SFPL’s Realia Exhibition and the “Aura” of Objects

realia is “Three-dimensional objects from real life, whether man-made (artifacts, tools, utensils, etc.) or naturally occurring (specimens, samples, etc.), usually borrowed, purchased, or received as gifts by a library for use in classroom instruction or in exhibits. Archival and manuscript collections often receive items of memorabilia such as jewelry, leather goods, needlework, etc., in connection with gifts of personal papers…” (source: ODLIS)

On the second day of my San Francisco trip I visited the San Francisco Public Library. It is a notable library building mixing a modern aesthetic with a classic style that puts it in harmony with the buildings around it, but that’s not what I mean to talk about in this post. Instead I want to talk about an exhibit I saw there called Realia: journeys of discovery.

Realia Poster

To start, I think one of the responsibilities of a public library is to collect, preserve, and make accessible artifacts that relate to its geographical location. Coincidentally, the sixth floor of the SFPL houses a ‘Special Collection’ of San Francisco history. During my visit on June 16th, there were several themes from the collections on display: Directly in front of the staircase, I was greeted by a glass display filled with cameras and other entertainment-related paraphernalia. Further in, there was an exhibit on the federally-funded projects related to the post-depression/New Deal era in San Francisco and surrounding areas including the Federal Writer’s Project, which happens to be a passing interest of mine. Adjacent to these exhibit was what I felt to be the jewel of my visit to ‘Special Collections’ area.

In a person’s personal archives(the attic, closet, storage box in another state, etc.) many people have various doodads and/or doohickeys that have accumulated with youth, travels, life. I, for example, on the top shelf of my closet have a medium-sized plastic box of what I call “little things” – the box contains keychains, a lighthouse figurine, a piece of wood and many other little things. If I ever become famous enough to warrant an archive, these things will be classified in this archive as realia. I would throw these basically worthless objects away except for the experiences I feel they signify give them a sentimental value; throwing them away would be like throwing away a historical object.

In his 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin theorized – among other things – how the “aura” (“…its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”) of a work of art is lost when it is mass-produced. I believe that Duchamp’s readymades or what we currently call “found art” further lampoons the notion of a work of art having an aura. When I visited the the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA), I saw prominently displayed in the middle of a gallery, Marcel Duchamp’s fountain. Later, I went into the bathroom and co-opted another piece of ‘found art’ which bore some resemblance to Duchamp’s piece.

I called it American Standard and proceeded to sit on it(something I could not do with the Duchamp). If the status of an artwork as an essential recursive object has been replaced by an object so commonplace that it’s function is dependent on its location in a building, then it is like Benjamin says in the fifth thesis of his essay:

“With the different methods of technical reproduction of a work of art, its fitness for exhibition increased to such an extent that the quantitative shift between its two poles [ritualistic/cult value vs. exhibition value] turned into a qualitative transformation of its nature…by the absolute emphasis on its exhibition value the work of art becomes a creation with entirely new functions, among which the one we are conscious of, the artistic function, later may be recognized as incidental.”

It is fair to say, therefore, that it is possible that any object can be presumed to be a work of art. Surrounded by art as we are in this modern(some would say post-, some post- post) world, the individual may choose what, in his relativist reality, may be his art collection. My art collection, then, is stored on the top-shelf of my closet. At some point, each of my “little things” was displayed on bookshelves and other flat surfaces en mi cuarto. My living space has, all of the sudden, become a gallery used to display priceless art objects from my rotating permanent collection. A crucial note here is that these objects are not meant to be displayed for their beauty or symbolic value to anyone but myself; while Van Gogh’s irises are universally seen as what they are, the “aura” of my objects is mostly personal; it is likely that different people will invariable be able to appreciate at least one of my “little things” on its own merit, or a friend may recognize that a gift given long ago has been treasured and kept. When it comes to the objects archived in the ‘Special Collection’ of a public library there is a similar sensation; these objects are keepers of a cities’ cultural context – that they have a role is to be noted – and for some(historians etc.) they are dynamic in themselves, but do they have an “aura”?

The Realia flyer describes the exhibit thus:

An exhibition by emerging artists, architects and designers from The California College of the Arts. In the spirit of the 17th century “Cabinets of Curiosity” the participating artists and designers have undertaken journeys of discovery in the diverse collections housed in the San Francisco Public Library. They have spent the last month delving into the collections in the San Francisco History Center, Rare Books, Music, and Periodicals Collections, to name a few.

What they have discovered has inspired them to create new works in response to their explorations. The participating artists and designers work in diverse media and approach their subjects from a variety of viewpoints, creating an exhibition that is as diverse as the collections that inspired it.

What I saw in this exhibition is perhaps what is missing in a lot of modern art: the work of an intermediary, the artist. It started with a historically significant object or document that came into contact with an artist who felt this object’s “aura”. The mid-section is where the artist’s work happens; the “aura” of the object passes the artist’s emotional thoroughfare and is interpreted through the lens of his medium and out of the other end slides something new. These new objects seemed to highlight the “aura” of the old artifacts – whereas before there was an intellectual connection with a letter, now there are fireworks shooting saying “I am not just an object I am art.” And it’s not so because they are part of an exhibition – it is so because like Degas’ sculptures, they dance.

The marriage between the archival artifacts and artist’s rendering was glorious. Partially due to the relief that the pieces did not hinge on the mentality of the artist, his medium, or any other necessity – they were selfless; I walked around eyeing them unafraid that Andy Warhol’s numb face would protrude from a can of soup daring me to question his reality. We were all in the same reality, the reality of the realia.

It was pleasing to see a collaboration between an Archives and Art since in these two worlds I swim. Here’s hoping the future joins the waters as successfully as this exhibit has done.

Note – The San Francisco Public Library has changing exhibitions just like a museum does and should be a stopping point for any discerning traveler. However, if you don’t want to leave your chair just yet, check out Picture This: The Family Photographs of Everyday San Francisco.

Another Note – If anyone happens to see the Realia exhibit before it closes, can you please take some pictures and send them to me? (my e-mail is on the sidebar). Much obliged.

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1 Response to SFPL’s Realia Exhibition and the “Aura” of Objects

  1. victor espinoza says:

    Hello there,
    I was part of this exhibition, and have several pictures of if and the artists. I’m in a summer abroad program but as soon as I have access to my desk top I’ll send you the pics.
    Thanks for such wonderful words,

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