Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Friday, October 07, 2011

A Tale of Two Sculptures

At a recent conference with the Institute Challenging Disorganization, speakers offer insights on shopping that further explain my search for a cosmic connection. Hint: It's not shopping.

A Tale of Two Sculptures

While in Raleigh, North Carolina for a conference with the Institute Challenging Disorganization, I arrived a day early to take in the sights. Diane, a fellow organizer and historian, invited me to join a few other colleagues on a tour of the town. She had rented a car and scheduled a full itinerary.

My plane came in later than all the others, so I did a bit of my own research and found a public bus going into town that would allow me to catch up with my friends. And through the miracle of cell phones and good timing, I met them on the sidewalk just as they were walking up to the capital building which I had just had time to tour on my own. The group was headed for lunch at a local vegan restaurant discovered by Margaret, our organizing colleague and vegan blogger. (The presence of vegan dishes in any town is a good indication of how hip it is and Raleigh was very accommodating on that score.)

After lunch we headed to the Executive Mansion where we were to enjoy a tour that could only be had if reservations were made at least a week in advance. Since we were so well organized, courtesy of Diane, we were admitted as promised and were welcomed by ladies of a certain era, eager to show off the Southern charm of the mansion. The four rooms we were permitted to see were decorated in the lush manner of stately homes with pastel blue drapes and pale yellow wall paper. But at the top of the stairs, back lit by a tall window, stood a large, modern glass sculpture that looked about as out of place as the slab from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It was of a translucent aqua glass; the top was rounded like a tombstone and there was a square hole in the middle of it on a rakish angle. A narrow space split the piece down the middle from the tilted opening to the floor. 

The docent took her time telling us about each of the rooms pointing out the high quality of the crystal chandeliers, the cut glass punch bowl, the needlepoint done by local ladies, the china engraved with the state seal and the portraits of all the wives who had lived at the mansion. So it was not until the end that Diane asked about the unmentioned sculpture at the top of the stairs.

"Well that's a very controversial piece," said our docent. "I don't really understand it," she added. She then brought over a lady of authority who told us everything she knew about it. It was a gift we learned. Obviously one of those awkward gifts from an important relative so had to be displayed. It was created by a Czech artist and was made from lead crystal. It was worth half a million dollars. The back was completely flat, she told us, as if this was a deception that should have rendered it half the price. And, as a clue as to its burden on them, she concluded that it took eight men to move it into position. So no putting it away when the important relative had gone. She remembered one more detail. It was not always blue. At night it turned to a deep grey. For the ladies, this last feature seemed to add further deception, but gave it a mysteriousness that hooked me. It made the sculpture seem alive. 

I thought no more of it until the next day when we toured the very modern North Carolina Museum of Art. This eco building had been a prison and was now remodeled with a climate controlling sheath that filled it with natural lighting and kept it cool, plus it had a water catchment system that emptied into a garden. It was at the cultural opposite end of the spectrum from the mansion downtown. Inside I perused the paintings in the modern collection and the found-art metal sculpture from South Africa, then came to a large, bottle green, glass sculpture the shape of a triangle. It had the same worked edge as the blue one at the mansion. Chipped like a flint arrowhead. Was this another piece by the same artist?

A museum docent helped me find the name of the artist. There were two artists and they were indeed Czech. She did not know about the one at the Executive Mansion so asked another woman on the staff who came over and told me it was a temporary exhibit. She seemed not to have been to the Executive Mansion, but when I described the blue glass sculpture she asked me if it was called Vestment. I didn't know. The name of the piece and the name of the artist was not given by the ladies at the Executive mansion.

"Did it look like a vest, a garment?" she asked. Well, yes, it could be a vest. This being modern art you never really know.

"I think I know it", she said and was satisfied. But I was not content for the story to end there.

"You really should go and ask for it. They wouldn't miss it," I told her. "They think it's controversial." That such a benign piece would be considered controversial seemed to startle her, but I could see that it was not her place to go across town to ask for a sculpture at the governor's mansion, however misplaced. 

I couldn't leave it alone though, and when I returned to the conference I told the story to a few friends. Margaret, seeing my passion for this story urged me to write to the newspaper suggesting that it should be moved to the more appropriate setting of the museum. But I was not looking for a project. I had done my job. In my mind the younger woman from the museum would venture to take a tour of the Executive Mansion so she could see for herself how misplaced the Vestment sculpture was. And then she might bring it to the attention of someone of higher authority who would eventually manage to have the statue gifted to the museum. 

I had done my part. I had made myself available as a messenger, a molecule of connection in the larger scheme of things. I was a part of something larger that may or may not be meant to happen. 

That night, I described to my conference roommate Kim, that when I was traveling through England over the summer, I had the sense that everywhere I went everything was happening exactly as it was supposed to happen and everyone I sat down next to was exactly the person I was supposed to have a conversation with. 

'I've had that happen," she said. But what was it?, I wondered. This sense of being a part of something, but not having to try very hard to make it work. For I wished to remain a cosmic slacker and appreciated things even more when they came easily. 

What is Shopping?

Last year at the same conference I had been fingered in one of the coaching surveys for possessing an anti-social element in my character. I was guilty of too much independence. I was not contributing to my community. 

"You might want to change that", said the coach who had offered the survey, "for you could be perceived as uncooperative". 

