What objects best represent you? It’s a question one inevitably asks oneself after perusing The Encyclopedia of Things, an exercise in identity distillation. “This is a book of portraits absent of the people they represent,” states Michelle Levy, who edited the tome, regarding the still life ensembles that fill the pages. Dreamed up by Polish-born New York-based artist Elisabeth Smolarz, the project began in 2014 and focuses on “opening the channels of communication to the inanimate and the subconscious” in conjunction with people she encounters. The project came about after Superstorm Sandy in 2012, when Smolarz became fascinated by how people held onto items ruined by the catastrophe. The groupings, selected by each individual from their own belongings, are both familiar and inscrutable, peppered with a bedraggled once-plush Babar or a single Emperor tarot card or a silver chain or a Hard Rock cafe leather jacket or a New Jersey driver’s license or cat art or a vintage camera (Yashica, Rolleiflex) or a cartoon-imprinted mug or old spectacles or a VHS tape or a tattered Aldous Huxley paperback or publications in French, Hebrew, German, Spanish. From some two hundred photo sessions, about half are represented in the book, and Smolarz worked with fellow artists as well as a wider range of subjects, “from nurses to priests, from actors to detectives,” across a global scope of locations. While these images are undeniably portraits, their subjects remain hidden, only identified by their first names in the colophon.
The objects selected by each participant are set against white walls, placed on tabletops or arranged on the floor. Gazed at head-on, this spotlight on the objects privileges them as totemic, a shrine to memories and endearments and souvenirs. Many are accompanied by text musings, which strive to be abstractly poetic, often muddling the objects’ narratives when the enigma of the juxtapositions feels like enough on its own. After all, this is not an empty-your-purse exercise—the emotional weight is evident in the sheer randomness of the objects that obviously transcend what meets the eye. (Samples include a black-and-white Peanuts storyboard starring Lucy, a balloon, pliers, a hospital armband, and a Chilean identity card; a small embroidered handbag, a beaded necklace with an oversized shell, and tiny porcelain receptacles; a black roller skate with pink wheels, a white fossil, and a wooden turtle footrest with a plush pillow shell.) These portraits function as a reexamination of a life, sifting through which causes meaningful experiences to surface and meaningful connections to be concretized via tangible tokens.
Michelle Levy recounts going to the Egyptian Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and feeling mesmerized by the sarcophagi, the lasting legacy of people from eons ago through the items that were buried with them. “These people were here, now,” she marveled—and Smolarz’s project perpetuates this gesture as “a contemporary analog to an ancient practice,” if in life rather than death. “It is a visceral thing and primal experience to be in the presence of objects,” Levy emphasized, adding that this exercise is one that “captured care and identity in a way wholly specific to the individual.” At its core, the project is not classically encyclopedic, and one would be remiss to apply any organizing principles on uncategorizable symbolic items that supersede function, pragmatism, need. Each object is treated individually for focus and color correction in post-production, yielding “hyper-real” results—as if the objects are even more substantial and tactile thanks to the nostalgia or affection they evoke.
Levy describes Smolarz’s endeavor as a “personal approach to sociological inquiry.” The social consequences of human behavior are not academic sociology but rather sublimated by the spiritual. Smolarz trained as a shaman and is a proponent of three schools of thought: panpsychism (the view that all things have a mind or a mind-like quality), animism (the belief that objects, places, and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence, including plants, rivers, and weather systems), and object-oriented ontology (a Heidegger-influenced view that rejects the privileging of human existence over the existence of nonhuman objects). There is something quite exciting in approaching objects as meaningful encounters instead of static clutter. (“I think it’s wonderful to have stuff and live with memories and things you enjoy,” the great—and stylishly extravagant—Iris Apfel once said, who knows a thing or two about interesting objects.) Seeing how others have treated the task of analyzing their own objects spurs a self-reflexive impulse. In a time of both unchecked consumerism and minimalist-aspiring exorcisms, what objects truly matter to us? It’s a meaningful question to reflect on and, with a heightened keen eye, you won't look at what surrounds you quite the same way afterwards.