For a Spicy Experience, First Take the Pants Off

Here’s a little guessing game.  This is a salt or pepper shaker:
blob man

So what do you think its companion shaker might be?  I suspect that most people would guess the other part of this pair would be another similarly doughy creature–possibly, in the light of the associations between salt and pepper and black and white, a black doughy creature.

In point of fact, however, the other shaker turns out to be an item of clothing.  In my last post, I described a set of shakers depicting somebody taking his pants off.  This time, it turns out, we’re dealing with a creature who has his or her pants off already.  And I know that because the other shaker is its pants:

blob pantsThe pants are much too big for the little guy, and indeed, with the set stacked as intended, as in the photo above, it actually seems that what the creature is doing is standing in an oddly-shaped barrel.  But the set was sold in a box identifying it as Salt & Pants.   That black barrel-like thing is, really, supposed to be a pair of pants, as can be confirmed by various web pages currently selling this set:

salt and pants

As the copy in this offering from http://www.perpetualkid.com/ suggests “This spicy little guy dispenses salt from the top of his head and he’s got something special in his trousers… pepper!”

Salt & Pants is the kind of shaker set known to collectors as stackers or, more specifically, nesters:  The salty guy fits onto, or actually, into the pants.  You can, then, actually put the creature into the pants–dress the creature up just like a little doll.  Or, if your pleasure tends more in the opposite direction, you can start with the pants on and then remove the creature from them.  Actually, come to think of it, and as the Perpetual Kids ad copy suggests, you have to separate the creature from its pants in order to help yourself to pepper–maybe even salt.  So this set then consists of what Robin Bernstein calls scriptive things”  that imply a strangely salacious script of actions for those who might choose to use them to season their food: an act of depantsing.  You don’t get to experience the pepper without first removing the clothing.  Such is life.

My thanks to Asa Nodelman for the recent addition of this set to my collection.

Discriminatory Pantlessness

In an earlier post, I talked about some pantless pigs, and noticed the number of cartoon picture book animals who are similarly pantless.  Now here’s a shaker set in which both the figures are pantless, but only one of them is shirtless:

flamingosSurprisingly, it is the male who wears a shirt–at least if I am guessing correctly in identifying the one with a shirt on as a male.  I am doing so because, even though it has large flowers printed on it, the shirt looks like the kind of tropical ones usually worn by males; and also, because the other (shirtless) figure has long lashes and the kind of seductive come-hither look we tend to associate with female pinup photos.  And also, she carries a purse.   Nevertheless, this seductively lashed and come-hithery female does in fact not have a shirt, just what looks like a lei.  Furthermore, the male is carrying a camera and all ready to shoot, and  considering that seductive gaze of the lei-wearer, the two appear to be in the kind of male/female relationship that John Berger suggests in Ways of Seeing is common in classical oil paintings: a vulnerably naked female who is willingly and submissively available to to be gazed at and is is being aggressively gazed  at by a clothed male.

In this case, of course, the male is not fully clothed.  He is pantless, just like those pigs I talked about earlier.  That does not, however, imply that he is dangerously unclothed, or getting ready for the kind of acts that might require him to be pantless.  It just means he’s a humanized animal.  He wears a shirt.  He is clothed.  He is male, and in power.  For all her eyelashes, meanwhile, she is just a natural bird, prey for the male gaze.

In this case, the animal in question is a bird.  These are clearly a pair of flamingos.  And they are, strangely, dressed up like northern tourists to tropical climes, accoutred in all the usual tourist equipment: sunglasses, straw sun-hats, camera, cool drinks, loud shirts–and a lei.  Why, you might ask, are flamingos, which I tend to think of as a tropical bird, dressed up like visitors to the tropics?  Perhaps they represent the desire of northern tourists to fit in, to live like the locals, to be as flamingoish as the flamingos are.  For this shaker set certainly does seem to be intended as a gift for tourists to remind them of their hot times in the tropics, when they were as free and as tropical as flamingos are.

Scarfs Make the Man. And the Manly Bear.

Like the pigs in my last post, these creatures are also wearing headgear and scarfs:

DSCN1271

What I find particularly interesting here is that wearing a hat and a scarf is merely a generic condition for one of these two, and not all surprising.  A hat and a scarf is what snowmen often wear, and I am assuming the one on the right with a carrot for a nose is just that, a generic, typical snowman, wearing a typical snowman’s scarf.

But them what am I to make of the fact that wearing a scarf makes him a pair with another scarf-wearing creature?  This one is, I think, meant to be a bear–a bear who, like the pair of pigs I discussed in my last post, is humanized by a scarf and headgear, in this case earmuffs (I think that’s what those red blobs by the ears are supposed to be) and a hat.  Wearing a scarf (and a hat) is, really what makes a pile of snow into a snow man–what humanizes it.  So, therefore, I think, wearing a scarf and a hat is what humanizes a bear–but if the equivalency to the snowman means anything, then the presence of the scarf and hat on a bear reveals to extent to which clothing on animals, in salt and pepper sets or elsewhere, is always a sort of masquerade, a way of implying humanness that depends on exterior signs and a sort of playacting.  And maybe, reveals how significant an element of defining humanness the wearing of clothing is.

Does that make any sense?  Probably not, since I’m having a hard time understanding it myself, and a hard time finding words to say what it is that’s concerning me here.  It has something to do with the way both an apparently living bear and an inanimate pile of snow can become equally humanized, equal partners, by putting on similar items of human clothing.  Their humanity is then a matter of what they wear, but more than that, it is only what they wear.  You could, presumably, put a scarf and a hat on a book or a sofa or a lamppost, with the exact same results.  The scholar Judith Butler has suggested that gender is a matter of performance–something we perform and that we recognize in each other’s performance of it.  And the performance is often a matter of clothing:  dressing young girls in pink frills is a way of getting them to perform gender and communicate the significance of their own presumed gender to themselves and others.  Wear enough pink frills and you will eventually learn to think of yourself as inherently girlish and teach others to think so, too.  This snowman and this bear make me wonder if being human is also in some important way a matter of performance, a performance signalled by the right articles of clothing.  Humanity as form of drag?

On another matter: what makes a snowman and a bear a pair, a suitable pair of binary opposites?  Well, it seems to be a polar bear, and it’s white, like the snowman, so that both pieces of this set are associated with cold northern places.  But it still remains strange that one should be a representation of a real, living creature and the other a representation of a representation, not an actual man but a man represented in snow.  There appears to be a binary opposition between what’s alive and what’s actually dead, then, or what’s real and what just an artistic imitation.  And yet, what is most striking about this set is how similarly round and chubby and jolly-looking this pair are.  Their significant differences seem to be subsumed, finally, by their overriding cuteness.  That what one represents might bite your head off and what the other represents merely melt hardly matters at all.  They are equally and perfectly harmless.

Polyamory

Recently, my friend Joseph Thomas made a comment on Facebook that relates to my interest in salt and pepper shakers:

What I think is wonderful about salt n pepper shakers: although they come as a pair, they so often aren’t bound together, save by their maker’s intent or owner’s whim. Thus, even pairs “meant for each other” can have dalliances with other shakers or mills, and should one’s mate be smashed, the remaining mill (or shaker) can make a nice home with a crew of very different shakers. A metaphor for polyamory, these anthropomorphized little critters.

As I thought about that, I realized how very true it is.  Earlier last year, I wrote a number of posts here exploring my particular fascination with the “go-with” aspect of shaker sets, and how it takes some insight into the mental activity of the person who chose them to go with each other to understand just what it is that connects them.  As I said then,

Some of the more interesting sets of salt and pepper shakers I’ve seen in antique shops are ones that are not in fact, clearly sets–or at least were not necessarily designed to be the sets they now are being sold as.  Not surprisingly, for salt-and-peppers consist of two objects that are in fact physically detached from each other.  It’s quite possible, then, that one of the two might break, or that the two might end up somehow separated from each other–a result of a nasty divorce settlement, perhaps, or a simple error in packing when a roommate leaves, or a salt incorrectly grabbed up along with the remains of dinner and thrown in the garbage, while it’s now sadly lonely pepper partner remains behind.  What more obvious thing for a store owner to do when such a sad single shows up in the shop but  to find some other woeful isolate that might by some stretch of the imagination be considered to go with it, and try to sell them as a pair?  And lo, as if by magic, they do, sort of become a pair, as would-be purchasers like me look at them and, more or less inevitably, I think, try to decide what is the intended connection between these two objects now identified on their sales tag as a pair.

The paradigm of the pair is powerful.  It can join what some man (or woman or child) has put asunder.  In the shaker universe, linguistic binarism rules.

As Joseph suggests, and if it’s true that the paradigm of the pair is powerful, then paradoxically, then you can defy the connections made by manufacturers and shopkeepers just as easily as you can observe them–be your own deliriously postmodern creator of new pairs, new combinations, new possibilities.  You can become the new god of the shaker miniverse.

Thinking about all that, and in celebration of Joseph’s idea of polyamory, I remember two particular sets I’ve discussed in earlier posts, this one.

armless

And this one:

briefcase and newspaper

Polyamorous perversity then leads me to this combo:

Polyandry

The sexual politics here are pretty astonishing.  Think about it.

I should also say that I have also indulged in some mismatching of pairs in a previous post–the one about Santa Claus giving a big smack to a bunch of bad guys.

All Nature Is But Art

Image

This is another set of salt-and-pepper shakers that my son Asa made me, this one a few years ago. As you can see from this view of their tops, he made them of modelling clay formed around an already-existing set of plain ceramic shakers.

Image

I’ve asked Asa for an explanation of what he intended them to represent, but he tells me he’d rather hear how I interpret them. So here goes:

To me, this set is the ultimate expression of the idea of binary opposites. They are an animal–most likely a bear?–and a robot. And they are wearing boxing gloves, as if ready to start a match. What can they be but symbolic representations of the most basic conflicts at the heart of our view of life for us on this planet? The bear, clearly, is nature, the wild. The robot represents what we make of the natural–civilization, perhaps, or artifice–what people create as opposed to what remains as we found it. Asa was clearly intending to make a profound statement about our relationship to the environment, right?

Except, of course, that’s not quite right: for a bear in the wild does not smile, as this one appears to be doing. And a bear in the wild does not put on boxing gloves, or for that matter, what appear to be boxing trunks or any other form of human clothing. Meanwhile, also, robots are equally unlikely to be programmed for boxing. And if they were, how likely is it that they put on human-type boxing gloves? Wouldn’t battering rams be better? So while the two things these creatures represent might be understood as being in a conflict, at war with each other, in an eternal and ongoing symbolic boxing match, the characteristics of the actual creatures they represent have been distorted in order to make them express that conflict symbolically. In this way, then, they are more like allegories or political cartoons than like representations of actual creatures. Or perhaps more likely, they are more like typical creatures of the salt and pepper miniverse than like real bears and robots. They are humanized. They are cute. Despite whatever sizeable dangerous forces they represent, they appear to be entirely and completely harmless. Unlike the ship and wave I discussed in my last post, this pair seem to fit quite readily into my collection. They are, alas, and unlike that ship and wave, not art.

One other thing about this pair: they remind me of my days as a grad student in literature studies many decades ago, before structuralism or deconstruction or cultural studies or feminist studies or queer studies existed,when what was still then called “the New Criticism” was at the height of its power. As New Critics, what we literature students did above all (or even exclusively) was produce close readings, detailed interpretations of poems and novels that teased out the structure or pattern of images and ideas that sustained their plots and stories. And we always wrote essays that had two opposites in their title, like “Love and Hate in Hamlet” or “Appearance and Reality in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn.'” Back then, there was a common belief amongst the students I knew that, if you couldn’t think of anything else, you could always write an essay about “Appearance and Reality in–” well, in whatever text you’d been assigned to write about. But it was also true that, if all else failed, you could also always write a persuasive essay about “Nature and Artifice in” whatever text you’d been assigned to write about it. We did a lot of talking about nature and artifice, a whole lot. It came naturally to us, and it was the basis of our critical art.  So for me, these shakers of Asa’s remind me of what it was like to be a graduate student back in the sixties.

And come to think of it, maybe it was my grad school training in binary opposites that lies behind my interest in novelty salt and pepper shakers?

And hey, maybe Asa’s set of shakers is actually a clever New Critical interpretation of a favorite of my grad school days, Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” with the bear as the dying generations and the robot as the artificial bird:

The young In one another’s arms, birds in the trees —

Those dying generations—at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

. . . . . . . . . .

Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

I totally could write an essay about that. Actually, maybe I just did.

Asa’s Ship Comes In

This is the salt and pepper shaker set my son Asa recently made and gave me as a Christmas present:
ship and waveIt actually does work as a set of shakers: as the picture reveals, the mast is held in place by a cork that stops the hole where you can put salt (or pepper), and the bottom of the wave has an opening for a similar cork to allow for the insertion of pepper (or salt); and there are smaller seasoning-sprinkling holes on the deck of the ship and in the indentation on top of the wave where the ship sits.  But for all that, I’m not really sure that this set does fit into my collection, for a number of reasons:

First, it’s unique.  There is in existence only one such ship and one such wave, made by hand by a local artist and fired in a local kiln.  All the other shakers in my collection are individual examples of assembly-line runs, the same or very similar to thousands of other shakers made from the same moulds.  I hadn’t realized it before, but as I think about it now after receiving this new set, I am realizing that knowledge of the run-of-mill shakers’ lack of uniqueness is part both of what makes the shakers interesting to me and what allows me to make fun of them, as I often do.  They represent what their manufacturers thought would be popular enough and sell widely enough to be manufactured in multiples, and so they’re evidence either of mass taste or of someone’s commercially-oriented idea of mass taste.  They are meant to speak to a lot of people (albeit probably not very loudly or very distressingly), and so reveal something about popular values and or a manufacturer’s ideas about popular values.  But Asas’s ship and wave are made to suit just me and my values and my tastes, or maybe even not that–to suit Asa’s values as tastes, with his hope that I’ll like them, too.  They are not making any claim to mass appeal.  Making fun of them (which I don’t want to do anyway, because i really do like them a lot) would not possess the saving grace of being evidence of  more discerning taste or expressing a critique of less discerning taste.

Second, and as quite logically follows from that: Asa’s ship and wave are not cute or adorable.  There is no obvious joke here, and no attempt to make me or any other viewer think of how charmingly vulnerable the ship or the wave are.  The ship has no eyes, the wave no lips or limbs.  While they are miniature versions of a small ship and an ocean wave, there is nothing about the ways in which they are diminished that implies an attitude of defensive superiority or offensive belittling of them.  They are simply small but to scale–and I get no sense from them that part of my response to them should be emerging from their defusing of the power of the ocean or its waves.  While small, the set still conveys a sense of the power of the sea and the relative littleness of the ship in relation to that power.  The jaunty little ship on its own might seem a little cute–but accompanied by  the wave,its littleness has quite other implications.

Third: this shaker set does not in any way seem to invite or imply its inclusion in a larger group of shaker sets–in a collection.  If Asa made more shaker sets representing different objects, I can see how I might want to have those, too.   But I suspect it’d seem wrong to place them all together on the same shelf in a way that advertised their similar collectibility and the fact that someone had committed himself or herself to the act of collecting them. Their point is in no way their participation in a larger group of like objects.  They are not really collectibles.

Fourth, Asa’s shaker captures something that seems quite real, especially about the wave, and yet paradoxically, it really doesn’t look much like a real wave at all.  It seems more like an expression of the movement of a wave–a way of capturing not just what a wave might look like but also what it might feel like to be in a wave’s presence.  Also: a ship and a wave are not the kind of binaries or pairs you usually find in a salt and pepper shaker set because they are in fact, not just in relationship to each or opposite to each other but, as depicted here, I think, in conflict with each other.  The shape and swoop of the wave capture the roiling energy and immense power of the sea,so that the the littleness of the ship perched perilously atop the wave tells a story of the apparent inequality of the battle between ship and stormy sea and perhaps even the indomitability of the invisible sailors on the ship.  The pair seems to me to say something about the relationship between little humans and big natural forces.

Or in other words:  the set is expressive of larger and subtler meanings beyond the fairly obvious ones of most of my shaker sets.  It doesn’t only represent a ship and a wave, or only ask us to consider how cute tiny versions of a ship and a wave can be. It seems to be expressive of the feelings and meanings of the ship, the wave, and their relationship.  Or perhaps it is just expressive in a way that invites interpretations because as a unique product of an imaginative and thoughtful mind it is expressive of the personality that shaped it. It expresses uniqueness.

Or to put it another way: the set aspires to be something more than merely ornamental–to be, in fact, art.  And in my admittedly prejudiced paternal opinion, I think it succeeds at that.  I think it succeeds because it seems to be conveying emotions in a way that invites thoughtfulness about them.  And it is beautiful.  Looking at it is, for me, an aesthetic pleasure.

I think the wave is particularly beautiful–full of energy and implied danger, and yet, at the same time, its energy caught in a fixed moment that allows for contemplation of the sheer visceral pleasure of its subtle and shifting colour combinations and its complex lines.   As I said earlier, it conveys its own uniqueness–as does the ship, in its tidiness and fragility.

And so, much as I like this set, and as pleased as I am to have had it made for me, I have to conclude that it’s a failure as an addition to my shaker set collection.  It’s much too good to belong there.

More of Asa’s work is on view on his website.

Two Santas, and Some Guys Who Haven’t Been Good

In honour of the season, I offer yet another salt and pepper shaker set that consists of two male figures:Two Santas

Two Santas.

And yet, of course, this makes no sense, no sense at all.  There can only be one Santa Claus, surely. Other shakers, operating safely within the logic of a rigidly binary world, represent various ways of solving the problem of representing the right jolly old elf in a salt and pepper set.  Here, for instance, Santa has a surprising companion:

santa bear

It’s a polar bear, I think–a logical pet for a North Pole resident.  And here, a very young Santa (or Santa imitator?) has a Mrs. Santa-or perhaps, given her age, a Miss Santa–to accompany him:

santa and santess

They seem to be singing–some carol that makes Santa swing his hips, it seems.

But I have no idea about what to make of a set consisting of two, count ’em, two Santas.  Maybe Santa has a secret twin brother named Eugene Claus or Luigi Claus or Klaus Claus that nobody ever told us about?  Or maybe the set is depicting an incident at a convention of department store Santas, and so it’s two different Santa pretenders?  Or maybe these two are supposed to be just the one same Santa, but caught in different moments, like a series of photographs of the same subject?  Figurines that represent different times?

One way or the other, I have found myself unable to resist the implications of that one Santa’s raised arm.

santa close

I’m not sure I know what the raised arm is supposed to mean.  Is this Santa in the midst of belting out a loud chorus of “Here Comes Santa Claus”?  Is he pointing to yonder star?  Whatever it’s supposed to be, the raised hand does offer some fascinating possibilities in relation to a few of the other shakers in my collection.  Especially because those mittens look like boxing gloves.

For instance:  the Santa who has no use for clowns:

Santa and Clown

Or the racist Santa, being defied by a jovial club-bearing native of Banff:

Santa and African

Or the Santa who isn’t afraid of the sizeable Paul  Bunyan:
Paul and Santa

Or, finally, the Santa who gets into a brawl with an angry computer user:santa and computer guy

No question about it: this raised-arm Santa clearly knows who’s been bad or good and knows exactly how to encourage everyone to be good for goodness sake.

Be good.  Have a merry Christmas.