And so I found myself, while choosing a desert at lunch, saying something to the conference chair about the next conference which was on materialism. This prompted her to beg me to join the conference committee. And so we named the conference "Acquiring Minds: How We Think Act and Feel About Our Possessions". As a result of my participation and rather little effort on my part, an old friend of mine from a writing group I belonged to some 20 years ago, was going to speak on the topic of world cultural habits regarding shopping. And I would join her on the stage as part of an ad hoc international panel made up of our foreign organizers from the Netherlands, Australia, Canada and Japan, with me representing Thailand.

As I spoke, to the 140 conference attendees, of my shopping experiences in Bangkok, I felt myself describing a sort of shopping Shanghri La. I evoked visions of marble palaces filled with politely bowing, costumed staff welcoming customers into acres of the finest goods the world had to offer. (That is if you were looking for the latest status items from European designers and could pay the luxury tax.) Only the organizer from Japan could come close to such a customer oriented experience. Asia had fully grasped and exploited this ritual of modern materialism.

The next day, in keeping with the conference theme, a speaker, who was an expert on point of sales marketing, gave a humorous presentation on the tactics used in his profession to make the public buy more, especially of things they don't need. 

"Need is a four letter word," he told us. (If people only bought what they needed profits would stabilize, i.e. stagnate which was worse than death in a growth oriented capitalist system.) As I listened to him I realized that he was the high priest of this shopping religion.

"Mark it up, mark it down, move it out," he said making the sign of the cross in reference to his Catholic background. The phrase summed up his entire thesis. In-store marketing was designed to create an experience that made the shopper feel they were a part of something bigger, that they were having an interaction with a community, be it a brand or an event. The emphasis on novelty and change, competition with others, how you felt about your role in life and the perceived value of items when on sale or discounted, were all part of creating a dynamic setting that made you want to return to the store to see what was new. And that was the whole point. 

For the shopper's perspective we had a very special speaker, who swore us all to confidentiality as to her station in public life, then generously presented photos and details of her secret life as a compulsive shopper and hoarder. She was used to her cluttered house, she told us, because she did not see the excess of things in it. After all she could still move around. She swung her arms around to demonstrate. Take a picture and show it to your client she advised. A picture makes you see. And see we did, all the clutter sprawling across her living room to her kitchen.

She spoke of the thrills of ownership, of her delight in things. Her sense of power to be able to buy anything that caught her eye. How the bidding on e-bay made her ever more competitive. How easy it was to pick up the phone and buy what she saw on QVC (a TV shopping channel). How she had grown up poor and didn't have the pleasure of owning stuff. Shopping was an itch she had to scratch—a lot. But with the help of her professional organizer she had begun a program of reform and had devised a way to scratch that itch without actually buying anything. This was done by looking at catalogs. And here she acted out how she carefully circled the things she liked, folded down the corners of the page and set it aside. Then she diligently worked to give away what filled her house.

To be addicted to shopping is the acceptable addiction pointed out a third speaker. Our society and economic system wants us to buy more than we need. This speaker, a psychotherapist, had devised a treatment for compulsive buying disorder. It included an arduous, record keeping cure that involved writing down everything bought that day with the price. This daily "weigh-in" is then analyzed and each item ranked as to necessity. The money spent on unnecessary items is added up; the patient then sees how much money she has spent on what she didn't need. The patient is coached to change her conversation from "how can I use this attractive thing" to "do I really need this, how will I pay for it and where am I going to put it".

My hoarding clients bring home things they find left in bags and boxes on the sidewalk with signs marked "free", put there by their neighbors. The opportunity to rescue and possibly make use of free things (usually by giving them to someone else) gave these clients the same feelings of discovery, novelty, self-worth and interaction with a dynamic world.

"It was just there on the sidewalk like God had put it there for me to find," said one of my clients about a blue plastic box she had picked up that turned out to be just right for something she kept on her cluttered desk. (I forget what. Rubber bands maybe.)

Dancing With The Cosmos

Marketing experts aim to recreate that feeling of being in the right place at the right time, receiving if not a message from God, then at least an inspiration to buy. 

"Logic makes you shop, but emotions make you buy" said our guy in marketing. Whether free or paid for, the emphasis is on things. In a material world what is it that can replace things? My experience of everything happening exactly as it was supposed to happen, gave me an inkling. A series of experiences that are satisfying just as they are. A conversation with the cosmos. The universe answering in coincidences.

It was a coincidence that I had seen the two glass sculptures by Czech artists. No one else in the group had seen that. It spoke only to me. Perhaps, as an organizer, I simply wanted to put a like item with a like item. Or, on a psychological level, I had identified with the sculpture being trapped in the wrong culture and wanted to find it a more suitable home where it would be appreciated. Or on a cosmic level the sculpture was appealing to me to send a message. "Help me Amanda Kovattana, you are my only hope."

The psychotherapist, left us with a final thought. "You can never really get enough of what you don't need." 

When everything seems to happen exactly as it is supposed to happen you are content and do have all you need. But more than that. And I cannot seem to name it. There is a mystery involved, partly planned, partly luck. Co-creating with the universe is a popular way of putting it. All I can offer is that it won't clutter your house and it won't take eight men to move, but it will be dynamic, require a more subtle receptivity and the sense that the conversation is ongoing wherever you are.

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