Journeys of inanimate objects
In my former life I played a very very important role. Back in the time of George III, who reigned for 60 years between 1760 and 1820, tea was literally ‘worth its weight in gold’. Stories were told of the sea journey tea made from China – porcelain, the other prized made-in-China product was relegated to being ballast for its more precious filling – tea!
If there was a risk of robberies in the neighbourhood tea was one of the first things to be locked away. And what did people use to keep the tea leaves safe and fresh to drink? – Me – an apple shaped George III fruitwood tea caddy. I even had my own key with a cute green tassel. I had a key hole and a key role.
I enjoyed those early days, being treated with great respect due to my central role in family life. I would be brought out every day, fussed over to make sure the blend of tea (a mixture of green and black leaves) was right for the time of day and to suit the occasion. I would then be carefully placed in a different place each night (to fool any potential thief).
Over the years tea started to lose its value, gradually at first and then all of a sudden tea was everywhere. It was commonplace and I was no longer needed. I remained in one cupboard for ages, close on 100 years. Honestly, there I was placed already on the shelf – all because of a teabag!
Then one day I was rescued. A lot sale of the estate I had belonged to meant I was spotted by a collector. I was cleaned up and polished and joined up with two other caddies, one shaped like a segmented melon, the other pear shaped. I was interested to know and could finally ask someone what it had been like being pear-shaped the whole of one’s life!
The next thing I knew I was in a glass showcase in Sotheby’s alongside my fellow caddies and we had a number 129 next to us.
I was picked up by an earnest looking young man and carried across the room to an examination table. The white gloves were put on and I was carefully rotated under an intense bright light. A magnifying glass was produced and every square inch of me was examined. I was turned upside down to see if there were any marks left by my maker and weighed in hands to assess whether I was the ‘correct weight’. The man would put me down and consult the catalogue to establish my provenance. At one point photos were taken on a mobile phone and sent to the mystery person at the other end of the phone who the young man had been consulting with. Who was this mystery interested party? The inspection continued and a torch was used to probe my inner parts. I was a bit ashamed as most of my insides are badly worn foil, originally used to keep the tea leaves fresh.
The day of the auction arrived. Me and my fellow caddies – Pear and Mel – we had become good friends by then – it is always great to meet objects with a shared background and similar interests. I had spent 100 years in a cupboard with all sorts of odd things – a mop and bucket, a cake tin, broken teapots and more recently various outdated electrical goods.
“What am I bid for Lot 29, three George III fruitwood tea caddies in the shapes of a segmented melon, pear and apple” announced the smartly dressed and prematurely balding auctioneer. “Do I have 8,000, yes 8,500, 9,000 on the phone, 9,500 in the room, 9,600 on the phone”. The auctioneer leans his upper body to his left, “9,700 I’m bid” he leans to his right, “9,800” he leans gently and expectantly to his left, as one would to an elderly person hard of hearing. “9,900” leaning to his right. “10,000 pounds” he pivots back to his left again, this time at an angle of nearly 45 degrees. “10,000 pounds it is on the phone, 10,000 my final call, are you all done? Bang! “Sold to the buyer on the phone on my left”. The auctioneer struggles to bring himself back to the upright position.
Who will it be – my mystery buyer on the other end of the phone? Obviously someone with good taste. Where will I be taken to, what exotic location will be my next home? As I’m wheeled out of the auction room who do I spy with my little key hole in Sotheby’s cafeteria but Rod Stewart, with a smile on his face as he puts his mobile phone in his pocket?
Well who would have thought that an old tea caddie like me would end up in the home of a rock star? Rod is fond of tea these days by the way. He places me on a shelf again but this time I am proudly displayed. It is a little boring as I spend much of my time sitting on the shelf whilst Rod watches his favourite football team Celtic play. However I will get to play a bit part in one of Rod’s music videos (a re-release of ‘Sailing’) and get to be viewed thousands of times on YouTube. At last returned to the star status I started with!
 Correct weight: After a race the weight carried by at least the placegetters is checked, and ‘correct weight’ is the signal by the stewards that bets can be paid. Glossary of Australian and New Zealand horse racing.
