Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Robert Bird reviews The Clever Object

Matthew C. Hunter and Francesco Lucchini, eds. The Clever Object. Chichester, UK: John Wiley and Sons, 2013. 218 pp.

Review by Robert Bird

The editors of The Clever Object situate their inventive and intriguing volume near the origin of a new object-based discipline. Deriving from a series of symposia in 2009–2010, the core essays rescue aisthesis from classical aesthetics—with the latter’s dichotomies of form and content, concept and material—and return us instead to the haptic, corporeal experience of a single historical object, and thus of history as a material medium, on its own terms. Searching for a suitable name for the salient quality of objects, the editors and authors converge on cleverness and its synonyms: ingenuity, guile and craft.

At the center of the volume are a dozen or so clever objects, whose detailed examination spawns nuanced historical narratives and theoretical interventions. Francesco Lucchini considers a reliquary from Padua that preserves a drinking glass thrown against a stone floor by a local resident in a challenge to the sanctity of Anthony of Padua; miraculously remaining whole, the glass was preserved in a silver mount, where instead of making visible some fragile relic within, it makes visible its own fragile objecthood. Byron Ellsworth Hamann digitally and conceptually reconstructs the Lienzo de Tlaxcala, a lost sixteenth-century tapestry containing dozens of enigmatic vignettes, which, he argues, strove for “polymorphous physicality” (p. 54). Matthew C. Hunter considers a printed paper model of a micrometer (some assembly required) by Robert Hooke, which is not only a trap (in Alfred Gell’s sense), but also a trapdoor (in a sense that continues to elude me). Six such object-based inquiries are supplemented by two artist interviews, with Simon Starling and Ian Kiaer, and by two critical responses, by Roman Frigg and Glenn Adamson.

Each “clever object history” (p. 22) is remarkable in its own way, but the volume also wants to be judged as a whole, and here the vulnerabilities are more evident than the strengths. At times the obligatory proof of cleverness is a distraction, especially in Katie Scott’s detailed analysis of Jacques de Lajoue’s rococo screen and Caroline Arscott’s account of William Morris’s tapestry The Woodpecker. Worse, instead of using the term as a way into the objects’ historicity, and into historical objecthood as such, the authors are tempted to cease their interpretive work once they have succeeded in demonstrating their primary object’s cleverness. At other times the argument boils down to a defensive assertion of the relevance of the decorative arts and crafts in contemporary art practice and discourse. Lucchini, for instance, draws guidance from Michael Craig-Martin’s 1973 sculpture An Oak Tree. For one thing, this conflation of pre-twentieth-century craft with contemporary art discourse contradicts the methodological insistence that we confront historical objects on their own terms. For another, when Rachel Wells sets out the most direct case for the craftiness of contemporary art, in her discussion of Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s Equilibre/Quiet Afternoon (1984–1985) cleverness becomes a potentially fatal limitation. Both Starling and Kiaer produce assemblages of objects in diverse media that defy mere cleverness, and each deploys a distinct vocabulary that stresses his engagement with conceptual problems: Starling speaks of “telltale sculptures” that manifest “the overlap of an idea and an object” (pp. 182, 176), while Kiaer regards his works as models that “work between more clearly defined disciplines like architecture, painting, sculpture, and many types of design,” “proposing notions of utopia, or historical significance” with qualification, and more questions” (190, 192).

The volume closes with two critical responses that flag further objections to the project. Philosopher of science Frigg counters that it is people not objects that are clever. Betraying some impatience with the sometimes-self-indulgent analyses, Frigg argues that the authors display not the ingenuity of things but their own genius. Curator Adamson adds that craft objects cannot be expected to yield the kind of theoretical payoff “to which art historians are addicted” but present instead an “effacement of understanding” (p. 208). Adamson’s argument is a fitting coda for The Clever Object: historical objects might give us occasion to demonstrate our interpretive and theoretical ingenuity, but they also confront us with the limits of our craft.