Object Permanence

Bruna Ciulli reviews artist Liz Magor’s Douglas Hyde exhibition

Before seeing Vancouver-based artist Liz Magor’s exhibition The Rise and The Fall in the Douglas Hyde, I had only encountered her work photographed on Pinterest. Flattened into digital images, her All the Names sculpture series (2016) reminds me of paper lanterns or colour field paintings. Light is filtered through shapes within shapes, giving the pieces a ghostly, glowing quality. 

Magor works, in part, with found objects. In the past, these have included grass, cheesecloth, and newspaper. Now, walking into The Rise and The Fall (a collection of her work from 2017 to 2021), I am confronted, overwhelmingly, with plastic. What appears ephemeral in digital images seems crude in embodied reality. In person, Magor’s art remains ghostly, but in less of a silhouette-of-a-hand-on-the-frosted-glass way, and in more of a WALL-E (2008) way. The Rise and The Fall is essentially an incredibly chic, curated landfill—a hauntology of plastic.

“A culture of disposal contradicts the psychological principle of object permanence”

Object permanence is a concept in developmental psychology that describes the understanding that an object exists even when it can no longer be sensed. This principle is, in short, why you can play peek-a-boo with a baby who is only a few months old. We understand that the person’s face continues to exist after our view has been obscured, but an infant without object permanence is unable to discern this. A culture of disposal contradicts the psychological principle of object permanence. When I throw something in the bin, usually something made with plastic, I know that it still exists. I know it will take aeons to decompose. And yet, if I was presented with every piece of rubbish, every unwanted object I have ever thrown out, it would be unfathomable. I can’t imagine it all.  

Even as the climate changes, we discard its warning signals like forgotten objects. The evidence that human behaviour has caused a seismic shift to our planet is well-documented. Living in our geological age, the Anthropocene, is characterised by radioactive contamination, PFAs in rainwater, rapidly waning biodiversity, shrinking ice caps, metal pollution, and microplastics. The exact inception of the Anthropocene is hotly contested. Scientists and theorists have proposed dates including the beginning of the industrial revolution in the early 1800s, the invention and subsequent deployment of nuclear bombs by the US at the end of the Second World War, and the proliferation of artificial fertiliser after World War II.

“Thrown on the floor, forgotten, they become lifeless in our eyes”

After leaving the exhibition, I told a friend about my unsettled feeling. I told them about all the tears of fabric, polyester soft toys, and empty, ripped packaging positioned across the gallery. At some point in our discussion, they observed that toys such as teddy bears and Legos can engender a kind of solipsism in children. The fact that playing with such toys involves a child animating the toy’s character means that each toy becomes somewhat unreal to the child once it is not played with. Thrown on the floor, forgotten, they become lifeless in our eyes. I was reminded of a quote from the children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams: “Once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.” Suddenly, the soft toys scattered through the centre of the gallery in Magor’s piece Pet Co. became a dozen Velveteen Rabbits blinking up at me, pleading that they are Real. 

The entrenched reality of our plastic addiction plays a central role in the story of the Anthropocene. Invented in the early twentieth century, plastic production has accelerated in the past 70 years—a defining tipping point in the genesis of the Anthropocene. Plastic has irrevocably transformed the world we live in. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, people (primarily women) in poor nations drowning in the waste left by wealthy countries’ ‘plastic trade,’ wildlife not only getting trapped in plastic waste, but containing plastic in their guts and bloodstream. Plastic, in humans and other animals, has been linked to miscarriages, declining sperm counts, gastrointestinal illness, and cancer. Consequently, pieces such as Small Hand, in which a naturalised bird from Yucatan in the 1880s sits on a polymerised gypsum cast of a gardening glove and is wrapped in cellophane, feel increasingly ominous.

“It is hard to understand how The Rise and The Fall could encourage anyone to slow down when, to me, Magor’s work almost screeches with urgency”

The exhibition booklet quotes art critic Dan Adler, who writes: “[Magor’s] methods encourage me to slow down, wander about and listen to those neglected things, to understand their difference in their relationship to obsolescence.” But what is the relationship between obsolescence and permanence? It is hard to understand how The Rise and The Fall could encourage anyone to slow down when, to me, Magor’s work almost screeches with urgency. The exhibition’s title is reminiscent of a hefty historical chronicle—perhaps of an empire. The Rise and The Fall is a sinister archive of our times. The gallery becomes a microcosm of our planet. There is a haunting omnipresence of violence and tragedy. An anaemic lion slumped on its side with blacked-out eyes, a small, floating coat (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn,” “Pale green pants with nobody inside them,” and all of that), and formless objects hanging from knotted plastic fabrics. 

The exhibition booklet also indistinctly references philosopher and political theorist Jane Bennett’s 2009 book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. According to the booklet, the exhibition aims to “[allow] the items we accumulate and discard throughout our lives an opportunity to express their vibrancy.” But obviously, by the very nature of our being in assemblage with plastics as agents of change, plastic objects constantly express their vibrancy (often destructively) through the medium of the Anthropocene. It is too vague to say The Rise and The Fall allows objects to express their vibrancy. The objects in The Rise and The Fall are emitting cries, warnings. Objects are made prophetic. Discarded plastic is not going to disappear; its permanence extends beyond its use. 

“After we die, we will decompose and be, ultimately, forgotten. What, then, will be left of us other than plastic?”

In Magor’s own words: “We may discard things, but they don’t disappear. They outlive our desire, our interest, our use, and ourselves.” Objects continue to exist once we can no longer sense them. After we die, we will decompose and be, ultimately, forgotten. What, then, will be left of us other than plastic?

The Rise and The Fall by Liz Magor is on display in The Douglas Hyde Gallery until September 24th, 2023. More information can be found at thedouglashyde.ie.