There are many wonderful objects in Sotheby’s viewing for the auction of ‘Important Chinese Art.’
Across the centuries Chinese artists and craftspeople have transformed jade, metals, wood and clay into things of beauty, desire and value.
Here is a subtly carved jade sculpture, almost translucent with a pale green light glowing through. There is a bronze cooking vessel, made a thousand years BC, with intricate reliefs, curving handles and elegant feet, beautiful and functional. Looking at all this beauty and this history a word that comes to mind
is ‘priceless’. But of course the things here are not priceless. This is where art is examined, assessed, then sold to the highest bidder.
The Sotheby’s staff unlock the display cabinet, delicately pick up the objects in their white gloved hands and walk cautiously back to the tables where potential purchasers wait to examine them.
I look around the exhibition area and see that most of the people here appear to be Chinese. I observe an elderly Chinese man with thick glasses, wearing an anorak, old jeans and battered shoes, minutely examining a porcelain vase with the aid of a powerful torch and a magnifying glass. At an adjacent table another older Chinese man, also with thick glasses and clothes that are less than new, is intricately examining a jade carving. If these are potential purchasers they obviously do not feel the need to display any wealth through their appearance.
I reflect on how the dynamics of this viewing room may reflect the transformations that have taken place in China in the past few decades. In 1989 I travelled around a fascinating and frustrating China, still largely unknown and undeveloped to Western eyes. They were still cautious about what artistic treasures they displayed to visitors. Only the most elite Chinese citizens travelled abroad. Now Chinese citizens are important visitors to Britain, be they tourists, business people or students, and China is the economic powerhouse of the world.
Looking at the people peering in the display cabinets at artefacts from all the key eras of Chinese history, I wonder if any of the people who are in a position to buy these objects have a sense of buying back their history – maybe or maybe not a stolen history. Or is it purely an artistic or financial decision?
Most items here will have a fascinating history. I look at a couple of exquisite wall-hung scrolls, elegant pen and ink paintings of frogs and insects.
Wonderful, but I am surprised to see that they have a reserve price of £40,000 each. Perhaps they are by a famous artist? In the catalogue I find that they are early 20thC and for sale by the descendants of a Russian WWII fighter pilot. After the war ended he went to China and helped to develop the new republic’s aviation industry. It is reputed, the catalogue says, that Mao Tse Tung gave him these scrolls as a thank you for this work.
Truly every picture tells a story…
Nearby, at the Royal Academy, is another aspect of today’s China. Ai Weiwei uses his art to comment on China today, but he shows it as being indelibly linked to its past. Wood from ancient temples form new sculptures. Iron girders from shoddily built schools commemorate the thousands of children killed in the 2008 earthquake. Controversially he uses historic Chinese pots to further his art, dipping them in paint – maybe transforming them for a new art audience rather than destroying them?- but in other actions destroying them in three movements: hold, drop, break.
Can transformation through destruction ever be justified? Do artists have the right to destroy other’s art in the name of their own art?
Cornelia Parker blows things up. A shed blown up then all the pieces assembled and hung from a ceiling in the Tate gallery. Transforming something whole into its component pieces, then semi-restoring it, making it whole, but not whole. Ok, no one minds a shed being blown up. But Cornelia also crushes things. Driving a steamroller over the family silver. Not her family’s silver, but someone’s family. Transforming 3D into 2D, and displaying ghostly negatives of these silver souvenirs of the past.
For as long as there has been art there have probably been people trying, sometimes succeeding, to destroy it in the name of………something.
The Western world was aghast in the 1960s when the Chinese Red Guards destroyed much Chinese heritage in the name of political renewal, and when the Taliban blew up the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan in the name of religious purity. Today the horror is of the Isis destruction of Iraqi and Syrian art and culture.
Of course that sort of thing could never happen here. Oh wait, flashback to the time of Henry the Eighth. Stately monasteries razed, stained glass smashed, faces scratched from frescoes.
Maybe history teaches us that when forces believe they can destroy something through destroying art they may find art is more powerful than they knew. The destruction of artefacts may transform them into something less solid, but a symbol or cultural memory that will outlast their physical presence.
Jenny November 10th 2015