YOU’RE LEAVING WORKat the end of the day, or taking a lunchtime stroll, or walking around the block, when something catches your eye–something lying on the sidewalk or atop the grass or in the gutter: a scrap of paper, a piece of cloth, some plastic or rubber gizmo, obviously abandoned, discarded, orphaned. For some reason, it’s calling your name. A little furtively, you kneel down and examine it. It’s grimy and worn, and you think twice about touching it.But you pick it up anyway, and right away it begins to work its magic. It’s a torn love note (obviously thrown away by its recipient). It’s a doll’s arm, wrenched from its plastic torso by some angry child. It’s the battered memorial of a special occasion: a concert ticket stub or a crumpled graduation ceremony program. If you’re really lucky, it’s something powerful enough to startle you: a passionate, misspelled rant about love, a lost-pet flyer with a photocopied image so crude that it makes poor Rex or Fluffy look rabid; a matchbook from a sinister-sounding bar in another state; some beautiful, indefinable something covered with foreign writing.Slipping this find into pocket or purse, you transform it into a treasure, and you transform yourself, too, into a saver of lost things, redeemer of trash, collector of “found art.” You wonder if anybody else gets these weird urges to kneel down and pick up forgotten fragments of other people’s lives.WONDER NO MORE.You’re not alone. Finders and keepers are everywhere, seeking out the mystery and beauty of “found objects.” As Jenn Shreve points out in a recent issue of Wired magazine, collecting found objects is a bona fide trend “that views society’s detritus as a means of creative expression.” Web sites devoted to found objects are proliferating, a hot new zine called Found is wholly given over to picked-up stuff, and a sophisticated publisher–Princeton Architectural Press–has brought out two books based on collections of found objects, with a third in the works.What’s remarkable about found-object art is the range of meanings that it can inspire. From one point of view, filling Web sites and books and your living room shelves with stuff you’ve scavenged is the ultimate act of cool postmodernism: the appropriation and “artifying” of real objects. It’s an ultrahip updating of Marcel Duchamp’s display of an upside-down urinal, signed with a pseudonym and titled Fountain, in 1917. Reframing a fragment of commercial packaging into art recalls Andy Warhol’s earlier echo of the Duchamp aesthetic, pop art, in which Brillo boxes became sculpture. And the elevation of random detritus into art is in the spirit of the “pathetic” art of Mike Kelley, who displays pop-cultural junk as a satirical self-portrait of the artist-as-brain-dead-slacker. And it calls to mind the saucy self-mythologizing of British artist Tracy Emin, who puts her doodles and everyday mail into gallery installations.Yet it’s obvious to everyone who comes into contact with it that found art goes deeper than these ironic acts. A torn, broken, abandoned “real” piece of our culture sends a very different message from Warhol’s artifacts, which were meticulously and even reverently painted. Time, chance, and natural decay, these fragments seem to tell us, will have their revenge on the products of corporate culture.Yet it doesn’t feel wholly accurate to explain away the fervor for found objects as nothing more than a return to the real, a desire for direct experience in a hype- and media-saturated world, a craving to pick up something fascinating for free in a world of commodities. The experience of the found, at its deepest, is a lot more complex than that. The desire and delight associated with found objects feels somehow archaic–a return to the prized collections of childhood, when we loved to scrabble in the dirt for pennies, arrowheads, pretty rocks, snake skins, and other surprises. It may go back even further, to primal cellular memories planted within us by hunter-gatherer forebears.And let’s not diminish the literal content of found objects. The most compelling are the ones that communicate the most: the letters and snapshots and flyers. These acts of earnest communication allow accidental entrée into a private world of desire, delight, disappointment, anger, hope. (“Girl, when I left your House I tried to Go to the Study and Got arrested in the parking lot, I didn’t Even Get to Get in the Club” reads a note preserved in the zine Found.)
Objects that say less on the surface prompt us to make up stories: the empty plastic half pint of Bellboy vodka ($2.49 according to the bright orange price tag) on the cathedral steps; the discarded report card, inscribed with “needs help working with others”; the single playing card (a 10 of clubs) left on the street. Such things create a powerful fusion of the immediate and factual–here I stand holding this object in my hand–with the forever unfathomable. I’ll never know who the skinny child in the dog-eared snapshot is, or what he’s looking at with such delight; and yet, by holding his picture, by claiming it and owning it, I enter his mysterious, out-of-reach life forever.The excitement that comes in discovering some profound find is exhilarating, yet almost any relationship with found objects has tragedy in it too. Most of these objects are testaments to loss: They’re on the ground thanks to anger, inadvertence, disappointment, or boredom. They testify to concerts that are over, drinks that have been drunk, relationships that are broken or hopeless. Many of the hand-lettered posters and leaflets to be seen on found-object Web sites are scary rants: “Thanks for parking so close. Next time leave a fucking can opener so I can get my car out.” “If you took my detergent Im sure it was a mistake so Im not mad YET but your pushing me and I push back.”AS I IMAGINE STORIESabout things I find lying around, I realize that these objects reveal me to myself in positive and negative ways. I love filling in a tale around the broken toy or the lost shoe; but when the object is stranger or more painful, I can’t escape the suspicion that I’m a voyeur. I can’t evade my attraction to stereotypes (what kind of person drinks cheap vodka ?). I can’t shake the feeling that I’m seeking thrills by collecting the traces of others’ trouble, that I’m a tourist in the lives of people who don’t spell or punctuate very well.So the discovery of a found object is a challenge as well as a pleasure. The object asks me to declare to myself what kind of person I am. If it’s innocuous–a little red ball, a deflated balloon, a plastic soldier–it offers me a return to the pleasures of childhood. Do those pleasures matter enough to me for me to bend down and pick up these unpretentious treasures? Or would I rather wait for the grown-up stuff, the raw emotion and pathos waiting in crumpled-up notes? When I find them, will I be satisfied to be titillated? Will the experience simply renew my membership in the club of clued-in connoisseurs of the really weird? Or will I be able to read past the rage, the bad grammar, the sheer strangeness, into an absolutely unknown but totally recognizable human heart? It’s a decision I have to make if I’m going to feel right about my found treasures. So in a very real sense, the abject little object that I find on the street discovers me.
Jon Spayde is a senior editor of Utne Reader.