Seeing the value in something and someone

This is the catalogue essay I have recently written for the Gemuce project at Deveron Arts, Huntly.

Seeing the value in something and someone

Iain Irving.


Sometimes when you are in line at an airport waiting to check your bags and choose your seat, there is always someone about to travel home with what looks like way too much luggage. Not just suitcases and their duty free but large amounts of boxes and packages. Taped up, well secured and necessary. What are in those boxes that are so important, Blu-ray players? HD flat screen TV’s? Apple iPad’s? We may wonder, but someone’s life is going to be effected by these items brought into their world.

Our value systems to objects in our world can be thought of in two ways; as an object of use and an object to be possessed. As functional objects that are at one with the world, they exist as services to our everyday needs and requirements such as cars, refrigerators, computers and screwdrivers. But these very objects can also be possessed and abstracted from its function and therefore brought into a relationship with the subject (us). In this context all owned objects could be abstracted and become part of the system in which we construct our world. Jean Baudrillard has stated, “These two functions stand in inverse ratio to each other. At one extreme, the strictly practical object acquires a social status; this is the case with the machine. At the opposite extreme, the pure object, devoid of any function or completely abstracted from its use, takes on a strictly subjective status, it becomes part of a collection.”[i]

This idea infers that the things we value and possess are items in our own little curated museums, our own menageries of materials and interlinked stories, our amateur curating. The idea that a museum of objects can be raided in times of need for function and for emotional well-being is something to be valued in today’s environment. It surely empowers us in what we buy, sell, trade or give away. Now we can evaluate the things we possess with greater awareness and emphasis on its subjective value than just its functional value.  If we were asked, “What would your Desert Island Disc object be?” we would all be able to give an answer. But remember it has to be non-functional and nothing that will help you to escape from paradise. To help convince us Baudrillard continues, “Through collecting, the passionate pursuit of possession finds fulfilment and the everyday prose of objects is transformed into poetry, into a triumphant unconscious discourse”[ii].

But the innocent pursuit of the collection and the making of our interpretation of the world have had to fight against rampaging marketing, consumerism and the duty of profit.  We now all seem to have a collection of stuff we really don’t want or really need, it has just accumulated over the years. It might still be things we use and live with in our homes and work places but where does it come from? How did it get here?

Our society is finally embracing recycling, not just in materials but also in objects and things. But there is a real need to formally organise ourselves to engage with this way of living through Local Council initiated Recycling Centres or Internet based Free Cycle systems. Its doing more than just making us consciously aware of the massive collections of stuff, collected, categorised and fed back into the system. It is making us challenge the value we consign on things.

Children get to know the outside world by arranging, classifying and manipulating things they find or are given. We are educated by the things that around us. Children don’t need to own anything as they grow it’s only later in life that we collect objects to transmit our ambitions and status. These objects may have function but they are also socio-political symbols. They are signs of success, profit and knowledge. A great number of our perceived valuable objects are new technological innovations, re-mediations of old messages, media and entertainment. We just receive them in new dynamic interfaces – smooth, shiny, glossy objects. Products that have been specifically designed to attract our desires, of possession, and inevitably we become blind to their seductiveness. These products are creative destructions that live through phoenix-like cycles and gain profit from yet another super improved version. There is a lot invested in the production of these new innovations, not only in the precise mechanisms and intricate power supplies but also the built-in emotional values in the products, so that you will care for your product, give it a good home and love it – what is your iPod called?


Partway through Gemuce’s three-month artist residency in Huntly, he decided as an element of his project he would need a mass of calabashes. These organic pods, which are grown and discarded in his native Mozambique, were required to represent a potent symbol of exchange value of things from a very different culture. The calabash gourds have no monetary value but can be very useful and functional. They are used to store food, water, used as a tobacco pipe, made into musical instruments or painted or sold as a tourist souvenir.

Gemuce arrived in Huntly during October when the weather was becoming cold. It was a definite change of environment from what he was used to in Africa. But once he arrived in Huntly and made himself aware of the Grampian town’s context he was to make his art with, his creativity and the collaboration with Claudia Zeiske and the Deveron Arts team began to define the theme of the residency over the months he was in Scotland

I had a small role in the proceedings as that of the Sshadow Ccurator to Claudia. The concept was to be critical but supportive of the projects curation and development. I had made contact with Gemuce by email during the months before but this method of communication enabled little to be done, it was only when the artist arrived in town that things could really start to happen. In the first month I also heard of meetings, discussions, activities and talks that Gemuce had with the local community, businesses and services. He needed to get to know the community and they to know him as an artist and a person. The project was to make artwork about the global credit crunch – how was it affecting us? – In our jobs, our families, our work, our businesses and our consuming.

