Michelle Abele’s photographs are a portrait of objects and the objectification of a portrait. She combines objects of everyday use and a part, usually a limb, of a male figure into a startlingly flat, still-life composition of remarkable clarity and enigmatic allusions. She once said that she photographs the body as if it were an object but one could also say, she photographs objects as if they were bodies.
In one of her photographs, now on exhibition in the Remap 3 art platform in Athens, a man’s naked forearm rests on a folded sheaf of strongly lined papers set on a cloth-covered slab. Next to the arm stands a simple white pitcher. In the background one sees what looks like a shower curtain with a trio of white divers amid streams of bubbles and floating sea grass.
The composition is striking, with its strong diagonals of the extended arm and the lines in the paper, echoed in the bubbles and grass. There is also a curious lack of depth in the photograph that makes the curtain seem almost like a cut-out that has been pasted on to the photograph. The intense white of the pitcher that is picked up in the torsos of the divers makes the pitcher (and the divers) stand out even more.
But there is also a story waiting to be told. The folded paper looks like plans, a diagram perhaps or instructions on performing a particular ritual, an impression enhanced by the pure white pitcher: a vessel for ablutions, perhaps? The pitcher and papers lie on a cloth-covered slab (of wood?). It could be a trestle table or a make-shift altar. The man’s arm is unclothed. Is he naked? Despite their flatness and “thing-ness”, Abele’s photographs beg to be narrated.
Amid this still drama stands the object itself. I notice its shape and proportions, the glaze of its surface. It is certainly at the center of attention. Even the divers seem to have emerged from the curtain and are hovering over the pitcher. The man’s arm, in contrast, seems more like a lifeless prop.
We don’t ordinarily notice things like shower curtains and pitchers. They coexist with dozens of other objects of everyday use with which they form an inconspicuous textural surface that is the background to the places we live and work in. The particular shapes and details of individual objects dissolve into what we call ambience or environment. It is the same kind of “feel” a stranger senses when wandering out of the center into an unfamiliar neighborhood. It takes a deliberate attempt to de- and re-contextualize them and thus to render them unfamiliar in order for us to look at them anew.
I don’t usually inspect this surface. Even when I hold my chef’s knife or a wine glass in my hand, I don’t make a mental note of its shape or material or design. I would if it was an ugly knife or glass, but I try not to keep ugly things in my house. (I have no qualms about returning ugly gifts for a refund or exchange, though I keep the transaction secret from my friend; I would want my friend to do the same if I were to give him something he didn’t like). I do know the knife feels right in my hand. It affords me a firm grip on the handle and it does an excellent job of slicing and chopping, and all that contributes to the pleasure I have when cooking.
But there are also things I have which, while not especially ugly, are not pleasing to the eye or touch. There’s something that’s doesn’t feel right about it: the proportions are wrong, the size too small or too big, the color slightly garish. In some way they are flawed by design. If I carefully inspected the collection of objects that are woven into the surface of my living space these would be the ones that would stand out for their incongruity or dissonance.
As I open drawers and cabinets I quickly see them: an entirely impractical wooden citrus press, square shot glasses, undersized cloth napkins, individual soup tureens with a fat, club-like handle. If I am to remain with much fewer possessions, the ones I keep should be those that please me the most and work the best. If I am to have one set of bowls, they should be the most beautiful and most versatile ones, the most bowl-like of all. I know what to throw away today.