Gendered Elimination?

Since my last few posts have been about creatures taking their pants off, a look at this shaker set seems appropriate:

toiletsAs a set, they have an interesting binary-oppositional relationship.  I’m tempted to suggest that they replicate the insistence of the shaker miniverse on dividing things into opposite pairs: salt and pepper, black and white, male and female.  They might be doing so in this case by suggesting a gender opposition:  one of the object depicted is used, usually, only by males, and the other is depicted in a position that makes it convenient for females.  And in that way, they might represent the common tendency in shaker sets of distinguishing the two components of each set in terms of gender: by dressing one cute bear in a blue shirt and the other in a pink dress, for instance.

The objects depicted in this set, however, are not wearing dresses or shirts (although, as a hardened veteran spectator of the salt and pepper miniverse, I can all too easily imagine someone producing a set that did show cute toilets in clothing and with smiley faces).  So maybe I’m just imposing that whole gender thing on this set.  After all, if you’ve decided to depicted plumbing fixtures that aid in human elimination in a salt and pepper shaker set, are there really any other choices of two objects to depict?  I can’t think of any offhand–it’s hard to imagine how you might go about depicting a hole dug in the floor of the forest.   Perhaps you could include an old-fashioned outhouse?  So maybe the manufacturer of this set, having chosen to do sanitary facilities, was merely lucky enough to be confronted with just two possibilities, one of which is usually associated with males and one which isn’t, a difference which then makes them suitably oppositional enough to act as subjects for tabletop containers of salt and pepper.

I am, once more, taken aback by the idea that you might get some pleasure out of putting miniature representations of sanitary facilities on your dinner table.  A momento mori sort of reminder of our essentially animal nature, perhaps?  Nor do I get the pleasure of symbolically shaking the contents of a toilet and/or a urinal on your food.  It somehow seems to be implying a reversal of the usual order in which the processes of eating and digestion take place. You put what was once food and rink into toilets and urinals; you don’t usually put what was once food and has now been deposited in toilets and urinals on food.  And call me an old-fashioned conservative, but really, why would you even want to?

Duck, Ducking

Here is a mysterious object:Half Duck

Some kind of abstract sculpture, perhaps?  Or is it a ghost or an alien or a member of the Ku Klux Klan carrying scrolls?  Or are those sausages, perhaps, or maybe cat-tails?

Cat-tails they are.  For if I place this shaker beside its partner, all is revealed:

Two Ducks

Those are in fact, cat-tails, or some similar sort of reed, and they are the backdrop for a depiction of a duck–a duck in the process of dipping its head underwater.  The presence of one mostly whole, and more or less wholly visible, duck makes it clear that the other, formerly abstract object is to be interpreted as another, albeit not quite so visible duck.

And interpreting the half-duck as in fact part of a duck means that this set performs the same visual trick as the Bluenose schooner I discussed in my last post.  By implying that more of it exists below what can in fact be seen, it transforms the surface it sits on into the top of a body of water, with the illusion of depth beneath it.  In this case, the illusion is somewhat qualified by the sculptor’s decision to actually include a layer of blue water around the ducks for them to sit in and on.  But it is still a satisfying illusion, an intriguing way of making a hard surface seem to be penetrable simply by placing the right sort of object on top of it.

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.

Shaker. Sculpture. Shaker Sculpture.

In my last post, after discussing the unsettling disproportion of a shaker set that contains a human figure accompanied by some relatively giant shakers (or perhaps, some normal-sized shakers accompanied by a decidedly tiny human figure, I promised to talk about another set I have that consists of the usual shaker-sized miniature human figure and a proportionally giant (or in terms of my real world, normally life-size) shaker–but this time the set makes perfectly good sense. Here it is:

The miniature figure is a sculptor, and what he is sculpting is a giant pepper shaker–a truly inspired work of art in the context of a salt and pepper set.  The clever joke here is that what is to me a normal-sized shaker that actually looks like (and can actually be used like) a normal-sized pepper shaker has come to represent, placed beside its supposed sculptor, a weird artistic take on the shaker world–the depiction of something usually quite small as immense.  There’s something Dada about it.  Or may something Pop-Artish.  One or the other.  either way, the sculptor is clearly a genius, his eyes fixed on unsettling reality.  And on focussing attention on the disproportion between the figures represented in shakers and the people who use them–something we surely usually take for granted and don’t even begin to think about.

