WILLIAM EAKIN'S ORDINARY OBJECTS
[First published in Saskatoon's Blackflash magazine, vol.19:3, 2002, 40-45.]
In the famous Jorge Luis Borges story, Pierre Menard manages to write
...the ninth and the thirty-eighth chapters of Part One of Don Quixote and a fragment the twenty-second chapter....He did not want to compose another Don Quixotewhich would be easybut the Don Quixote. It is unnecessary to add that his aim was never to produce a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable ambition was to produce pages which would coincideword for word and line for linewith those of Miguel de Cervantes.(1)Identical passages from Cervantes and Menard make for much different readings, of course, because one is a work of 1608 while the other, although identical, is written in 1918.
A photograph of a photograph can present viewers with a Menard-like illusion that the "copy," however recontextualized, may as well be the "original." When the Winnipeg artist William Eakin takes a photograph of a photograph of Niagara Falls, for example, the result can look deceptively transparent. But it is Menard rather than Cervantes at work as that tourist photo of 1938 becomes a William Eakin work of art in 2001. Look through Eakin's recontextualization to the tourist photograph, and through that to Niagara Falls, and witness that water cascade uncannily into the basin. In Eakin's work, the Niagara is returned to us through presentations of past representations. Eakin gives order to his sequence of quotations as if to remind viewers not only of the impossibility of a direct perception of Niagara Falls in a photograph, but also that contemporary experience of the Falls seems somehow to be both genuine and fake, consistent with our maddeningly internalized, ersatz doubling of all experience.
Eakin's photographs of photographs are just one aspect of a practice that returns objects commonly called kitsch to more serious attention by means of photography although Eakin never uses the word kitsch since he considers it a negative term. Amateur art, folk art, and craft objectscommonly seen to have more authenticity than kitschare also put before Eakin's view finder. The artist collects trinkets and decorative commercial junk, old and new. He calls these sorts of things "ordinary art."
But Eakin is no cynic. Although he admits to a long term fascination with Andy Warhol, Eakin's take on the pop objects he photographs is not Warholian. He does not collect everything, and he has a warm, not cool, attitude to his objects that is foreign to pop art. Eakin is not aesthetically indifferent; quite the opposite: his photographs are an inquiry into the value of ordinary things, and by extension an inquiry into high art. Eakin's work forces a viewer to ask questions about the literal value not only of kitsch, but also of the "high art" photography with which he venerates kitsch.
A store called "Value Village" is the source of many of Eakin's photographed objects. Clothing and china and plastic toys are all assigned to shelves in a Value Village store. Winnipeg artists call Value Village "Chez VV," and many of them use second hand things from "VV" in their work. (Eakin was among the first in Winnipeg to seriously investigate this store as a source for art; he also mines other thrift stores for objects to love.) In conversation, the artist talks about getting a "spark" from an object or an arrangement of objects. Sometimes he talks about the spark coming from a certain camera angle, and sometimes the spark is simply the head-on depiction or poignant pairing of objects.
Accompanying Eakin on a tour of Winnipeg's three Value Village stores, I watched him buy things. He spent $70.00 on: metal souvenir platters with photographs of small town sites on them; a pepper shaker from Wyoming; a bag of McDonald toys; a majorette trophy inscribed as being "#3rd Prize"; a gold horses' ass trophy (which had a horse shoe on it, making it particularly unusual, according to Eakin); a plastic ashtray from Hawaii which looked like molten lava (for Eakin's special Hawaiian collection); a framed colour print of a ballet dancer; a plaster plaque with the silhouette of a girl's head; and a Super Mario Brothers movie promotion pamphlet.
The artist has what he calls "active" and "dormant" collections in his studio/museum: active collections include a tourist collection, a Spanish collection (which is really a matador/bullfighter collection, some of which is on view at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon as I write); a RCMP collection; a Niagara Falls collection; a First Nations art collection that includes both unique and commercially-produced stuff; an old hand-crafted items collection (things which, as he puts it "have the mark of their maker in them"); a collection of trophies and biscuit tins (photographs of which are on display at Leo Kamen Gallery in Toronto as I write); and a collection of "spokescartoons" (characters which exist to shill food, movies and merchandise, for example Ronald McDonald dolls).
It does not escape Eakin's attentionor minethat one of the objects he buys for pennies might one day, or may even now be literally more valuable than Eakin's resultant art, and that his fetishization of these objects may contribute to their value in a way that ironically complicates his own reassessment project (one thinks of the great monetary value of Cezanne's or Morandi's props). These relations of value are only seemingly settled within one of the hundreds of worlds of collecting that run parallel to the world of art collecting.
The passion and absurdity of all this is illustrated by the following quotation from David Craft's book Baseball Cards, The Beginning Collector:
Collecting baseball cards has become big business in recent yearsvery big business. Values of some cards rose dramatically in the 1980s, both for cards of decades past and for recently issued cards. Even baseball card-related items have hit the big time. In 1990 an uncut proof strip (of five cards circa 1910 that included legendary shortstop Honus Wagner) used to test the colors, photography, design, and paper of the cards, was going for two million dollars.(2.)Elsewhere in Craft's baseball card book the author's misgivings about money are expressed: "Some jaded souls [says the author] see this rare 1909 tobacco card the legendary T-206 Honus Wagner only as an expensive investment for the very rich. . . . Other people see its beauty and simplicity and are reminded why they got into the baseball card hobby in the first place".(3.)
I needn't remind readers of Blackflash that only two Canadian works of art have ever fetched two million dollars on the market. However much we may prefer to think that, at the settlement of Eakin's estate, the auctioneer will push aside his "I Wuv You" dolls and the plastic Easter Island head vases to get at his photographs, the sentiments of baseball card collectors give one pause. If something as trivial as a baseball card is literally more valuable than Eakin's art, what is one to make of this artist's project of asserting greater "value" to such ordinary things?
As Eakin "doubles" an object in a high art photograph, certain assignments of value in our culture of objects are made more visible. The art becomes a meta-object, that is, an object that embraces whole categories of other objects. In fact, that's what makes it "high" art. I venture that Eakin's art will always be more engaging and more valuableat least to people who are interested in intellectual inquirythan any one thing in his collection of objects, regardless of how much one of his collectables might be worth on E-Bay.
Eakin's practice has recently taken a curatorial turn, and why not: standing in the midst of Eakin's vast collection of things is a sublimely overwhelming experience. The artist has recently begun to show parts of his collection in exhibitions (recently, for example, at the Mendel in Saskatoon and at St. Norbert Arts Centre in Winnipeg). The objects are seen as Eakin's collection created in relation to his art. Like the readymade, an object in Eakin's collection gets its value from the artist's positioning of it within the art institution, somewhat in the same way that Pierre Menard's version of Cervantes in the famous Borges story could be said to "document" lines of text as an identical-looking souvenir.
1. Jorge Luis Borges, "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote," Ficciones (New York: Grove Winfeld, 1962), 45-55.
2. David Craft, Baseball Cards, the Beginning Collector (New York: Smithbooks Ltd., 1992), 8.
3. Ibid, 9.