The residency projects at Deveron Arts have become a deep critical and creative process that evolves over the months into outcomes through inclusion and collaboration with the community – the artist must also become the producer/director. This process is crucial to achieve an outcome that you don’t know what it will be. A bit like driving in the dark with only the sidelights on. Gemuce’s project evolved through a number of staged goals building and nurturing his ideas as it went. But importantly, the artist is also the catalyst. He is ‘the someone’ that we begin to see, while he goes about his work. He is seen in the butchers, the supermarket, the school, the bank, the Citizens Advice Bureau, on the train to Aberdeen and in the pub, but this time he is Santa, or someone who looks like a Santa; a black Santa, with a white Zzwarte Ppiet tagging along sharing and trading stories and ideas. As his model, Gemuce simulated a character like St. Nicholas, but instantly created ambiguity with his appearance. This presence and integration of a symbol of our beliefs into our everyday lives was a potent trigger to our consciousness of issues of giving, sharing, celebration, critique and debit.

John Dewey maintained that ‘human development could only occur as a result of active enquiry into and interaction with our environment’. Therefore being given a context where you have to reorganize your responses will heighten our capacity for ‘experience’. Dewey defined this as ‘heightened vitality, the complete interpretation of self and the world of objects and events’. Dewey argued that works of art could not be understood as separate from human existence and that it was society’s duty to restore continuity between everyday events and the ‘refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art’.[iii] Gemuce heightened our awareness; he came to give us this experience and perhaps hope through his art. Art can express this. Art isn’t money. It is free to experience.


It was very cold on the night of the Huntly Christmas Fair. Initially the Square was bleak and empty but within minutes a number of stalls had been set up to share music, food and games. In amongst the local crowd, the Xmas karaoke, the mulled wine and real life baby reindeers, Gemuce’s Calabash Bank was an incongruous establishment. His art event acted as a venue to share ideas. It wasn’t selling anything it wasn’t asking us to consume, only to consume a calabash in exchange for a pledge of skills or an action. Gemuce was a sort of Santa bank manager with people queuing to up to share their ideas in receipt of a calabash (small, medium and large depending on the status of the pledge, all signed by the artist). As the evening went on the exchange process intensified and everyone wanted to do something and receive their artwork.  The bank’s safes were quickly cleaned out, emptied of their commodities, like some raid by Bonnie and Clyde. But there was an intense feeling of achievement and of the potential goodwill to come, it was only the start of things, the pledges (e.glike, . we really need a garden centreer here; or the Square should be closed to traffic)examples of some pledges) still had to be carried out, we had been encouraged to think about what our own gifts were and how we can share them with the community.

Alongside the main event of the Calabash Bank, in my role as the Sshadow Ccurator with MFA students (Rebecca, Matthew and Asmita) from Gray’s School of Art, we created an alternative display called the Museum of Monetary Ambiguity (MOMA). This sub-project also maintained the spirit of sharing at this time of year, as opposed to consumption. We created a small collection of personally selected objects that we wanted to share with the public, and tell them about why they were important to us.  The tabletop display included – a 1978 Scritti Politti 7” single, a stuffed rabbit sitting on a mini settee, The Family Vase designed by Alessandro Mendini, a World War 1 era cotton crocheted table cloth, some hand painted polystyrene cups, a leather toy duck and a large rock from Catterline Beach. These objects were just there to be seen and their stories to be shared, nothing more.


There is talk of creativity growing out of despair and downturn. Art saving our souls by giving us something to experience and believe in. Tracey Emin has talked about this. It saved her from an emotional downturn. In the current climate visual art spaces are being created from old shops, new architecture is being built in rundown areas, songs are sung in old folks homes and visual information is helping us to understand the politics in our newspapers. We should look out for these creative opportunities, it is empowering to us, and it capacitates our control in what feels like the uncontrollable.

Back at the airport, you may well spot someone heaving through the checkout with a mountain of luggage, like Claudia did, bringing back all those calabashes from Africa. So the boxes may not contain what you think they do, it might just be the simple products of our everyday lives being applied to a new context, giving new experiences and values.



[DA1] Iain Irving lives in Catterline, Aberdeenshire. He is a lecturer at Gray’s School of Art, Aberdeen and an independent curator.

[i] Baudrillard, Jean, The System of Objects, London, Verso, 1996, p. 92.

[ii] Ibid, p. 93.

[iii] Dewey, John, Art as Experience, New York: Perigee, 1934/2005, p. 19.


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