Inanimate objects, do you have a soul?

Sylvette Babin

Inanimate objects, do you have a soul?

How do we “relate” to the objects that still play such a significant role in artistic practice? What do such objects say about themselves, about us, and about art or society? What power do they have over us and our habits of consumption? What symbolic values do we project upon them? In the previous issue, esse opened a discussion on the return — or the persistence — of the materiality of art by focusing on the topic of reskilling. The object itself now takes centre stage, not so much for its material properties but rather for its “existential” character. In light of Bill Brown’s “Thing Theory,” which is our point of departure, the present issue revolves around the precise moment in which the object becomes a “thing,” that is, the very moment it takes on a new life and thereby establishes a relation between subject and animated object.(1) By the term “animated object” we understand it to mean an object attributed with “life” rather than one that merely moves. Of course, one does not exclude the other, yet objects animated by a mechanism are examined here insofar as their movement is precisely that which bestows life on the work.

This issue’s theme is thus an invitation to reflect on the state of the object in contemporary art from perspectives as diverse as the transformation of the use value of objects into symbolic or artistic values, fetishism or the desire to possess the object, the cult of objects, and the critical power we bestow upon them. This issue also explores how the contemporary notion of the animated object differs from animism in the relationships of exchange that exist between the object and the beholder, while shedding new light on ritualistic objects and the primitivism that prevails in the way we relate to the world. The question of the object as commodity is also addressed, by questioning the commodity fetishism triggered by consumer society (and sometimes the art market), and by examining how certain artists attempt to circumvent the codes of commodity fetishism itself. We also consider the strategies whereby objects resist the process of dematerialization afforded by computer technology, despite their creative use of digital technologies and their modus operandi.

If the question of the “soul” of objects is but metaphorical, the diverse artworks examined in the following pages invite us to reflect nonetheless on the power (the aura?) that pervades such works and on the different ways in which we engage with them.

[Translated from the French by Eduardo Ralickas]


(1) “The story of objects asserting themselves as things, then, is the story of a changed relation to the human subject and thus the story of how the thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation… You could imagine things, -second, as what is excessive in objects, as what exceeds their mere materialization as objects or their mere utilization as objects — their force as a sensuous presence or as a metaphysical presence, the magic by which objects become values, fetishes, idols, and totems.” Bill Brown, “Thing Theory,” in Things, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004), 4 – 5.


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