It’s interesting, in the light of the string of posts about chubby chefs that I’ve been doing lately, that this non-chef shaker figure should also be fairly rotund, and have some pretty puffy cheeks, too.  If the figures who inhabit the imaginary world represented by salt and pepper shakers could actually come to life, we’d probably be wanting to be putting a goodly proportion of them in a sever calorie-lowering diet.   There is rarely ever anything angular about them. They are safely and unthreateningly rounded–as are so many of things we like to call cute; and so, they are safely utopian, the cute harmless way things ought to be, if things were perfect.  Cute means vulnerable, and  for no clear reason I can think of, chubbiness tends to seem sort of vulnerable.  The evidence of the existence of bones and muscles under the skin is the end of cuteness.

Chubby Chef Goes Solo, and Apparently Sings Solo, Too

This not-so-svelte cook is all on his own:

With a moustache similar to the gentleman in the set I discussed a couple of posts ago, he seems to be aspring to the Italian-chef stereotype: not just large-tummied and round-cheeked (and cherubically round-nosed), but with a moustache, another perky handlebar moustache.   And from the look of his mouth, he appears to be raising his voice in song–possibly a Verdi aria or a song in praise of pasta fazool.

He is not himself a shaker: but the cart he is wheeling contains two objects almost as large as he is but shaped like a fairly conventional set of non-representational shakers–so there is a sort of disruption of the usual binarism of the shaker world: here we have three separate entities representing four major objects: one cook, one wagon, one salt marked S , one pepper marked P.

There’s another disruption also.  The shakers are giant ones for the chef, in scale for would-be users like me.  And there’s maybe something a little disconcerting about the inconsistency of scale; like, why is this tiny chef carting around these gigantic salt-and-pepper shakers?  Is he really that tiny?  Are they really so large, and if so, why?  It might make more sense if they looked like large barrels of flour or something like that, something large enough to be pulled in a cart that size by a figure that size.  But they don’t.  They just look like boring but gigantic shakers.

And yet this set is similar to another set I have that consists of a miniature human figure and a proportionally giant shaker–and this time the set makes perfectly good sense.  How, you ask?  More about it in my next post.

Non-Specific Exotica

Since I’ve been looking at orientalist stereotypes, evocations of the mysterious East, this seems like a good time to take a look at this set:

Not Asiatic, but still evocative of orientalism and the mysterious other.  I think these are maybe supposed to represent some kind of Africans–or Polynesians, or Indonesians or native South Americans, something equally else exotic.  Whoever they are, they are defined  by the fact that they are “not like us,” us in this case being the people who these shakers might unironically appeal to.  While fairly simple and uncomplicated figures, they reveal a surprising range of the signs that mark a person as alien and other.  they appear to be naked.  They carry bowls on their head or have bones in their hair, as supposed savages often do in cartoons. They are dark-complected and thick-lipped enough that I suspect that real people with darker complexions, even those who collect salt and paper sets, are unlikely to be anything but distressed by the cliched nature of their depiction of people of colour.  In confirmation of their orientalism, furthermore one appears to be staring blankly in wide-eyed idiocy while the other closes her eyes as proof of her inherent sloth and laziness.

