Objects and Fetishism – The Handle and the Box

The Handle of the Box - Mini Box Experience

During this part of the course I had the strange feeling that objects had their own life. Reflecting first on my drawing and painting tools that I took with me on travels – fitting into a nomad life. The tools suddenly changed into dysfunctional things laying around me in my close working environment. My real suitcase changed to a box, as movable and transportable. Even fitting into one suitcase. But now I took not only my real ‘worktable’, the drawings and painting tools, with me. I ‘had’ to take also the box with weird objects along with me. I had to, because I wanted to, to be inspired by the box and to work with and from the box.

What happened? The ‘object-box’ became so familiar to me, being nearly a companion hard to separate from. The longer break I took between making the box and the continuation with coursework actually enforced the sense of belonging. To use some of the objects into my paintings felt strange, to dis-assemble ‘my’ box as a whole, to separate parts from each other. At times I was not sure what the work would be: created paintings inspired by the box, or the box as an object of curiosity and desire. A dilemma.

Meanwhile, objects from the box moved into painted object-collages as new assemblages, with possibly a longer duration of ‘life’, till they get absorbed into new works, like the observational cut-outs – spares or debris.

StefanJSchaffeld - Part 2 - Materiality - Fragments

Spares and Debris

Did I, and still do I, experience fetishism, as Sue commented on my video of unfolding the box? I was hooked by the term, and read around it to make up my mind of what it is and how relevant it can be for next steps.

Fetishes, or also idolatry, are at times connoted with tribal and ‘primitive’ beliefs of objects or things charged with power and transcendental meaning. In that sense many cultural objects could be seen as fetishes, e.g. money. John R. Searle related those things in his book ‘The Construction of Social Reality’ (1996) as socially constructed facts, assigned with a power function by collective intention. Thus, how we perceive fetishes is cultural different, how we react to them seems similar.

Science was long time considered as fact based and objective, what changed somehow with the insights of quantum physics. An anecdote of Niels Bohr about why he had a horseshoe above the doorway and his comment apparently was, that even if we do not believe in transcendental power of things, they would still ‘work’.

‘Humans are not any longer between themselves’ – Bruno Latour

Nowadays, things seem to have more or less an independent ‘life’, at least they have independent power, e.g internet of things, drones (an focus e.g in Hito Steyerl’s work). We establish a relationship with them, we talk to them and we listen to them, e.g. Alexa or Siri. We consider things in an anthropomorphic way. Who can’t relate to this when e.g working on a computer and it doesn’t do what we want it to do?

And things do live further when we die. We charge things with memories, a phenomena that is reflected in e.g. how we relate to photographs of deceased people especially family members. Kind of overcoming death.

And is art per se not a fetish? Material charged with meaning and power?

The distinction between object and subject get blurred, an illusion. In that sense fetishism is an intrinsic part of modern as Hartmut Boehme argued (2012).

Things do have different aspects:

  • Function: a purpose or use, relating to Richard Serra’s list of transitive verbs ‘to xxx’, an aspect of operational, relating to Steinberg’s notion of shift in pictorial plane towards ‘operational process’. Reminds me also the project with  ‘End to End’ (Lean Management, with Enough Room for Space)
  • Meaning: social meaning and sense / things to increase self-esteem and status / as historical artefact
  • Aesthetic: related to object culture and how we embellish useful things (ref. design)

Things of consumerism could be blamed as the golden calf  (see Nicolas Poussin) or as a capitalist repression of the poor by the rich (Karl Marx). For me more a question of awareness of our relationship to things – as old as Stone Age (could my pebble act as a reference or reminder of that geological time lapse?). Things do act on us, as Boehme described the mechanism of fetish (translated from German by myself):

“Things have to take over the task to suggest us an independence from them that we don’t have, we loose it the very moment as things make us believe we gained freedom.’ – Hartmut Boehme 

Exploring things is like reflection on oneself. What is discovered inside falls back onto us.

Objects do act as a way of understanding the world. Our actions are embedded with the things we act with or on. Georg Simmel explored in the story ‘Der Henkel (The Handle)’ the double aspects of an object, a jar. Through the handle the world touches the object, and through the spout the object reaches out to the world. The object, the jar itself being rather independent through its more aesthetic form. And Roger-Pol Droit explored how mundane things do work, how they are and what they do with us, e.g a photocopier, a clip, a water-level.

My object-box and all dysfunctional things would be one way of experiencing myself, my self image mediated through objects. It that what fetish is about? To hold, means to be aware?

The image above (featured image) could also be seen as a box inside the next one – the endlessness of satisfying desire in our life.

The Box inside the Box - Mini Box Experience

The Box inside the Box – Mini Box Experience

The box as container, visible and invisible. Possible to act upon and throw it away? Gaining apparent freedom? Possible way of visualization to destruct the box and suspend over larger scale objects , kind of explosion but still present. Reminds of me Cornelia Parker’s ‘Blowing the Shed‘, a process of interaction and relationship just to make us more aware of what is there.


  • Böhme, H. (2012) Fetischismus und Kultur : eine andere Theorie der Moderne,Rowohlts Enzyklopädie,  3rd ed. ed. Edited by König, B. Reinbek, Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag.
    review in english at: https://am.ubiquitypress.com/articles/89/)
Related Posts
Course Aims and Outcome
Stefan513593 - Part2 -sketchbook
My Diary – non-visual thinking (Part 2) – II

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Follow Me

Follow my Learning Blog

%d bloggers like this: