They are, first, a small figurative sculpture of a mother and child from late 19th or early 20th century Borneo; second, a rubber-stamp mounted on a small block of laminated wood, bearing a barcode and a label stating it to have been handcrafted in Emeryville, California, ©2003 Hero Arts Rubber Stamps, Inc.; and third, a gold-coloured metal invitation, also laminated, to the opening of the Crypt of Civilization at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia.
The Bornean figure is part of the Charles Hose collection in the British Museum. It is not a celebrated piece and is not even on display. The mother clasps her baby so that its head appears to replace one of her breasts, not simply to squash it as an avid little sucker might do. A line in Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time does the same kind of thing with words. In other words, witty substitution is nothing new, and maybe artists Just Wanna Have Fun.
The rubber stamp is enigmatic in at least four respects. The message, which you can print as many times as the ink in the stamp-pad allows, reads WITH DEEPEST SYMPATHY. The letters themselves, however, have a jaunty, uneven quality like those on a child’s birthday card. Made in California, the rubber stamp was bought in a garden centre in Bournemouth. When I first saw this object among its more prosaic counterparts wishing ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘Congratulations on your New Job’, I couldn’t bring myself to buy it as my mother was with me and my father had only recently died; although I am sure he would have laughed about it as much as she and I later did. Under what circumstances would anyone need such a thing? Is it in fact a novelty item? Does life in the rubber stamp business cry out for occasional levity? How sympathetic should we feel for the handicraft workers of Emeryville, Ca.?
When its steel door was welded shut in 1940, the Crypt of Civilization was supposed to remain sealed until 8113. That’s 6,173 repeats of White Christmas. A copy of the invitation card for the eventual re-opening was sent to Bing Crosby who replied he’d try to keep his diary free. I got my freshly-made invitation at the Crypt’s 50th anniversary celebration in 1990. Although not by name it nevertheless speaks to the present bearer: ‘Any of Your Descendants Will Be Admitted to the Opening of the CRYPT on Thursday, May 28th, A.D. 8113, Noon.’ The Crypt itself addresses an anticipated future but the invitation addresses only the anticipator. Would the bearer in 8113 have to prove descent from the original recipient? Unless we imagine unimaginable developments in genetic engineering in the meantime, the surprisingly sprightly Bing Crosby who really does turn up might be refused entry on the grounds that no-one can be their own descendant.
For now, is it better cynically to bin the invitation or naively to bequeath it to my kids? Can either option break free of what others might think or what I think they might think?
There may be no DMZ between hedonism/selfishness and prudence/altruisim but perhaps polarisation can be escaped – an impossible choice evaded – by shuttling madly enough from one side to the other, like playing tennis with yourself. Can anyone be truly comfortable in either of the binary cages popular culture creates for us: the one for grasshoppers, making hay while the sun shines, wages not pensions, living for the moment, devil-may-care, what global warming? and Sarah Vaughan singing One Hundred Years from Today; the other for ants, for saving for a rainy day, long-term investments, jam tomorrow, eco-morality, the meek inheriting the earth, and the Salvation Army band sweetly playing In the Sweet Bye and Bye? Rejecting its morality of deferred gratification, the Wobblies parodied that song in their response of ‘Pie in the Sky’, but if we take it as given that the poor give and the rich take, then the only practicable and ethical morality for the 21st century is to have your cake and eat it.
I wrote the above early on Saturday 12 August 2006, before seeing a newspaper. In the late afternoon, trying to find a film to watch in the evening, I browsed through the weekly entertainment Guide issued with that day’s copy of the Guardian. The front cover featured a poster of Marilyn Monroe by artist Ron English in which each of her breasts was transformed into a Mickey Mouse head. Inside, a review of the first movies by Rainer Werner Fassbinder to be released on DVD included the sentence ‘Time and again, Fassbinder had his cake and ate it.’
Brian Durrans, Department of Asia, British Museum