These are a few of my favorite things.

Raindrops on roses, and whiskers on kittens. Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens. Brown paper packages tied up with string. These are a few of my favorite things. [Sound of Music (1965)]

When Rodgers and Hammerstein first produced this song in 1959 on Broadway, they may not have been thinking about debates related to ontology – but how wonderful to be able to list in the same breath raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens as favorite things.

Speaking of kittens, I recently watched the film Statues Also Die (1953), directed by Chris Marker (who is obsessed with cats) and Alain Resnais. A brilliant filming of a series of sculptures, masks and other things from Sub-Saharan Africa, set to music, edited to match the tempo, and a narrator posing many thoughtful questions. Through the use of music, playing with light and shadow, the directors of this film were able to  animate the masks in such a manner that allowed the things themselves to mount an anti colonial critique. One of the central questions of the film, why African art should be placed in ethnographic museums and western art should be placed in art museums is a question that continues to crop up even today.  The impact of this early questioning was so profound that the second half of the film was censored in France until the 1960s. I suspect it was not only because it was an anti colonial critique, but rather the manner in which it unfolded in film might have much to do with it as well.

There is something unflinchingly uncompromising in the face of things that we have in some way wronged or failed to recognize. It is remarkably uncanny. And I am only human to find some humanity in these sorts of encounters.

 The animate quality of things runs through many of Marker’s films, for example we see this also in Sans soleil (1983), in which we watch dolls piled up to be burned in order to repose their soul. The burning takes place at the temple of Kiyomitsu consecrated to Kannon (the goddess of compassion). Each doll is focused on with such compassion and understanding mixed with love and loss. This gaze unsettles western ideals of dolls and through this lens, we are able to witness the souls of these dolls being transmitted to planes of eternal rest through a public burning. As I watched this film , I could not help but think of my dolls who were never honored in such a fashion. It is through the public act of burning that these dolls souls are recognized. I cannot forget the smiling face of one of the dolls sweating/melting as the fire leaped around her.

There are some images that are burned into my mind.

Burning dolls is now one of them.

Another one is a white shirt crumpled in a cave in which Ethiopian guerrilla fighters (against Italian colonialism) were staying (and subsequently killed) in Zeret, Ethiopia. This was a slide shown by Alfredo Gonzalez-Ruibal at a 2010 TAG conference at Brown University where he presented his (then) current research (the paper was subsequently published in 2011 in World Archaeology as “A Social Archaeology of Colonial War in Ethiopia”). The clothing in these caves were all linked to skeletal remains and often burned. Perhaps it is the intimacy of the cloth to skin, the feeling that cloth is a skin of sorts or the ability for crumpled cloth to look like crumpled bodies that makes the image of cloth so very powerful.

I was reminded of Gonzalez-Ruibal’s work when I saw Steve McQueen’s photographic series Barrage (1998) at the Pacific Design Center in LA, last week. The series of photographs document rags, gutter barriers and dams that are left along the sides of drains in the streets of Paris. The crumpled nature of the cloth, the aside-ness of it all, the ability for it to be invisible, made me think of those who actually clean the gutters and their invisible humanity.

Sometimes being human is not enough to be seen. Or touched. Or photographed. Or filmed.

And then there are some things, that we must touch to know. I am thinking now of Harun Farocki’s film, Transmission (2007) – an excellent testament to our desire as humans to touch affect. Whether it is placing our hands on memorials (Vietnam Memorial); placing a foot in the devils footprint in Frauenkirche in Munich ; placing hands in stone statues such as Bocca della Verit in Rome; or touching the monument that is heated to 98 degrees at Buchenwald concentration camp — each of these moments, and there are many that are thoughtfully brought together in this film — insists on the desire to be the recipient of something transmitted to us by the things themselves.

Sometimes things resist transmission and sometimes things transmit rebellion. We censor them – and then later, once controlled, celebrate Disobedient Objects in museums.

Haroun Farocki passed away late last month (July 30th 2014) – he was only 70 years old. I watched Chris Marker films as a way to honor his death. And thought of things.

When men die, they enter history. When statues die, they enter art. This botany of death is what we call culture. [Statues Also Die (1963)]


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Uzma Z. Rizvi

Uzma Z. Rizvi is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Urban Studies at The Pratt Institute of Art and Design, Brooklyn, NY. She is also a Visiting Scholar in the Department of International Studies, American University of Sharjah.