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Brave New World that Has Such Objects In It

My relationship with physical stuff was never easy. That I was a clumsy child whose most memorable wreckage was the school projector, may have jaded my attitude. The shopping mania of the boom years didn't help, nor does living with a hoarder whose speciality is DIY kit that mainly remains unused. So the trend towards upcycled clothes and those aspects of austerity that make us waste less in our personal lives, are home truths for me.

But as sentient beings we aren't all comfy in our brave new virtual world. Letting go of things can be hard, and since nostalgia and sentimentality are bound up with anxiety, the runaway success of books celebrating objects, such as A History of the World in 100 Objects and last year's Costa biography winner, The Hare with Amber Eyes, is no surprise. A new paperback edition of a 2007 title adds to the pile: Evocative Objects, Things We Think With, in which editor Sherry Turkle allocates to trinkets the role of 'companions to our emotional lives'.

Edmund de Waal, author of The Hare with Amber Eyes is no lazy fetishist of his ancestor Charles Ephrussi's collection of Japanese 'netsuke' carvings as he traces its displacement, alongside his family, across the world. How could he be, when Charles was one of two historical model's for Proust's Swann, and Proust the pastry-chef of the madeleine, that 'evocative object' par excellence? De Waal knows full well that the unfashionable scale and source of his family's wealth (Jewish bankers) are unlikely to elicit reader sympathy as to its loss, and yet his telling does so. Equally civilised is his patience with the opposite urge (to erase), such as his grandmother's burning letters: 'Why keep things, archive your intimacies? Why not let thirty years of shared conversation go spiralling in ash?'

A potter, like de Waal, Turner prizewinner Grayson Perry has the obsessive hallmarks of a collector. Traumatised at age four by emotional shutdown following his father's departure, Perry's feelings steered into fantasy and fetish, especially around female outfits. Considering this, it is incredible that emotional articulacy characterises the first person voice of his engaging biography, Grayson Perry, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl.

Grayson states, 'getting attention is a large part of making art', and his work is indeed a serious exploration of this apparently flippant comment. His exhibition, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, has extended its showing to 26 February at the British Museum. Although his own installations are showcased, Grayson's main role is as curator to others who failed to gain or who shunned attention. Grayson is doubly brave. He runs counter to celebrity culture by fêting anonymous craftwork. And he does it in a frock.
This is a version of Gwen Davies' Western Mail Insider column published on Saturday 28 January 2012.


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