked to hang around with her and her girlfriends. The boy obliged, since no one appeared to be home at the time, and the girl took the buckeyes to her house, where she kept them in a box on her dresser.
Bk 105 Book, The Joy of Cooking
In the early 1950s, a young bride received this book from her great aunt, who had heard that it contained information on everything from proper luncheon menus to trussing wild game. The young woman didn’t really like to cook, but over the years while her children were growing up, she made regular use of the book, especially around the winter holidays. It was the only cookbook she ever consulted.
The reluctant cook died at the age of 53, and her son and daughter inherited the book. They used it frequently and valued it not only for its nostalgic meaning in relation to their mother, but also for the practical suggestions she had penciled in many of the margins. For example, she had noted the quantities of milk and cream necessary for tripling their favorite frozen custard recipe, and on the inside back cover, she had copied down their grandmother’s recipe for rolled sugar cookies.
The children, who were teenagers when they lost their mother, continued to use these recipes for many years. They enjoyed making frozen custard for gatherings of friends who would be pressed into service cranking the ice cream freezer or slicing strawberries for topping. The rolled and cut sugar cookies were produced in appropriate shapes almost every Halloween and Christmas until the boy and girl were grown and prepared to leave their family home for good.
When that time came, the brother gave up his rights to the cookbook in favor of his sister. This was less an expression of altruism than of his more sophisticated culinary tastes: he had come to prefer the recipes in Bon Appetit magazine to the homey style of cookery presented in what he called “The Joy.” The girl, on the other hand, kept discovering new usefulness in the encyclopedic variety of the old cookbook. For instance, if something she’d never fixed before, like lamb shanks or beef heart, turned out to be the cheapest meat in the supermarket one week, she could count on “The Joy” to have instructions for making it edible.
Only advanced decrepitude, aggravated by the heat and spatterings of her kitchen, led the original owner’s daughter to retire the book from active use, almost 48 years after it first entered the family. Although newer editions of the same book were available, she chose not to replace it but still keeps it in a closed cupboard in her family room, where it remains available for occasional consultations.
Bk 112 The Foxie Book
and T 362 A plastic fox
When a young father completed his graduate studies in European History, his parents surprised him with the gift of a two-week package tour of Russia. The man and his wife were excited to have this chance to visit a distant country they had both read so much about. At “GUM,” the famous Moscow department store, the couple bought a small, plastic figure of a fox as one of several gifts for their two children. It is typical of the inexpensive playthings produced for Russian preschoolers in the mid-1980s. The price embossed on one side of its belly reads “30 kopecks.”
The fox failed to make a great impression on the children who received it. For several years, it sat on their bookshelf, overshadowed by large picture books and other toys. Occasionally, it resurfaced long enough to play a supporting role in games that starred such American favorites as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Eventually, the fox became slated for disposal at a neighborhood garage sale and was tossed into a box with numerous other items. The morning of the sale, however, the fox caught the younger child’s attention, and she removed him from among the discards. She looked into his narrowed black eyes and told her mother that he was an orphan who needed a new home, even if it was only in the same place as his old home. She took him back to her bedroom, but instead of returning him to the cluttered bookshelf, she gave him a special place on the windowsill by her bed, next to her rosary and holy cards.
The fox’s bright orange color reminded the girl of Little Orphan Annie, a character she had learned about on a trip through Indiana, where the family had stopped in the town of Greenfield at the James Whitcomb Riley Museum. The daughter decided to write a book of stories about Foxie, just as Mr. Riley had written a famous poem about his nanny, a red-haired orphan girl named Anne. With her mother’s help, the girl wrote one story for this book.
The Foxie Book
Once upon a time, a lonely little fox came upon a cottage in the deep woods. He saw children playing by the woodpile, and he wondered what it would be like if he could stay and be their pet. He remembered how happy he’d been when he used to live with his own family and played tag or hide-and-seek with his brothers and sisters. But now he was an orphan, and remembering made him feel so sad he couldn’t help whimpering just a little bit. Then the children saw him and said:
“There he is!”
“It’s a fox!”
“He’s just a baby. Maybe we can keep him!”
Then Foxie knew that the children liked him, so he ran over to them, and they all played tag until the mother called them in to dinner. Foxie ate scraps that the children passed him under the table. After clearing up, the whole family sat around the fireplace and sang songs until the smaller kids started to fall asleep. Foxie sat on little Annie’s lap in the shadows where the grown-ups couldn’t see him. Then the father and mother started carrying the little ones up to their bed at the top of the stairs. Foxie hid by the banister until everything was quiet, then he ran and snuggled up on the foot of the children’s bed, between Dan and Annie’s legs.
In the morning when Foxie woke up, there was nobody left in the bed. He heard something downstairs, so he snuck down quietly and there he saw Clara, the oldest daughter, doing the dishes. She said, “Father’s gone to work, Mommy drove Bess in to town with the eggs, Tom’s mending fence, and the little ones are at school. They all said to tell you good-bye and come see us again sometime. We sure did have fun last night.”
Foxie couldn’t talk in human language. He was glad of it, too, because if he’d said anything just then, it would have shown how badly he was disappointed. He just looked at Clara for a minute wondering where to go next. Clara saw his sad eyes and understood his feelings. “Don’t feel so bad!” she said. “It’s just that our father would never let a fox stay around here — he’s prejudiced against foxes!” Then she gave him some dry toast for breakfast, and he turned to go.
At the end of the road, Foxie saw Tom working on the fence. The boy called out, “So long! It’s been good to know ya.” Foxie didn’t go any closer because he figured Tom would just get cross, so he slunk into the ditch and ran away. He was a real fox, and sometimes he could be sly and tricky. He hadn’t gotten enough breakfast so, feeling kind of cross, he snuck to a nearby farm and killed some chickens. Then he cut across a field and headed towards the schoolhouse.
When Annie and Dan and Elsie came out of the school, Foxie trotted over to them. He gazed into their eyes, trying to say good-bye, but really he was thinking something else. “Oh, Foxie, baby! It’s too soon for you to leave!” Elsie said. Then Annie started to cry and put her arms around his neck. “Don’t worry,” said Dan. “Foxie, you just come on back to the house around dinnertime, like you did last night. There won’t be any problem.” Foxie barked once, loud and sharp. He rubbed his cheek against Annie’s hand, then he ran off and hid in a thicket.
Towards evening he started over to the cottage, where he could see the windows shining through the dusk. Father was gathering wood in the side yard, so Foxie kept to the edge of the forest. He moved fast, but Father caught a glimpse of him and shouted, “Was that a FOX?” But it was too dark to see. Foxie waited till all was quiet, then made his way to the house. He climbed a big tree and jumped onto the window sill, but the window was locked from inside. He crouched there for a long time, thinking about the songs and stories going on inside by the fire. His eyes got long and hard like slits. Finally he heard footsteps coming up the stairs. Annie was crying and he heard her say, “Foxie didn’t come!” But then he tapped on the glass with his claw. Elsie let him in, and the children took him in their arms and hid him under the bed quilt.
(To be continued)