A Currency of Absence

 

Among the frozen peas and tinned beans a small green book beckons. Things, it is called, a title that is as ambiguous as full of promise. A tiny portal to myriad possibilities that could be yours for just 1p! Surely the cheapest item in the supermarket where it lives, waiting to be discovered and taken home. You might have been lucky enough to find one of these little books at a Morrisons supermarket in Tunbridge Wells, where 500 copies have been inserted over the course of sixmonths.Or perhaps you found it in a bookshop, and felt tantalised by its delicate cloth cover, its shouty ‘special offer’ sign, its universal yet elusive title.

You see, Things gathers 100+ drawings from an archive that the artist Simon Faithfull has painstakingly drawn and compiled for over 14 years. The drawings, it couldn’t be otherwise, depict things. The stuff that Faithfull has encountered, used and consumed during his daily life and travels around the world. The style is not naturalistic but schematic, very crude. Faithfull started this documenting practice with a Palm Pilot. It was practical and portable, and enabled him to intuitively respond to the sudden urge to record his rendezvous with quotidian objects. He then graduated to an iPhone app that he had custom-developed – an even more apt device for improvised bouts of drawing. But the drawings remained pixelated and absolutely reliant on line, rather than shading, to evoke the contours of these things.

Faithfull refers to this long-standing project as An Expanding Atlas of Subjectivity. And one does find here an almost Warburgesque attempt to systematise a personal research through images. But while for Aby Warburg the issue at stake was the enduring influence of Classic antiquity in contemporary life, for Faithfull it is the mapping of the everyday experience through the impersonal and shared objects that constitute it. What emerges is a self-portrait of sorts, because what we look at, what we buy and discard, even in their lacklustre mundanity, will always reveal more about us than an image of our face could ever do. And one of the things that these drawings are telling us about Faithfull is that he is engaged in a way of seeing and representing reality that is slow and durational, that retreats from the manic world of speed and immediacy offered by digital photography. There is something quaint and archaic about someone, in 2014, sitting down in a pub to draw a pint of Guinness while he drinks it, even if it is by means of an iPhone. Precisely, in fact, because it is by means of an iPhone, which has a quality camera that would allow for a swift snap of that same object, making it readily available for archiving or social media sharing.

The price for Morrisons’ shoppers to enjoy the slow looking contained in Things was 1p, and the figure is crucial. 1p. One of these coppers, often grimy and discoloured, that tend to colonise pockets, wallets and the odd domestic surface with much presence and little use. A reminder of what one doesn’t have, a currency of absence and longing. The price of Things is, thus, symbolic. Faithfull will not gain from it, and the curious supermarket buyer, who finds the book and decides to buy it, won’t have to spend much to walk through the till and take it home. It is but a sham transaction, a parody of exchange and purchase, as if buyer and cashier were little children exchanging tokens in a playground, mimicking actions that only make sense in the adult world.

But 1p is also a threshold, a boundary that prevents Things from being a mere gift. Through this refusal, Faithfull articulates a critique of the logic of the market and the position of the artist within it, by inverting the capitalist formula of the ‘maximum profit with minimal effort’. Because Things offers a compilation of drawings, crafted over a long period, in exchange for the lowest economic denominator, it is more the case of a maximum effort for a minimal profit. In the end, what Faithfull depicts here is a love for looking at things that transcends the rules of consumption and commodification. An act of observation and draftsmanship that disregards the search of profit margin and finds its agency, instead, in letting things be, unfolding quietly in time.

So a similar book to this one you are holding now in your hands was found and bought in a supermarket. An almost-gift to a nameless stranger, a product aimed at someone that was not looking for it, but who decided to take it all the same, perhaps tempted by its affordable price, or charmed by its serendipitous appearance. And in the aftermath of this encounter, a cold, neon-lit retail space became, for a moment, a more human place.

 

Lorena Muñoz – Alonso