Things and the Company They Keep

Alisse Waterston

Lochlann Jain. 2019. Things That Art: A Graphic Menagerie of Enchanting Curiosity. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 121 pages.

To cite this article: Alisse Waterston (2019) Things and the Company They Keep, Anthropology Now, 11:3, 70-73, DOI: 10.1080/19428200.2019.1732153

Throw away the to-do list, empty your mind and pick up Things That Art by artist and anthropologist Lochlann Jain  for  a  reading and viewing experience that is pure joy. The second in University of Toronto’s ethnoGRAPHIC series of volumes that “co-mix” words and image to convey anthropological knowledge, Things That Art is playful, charming, sometimes startling and visually captivating. This is a thinking person’s book, or put more precisely, it draws readers into thinking deeply with its deceptively simple illustrations set side by side and up and down in masterfully designed sets. It is the combinations and their placements that make the familiar strange, a core feature of the anthropological process that generates  thoughtful reflection of the taken for granted. As “a graphic menagerie of enchanting curiosity” (the book’s subtitle), Things That Art stimulates the mind, the senses, the emotions. It worked like that for me: reading/viewing it,   I laughed out loud, couldn’t wait to show it to someone else, cried, stared into space, felt the nonsense worries of everyday life dis- solve and thought to myself, “How beautiful to be in this time when anthropologists, breaking free of tired constraints, can give the world such a gift.”

The experience that is Things That Art is made possible by the juxtaposition of multiple elements, ideas, histories, truths, distortions, conformities, stereotypes and transgressions all done up in an 8.5-inch- square package. At its most basic, the book is composed of just over 100 pages, of which nearly 60 are illustrations. There also are es- says by three contributors — poet Elizabeth Bradfield, musician-English professor Drew Daniel, and author-architect Maria Dolores McVarish — plus introductory and conclud- ing sections by Jain. The written word is used conventionally to “explain” in the essays, the introduction and the conclusion, and other- wise brought into play with the illustrations as an element of the art created to invite and provoke contemplation. As detailed in the origin story of the project, Jain drew certain “things” from recollection, placed together in a grouping on 4-by-6-inch sheets of water- color paper featuring cheerily colored minia- ture pen illustrations. What seems to be steer- ing the artist’s hand to draw a particular thing and putting that thing in company with other things is the mix of deeply embedded cul- tural memory, acute political awareness and intense appreciation for the philosophical.

In the introduction Jain confesses, “Giving my pen over to spontaneity of the form some- times yielded groupings that I didn’t fully understand myself.” This spontaneity also bids the reader/viewer to participate in a process of destabilization and of looking, finding and making meaning. It starts with the items chosen for “things that …” which are themselves unusual and unexpected: “things that … are shadows; are traces; one holds; are easily broken, slow to repair; will happen when; are inside things; you chart; one doesn’t see.” In her essay, “Various Things,” McVarish gives a close reading to “things that could describe this onion,” attributing to Jain “a way for me to stretch my understanding.”

In “‘Natural’ Collections,” Bradfield pin- points what Jain does and how: “[Jain] enlists us as coconspirators in creative questioning [by means of] “the quirky and individualistic assemblage in each ‘things that …’.”

Each thing and the assemblage of things are drawn, penned and framed on water- color sheets that recall but are not quite index cards like those used to collect, count, contain, identify, label and store information. Such cards delimit knowledge, and the water color/index card is an ironic device, revealing categories to be absurd even as they make sense and exposing the arbitrariness of the labels and classifications that humans live by and with which they learn to interpret the world. In this aspect, Things That Art is a visual philosophy of signs and signifiers, which Jain cleverly accomplishes “via tart visual/linguistic puns,” as Daniel puts it in his essay, “Things That What?”

There is humor in Things That Art, but it is also dead serious. Beyond the philosophical concern with linguistic and cultural meaning, the play on collections in each illustration and in their bundling implicates power, which produces normative categories in the first place. Power institutionalizes, reproduces and naturalizes categories and classifications. All too often, as Pierre Bourdieu would put it, they go without saying — rendered invisible, not subject to question. Anthropologists tend to expose power and its obfuscations by means of evidence-based argument and analysis, a perfectly legitimate and important endeavor. In Things That Art, Jain does not argue but instead disrupts, inviting readers/viewers to see for themselves the dangerous legacies of colonialism and of the naturalized categories rooted in power, politics and social history.

Figure 1. “things with mysterious qualities,” in Things That Art by Lochlann Jain.

Take “things to do with babies.” In two rows and four columns bordered in pale lavender are contained eight cutesy illustrations, most not so adorable: the burping babe and the one in pain with colic; the word “smell” alongside a yellowed, rusty-stained diaper (the strong whiff of ammonia practically hits the nose). The second drawing on the first row startled me like a slap. The coat hanger. Not one on which to hang a blouse. This one is pulled apart, made into a tool with a handle on one end and a sharp pointy instrument on the other. There’s no guessing its purpose or what used to be at stake with it and what is at stake still. Such a simple image! Such cultural and political meaning! Such a flood of my mind’s inner associations: the 1963 film “Love with the Proper Stranger”; the “women’s hospital” those of us who lived in Puerto Rico during the 1960s heard about, where wealthy girls from New York would get low-cost, safe abortions; the Supreme Court in 1973; Brett Kavanaugh in 2018; the blastocyst drawing placed in the second row, just below the coat hanger.

Things That Art makes palpable the fundamental contradiction that humans can’t  live without things  being  named,  and  that a world of named things suffocates human experience. It also makes clear that, knowing this, power puts great effort into doing

Figure 2. “things to do with babies,” in Things That Art by Lochlann Jain.

the naming. This indoctrinates, yet the mind does not always obey. In mysterious ways, it contains something that enables exploration, alternative perspectives and recovery. This is Jain’s offering in Things That Art, where the artist-anthropologist has “adopt[ed] the master’s tools (everything in place) to see what else can be built.”

Alisse Waterston is presidential scholar and professor of anthropology at City University of New York, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and past president of the American Anthropological Association. Her article “Intimate Ethnography and the Anthropological Imagination,” published open access in American Ethnologist (2019), considers the personal and political in her award-winning book My Father’s Wars: Migration, Memory and the Violence of a Century (Routledge: 2014). She is working with artist-anthropologist Charlotte Hollands on a graphic nonfiction book, Light in Dark Times: The Human Search for Meaning.

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