The secret life of objects

01 December 2014

As an artist, Prof Stephen Inggs has a lifelong relationship with objects and transforming them imaginatively into images, culminating in the recent retrospective Index marking his professorial inauguration at UCT. Object Relations is his latest project - a collection of images and essays in which UCT staff trace the power of objects that connect them to ideas, to people and to their pasts. This is his essay, Built to Last, one of 21 essays in the book, Object Relations.

There's something almost mechanical about my desire for the search. Mechanical, because it's too regular to be instinctual; a given at any destination that I've almost begun to pre-empt to the second. More than an urge, a kind of obligation. To seek out local flea markets and junk shops and look for interesting objects among the bric-a-brac.

Finding them is never a given. It takes considerable patience and a good eye to spot a treasure. In addition to being attracted to the functional beauty and simplicity of well-made objects, I have a particular fascination for tools that measure. My late father, a chemical engineer who passed this interest on to me, was fond of quoting the famous physicist and engineer Lord Kelvin's dictum: "To measure is to know."

Consequently, one of my collecting passions is vintage mechanical alarm clocks and timers. As symbols of industrial engineering their physical form and materiality can be striking: pressed steel casings, aluminium, metal and glass parts, phosphorescent numerals and finely crafted hands. It seems to me that some cultural characteristics of the country where they were made are embedded in their appearance - whether it is the shape, materials or style of typography, revealing aspects of history and technology. For example, some Russian alarm clocks made during the 1960s such as the Slava resemble sputnik spacecraft, giving expression to the space race that heated up during the Cold War era.

With names like Zobo (American), Smiths (English), Japy (French), Veglia (Italian), Junghans (German), Geruischloos (Dutch) and Vega (Russian), the clocks evocatively reveal their global origins. One cannot help but imagine the countless stories these objects could tell - over whom they stood watch, what they witnessed, where they travelled or how they were treated. Doubtless some owners forgot to wind the mechanism or set the alarm, and arrived late for work, or missed appointments that may have altered the course of their lives.

Artists have long been fascinated with clocks and time. Possibly one of the most astonishing contemporary works of art is Christian Marclay's The Clock (2010), a visual tour de force of fragments sampled from movies and television series in a 24-hour looped montage. The artwork looks at a clock in action demarcating time, minute by minute, in perfect synchronisation with real time. Taking three years to edit and produce from thousands of clips, The Clock is a coherent reference to every minute of the day, creating a captivating and extraordinary filmic evolution of time. Well worth the time to watch.

In a Darwinian sense, alarm clocks are a like a species sharing similarities, but each differing in appearance, shape and size, and adapting to local conditions through a process of natural selection and industrial mutation. Through an evolutionary twist of fate, mechanical alarm clocks are now a dying breed, becoming extinct and giving way, first to batteries and electricity, and now to the digital age. Today, digital wristwatches and mobile phones perform the alarm function with a host of features, including variable musical sounds, pitches and volumes while simultaneously downloading email, receiving messages and keeping track of one's schedule. It's an indisputable fact that these digital devices do a better job of keeping track of time; but there is something unique and special about mechanical alarm clocks. The fact that they need to be wound instead of charged, that they are dedicated to a single, specific function, and that they stand sentry in a designated place on bedside tables makes them not only distinctive, but also authentic objects.

Mechanical alarm clocks operate as a form of memento mori, drawing attention to our mortality by counting time and displaying the brevity of life. And yet they are strangely human-like themselves, having names and personalities that run fast or slow, requiring attention, checking and setting, with parts named faces, hands and legs.

As we sleep, these sturdy mechanical objects tick rhythmically, with a steady, beating heart, breaking up time. Then, as instructed, they perform on cue, sounding out a piercing signal to make sure we wake up and get on with our day.

Read other essays in Stephen Inggs' Object Relations collection - about Virgina MacKenny contemplating the significance of a glass of water, Mark Solms' last letter from his father, Andy Buffler's plastic scintillator (which glows when exposed to radiation), what a tennis racket means to Hedley Twidle, or Nick Shepherd encountering the box in which Sarah Baartman's remains were repatriated.

Essay and photos by Stephen Inggs
Professor, Michaelis School of Fine Art.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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Monday Monthly

Volume 33 Edition 10

01 Dec 2014

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