They raise, once more, the question of why, if you might actually give any credence to the negative stereotypes these figures evoke, would you want to have such depictions on your dining table and shake salt and/or pepper from them on your food?  (Unless, of course, you are an oppositional curator like me–see my earlier posting on that topic.  And even at that I have to worry about my willingness to own and display such objects even if I feel a vast distance from the values they represent and evoke–am I confirming in my implied faith that they can withstand or endure an ironic oppositional glance my sense of the stereotypical willingness of the groups they represent to take punishment and less than humanly survive it?).  There’s certainly a element of supercilious superiority in the way in which these figures act to diminish the reality of people of other countries and cultures: the depiction of them in such a miniaturized form, the implied cuteness of their being so harmlessly exotic and abnormal, the safely colonialist freedom to mark them as exotic and other and yet harmless enough to own and use for mundane purposes like seasoning food, the fact that as hard ceramic figures they can be safely manhandled without much threat to the person doing the manhandling.  Or even, given the lack of fragility of the material they’re made of, the fact that manhandling is little threat to the objects themselves.  And if you drop them and they should happen by chance to actually break, well, so what, they were just cheap ornaments anyway and can easily be replaced by a pair of equally long-suffering and othered aboriginals or cute harmless children.

Food, Fictional and Non-Fictional

Thinking as I wrote my last post about how disturbing it was to look at versions of the exact same characters in different poses in two different salt and pepper shaker sets, about how the impression that they could move and take different positions seemed to suggest a life they were leading outside and beyond their hard ceramic shaker-set lives, and how suggesting that seemed to break the contract they imply about being safely shakable because they are hard, are ceramic, are not really the things they represent, not really alive, not really all that damageable, I became aware of another oddity: salt and pepper shaker sets that represent food.  Like these:

I mean, think about it for a moment or two.  You are serving a real meal consisting of real food–food you can eat.  Like maybe a hamburger, even.  And yet, there on the table is a hard, ceramic, entirely inedible object that represent something edible.  Like maybe a hamburger, even.  I get that there’s an obvious connection between salt-and-pepper shakers and food, that they are implements to be used in the process of serving and eating food.  And I suspect it’s for that reason that I have so many shaker sets that represent food, from carrots to bananas to milk and cookies But for all the logic of that, it still seems more than a little strange that you’d want representations of food on the table where you are serving real food.  It’s a weird confusions of categories:  real and fake, hard and soft, edible and inedible, etc.  It seems inevitably to raise the question of just how representative these objects are–how they are fictional food with their fictionality made obvious by their presence in the midst of non-fictional food.  Why put things that look like food but that you can’t eat on the table along with the actual food?  Is it the creation of some sort of puzzle–figure out what you’re supposed to put in your mouth and what you’re supposed to keep out of it?

Beyond that, I’m not quite sure about what to make of the act of shaking a fake hamburger over a real hamburger in order to get salt and pepper on it.  Or for that matter, shaking a fake hamburger over a vegetarian meal of beans and rice to get salt and pepper on it.  For there is a sort of actual food being provided by the shakers–the salt and pepper that you will shake on the real food and then eat.  They are not food but they can make the food taste better–just give them a shake and, perhaps, some of their magical unreal pretending will fall into the real food and make it more magical?  Are these shakers some sort of strange transitional object, then, not quite real and not entirely pretend?

One other aspect of these hamburger shakers also freaks me out a little: their shininess.  They are surprisingly lifelike, except for that shininess.  They look like real hamburgers, albeit miniature ones, that have been shellacked or varnished.  Hamburger preserved for posterity, perhaps, or in their sparkling shininess, the purified essence of hamburgitude, smaller than but better than the real things they represent.  Perhaps, then, they share the diminishing utopianism of all miniatures, all dolls and dollhouses and such: more perfect but infinitely smaller, infinitely more cramped, and more easily managed worlds than the real one.  Having a miniaturized and therefore both cuter and more controllable hamburger on your table along with the real ones–is it a sort of fetish object, a representation of the wish that the real hamburgers be just as safe and in control as the fake one, just as free from taint and bacteria and deathly additives and all the other potential harmful aspects of actual meat?