An Odd (Really Odd) Couple in Lots of Clothing

I’m fairly well convinced that this pair was always intended as a shaker set, because their colour palette is more or less the same:  the same dark green, with dark pink accents–and the smaller one’s face is the same brown as the larger one’s hair and shoes:    
Odd Couple

But for all that, they are surprisingly unlike each other.  One is a bunny, maybe, or perhaps  a mouse–or at least so its perky ears would suggest.  The other?  Well, not only does it not seem as bunny-like as its companion, but if we turn it around, we can see that it has wings like a bug:

Odd Couple Back

So then, is this pair a fairy small bunny and a bug-sized bug?  Or is it a very large bug and  a bunny-sized bunny?  One way or the other, I can think of no explanation for what these two might have to do with each other, or why one is wearing a clown hat and sucking a sucker.

The clown hat might well be the only piece of clothing the bug is wearing–the rest of it might be just naked bug surface.  Oh, except what seem to be a pair of brown shoes.  The bunny, on the other hand, has on, not only a similar pair of brown shoes, but what might a pair of fancy patterned bloomers, a shirt the same green colour as the bug’s bugskin (but which seems to be a shirt because it stoops at the wrists and reveal hands of a different colour, unlike the still-green hands of the bug), an apron, and a bow in the hair near her (I’m assuming) ear.

To add to the strangeness of this pair, the brown dots on the bug’s hat are exactly the same as the ones on his wings.  So perhaps I am wrong in assuming that the cone of his head is a detachable hat; maybe it’s just the permanent shape of his head.  Or more likely, maybe those aren’t real wings at all, but just a costume, another item of clothing that is disguising an actually non-bug-like bunny child.  The two figures do have similar pudgy cheeks and half-moon eyes.

Or maybe not.  Once more, I have to conclude that these animal-like creature wearing items of human clothing in shaker sets are neither animal nor human, but often occupy an eerily ambivalent state of in-between, creatures apparently in the process of morphing from one species to another.  Seen in those terms, they are more like nightmares from horror movies than the apparently harmless cutie-poos a first glance at them would suggest.  Maybe looking too closely at novelty salt and pepper shaker sets like this is not actually a good idea after all.

Cute as a Bug in a Rugged Shirt and a Pair of Trousers

Here’s another set of nonhuman creatures wearing human clothing.  At first glance, indeed, this pair of shakers appears to be quite completely clothed:

bugsThey seem to be wearing black shirts with white stripes–their shirthood implied by the fact that their hands emerge from the arms of them.  And on top of their shirts are what certainly seem to be the straps of two pairs of pants–red pants with black polka dots on them. The creatures seem to be holding onto those straps like a pair of yacky old cartoon farmers holding on to their suspenders while they gossip about the weather and the evil guv’ment and kids these days.

And yet: look again.  This pair are meant to represent bugs, I think–possibly ladybugs:

ladybugThe shakers have two protuberances emerging from the tops if each of their heads, sort of like ladybugs, and they have shell-shaped wings–again, sort of like ladybugs, although if those shell-like wings or wing-covers are their ladybug-like parts, then what are we to make of their trousers?  Actual ladybugs are black down there, not reddy-orange and polka-dotted like their backs are.

But in any case:  if those things that emerge from their back are indeed something buggily winglike, or something like the coverings of ladybugs, then their pants can’t be pants, for they are of the same colour and have the same dots on them and so must be an integral part of their bug-like bodies. But then, the pants must be pants, because they have straps that go over their shirts.  But then if they are pants, the winglike or shell-like things on their backs must be fake, not authentic bug parts at all, but merely removable add-ons.  They are merely something else pretending to be bugs.  And yet their face are distressingly bug-like–or rather, distressingly like conventional cartoon versions of bugs with semi-humanized faces.

Oh, and I suddenly just now see that I’ve been taking for granted the fact that these supposed bugs do in fact have hands and arms.  And are capable of holding flowers in the hands.

Okay, then so what are these things?  Not bugs, certainly.  But not not bugs, just as certainly.  Amorphous creatures, then, ambivalently existing somewhere in the mysterious space between pure bughood and pure humanity. They are cute as a bug, certainly, at least on the surface.  But having now taken a closer and more observing view of them I have to admit that I’m beginning to find them more than a little disturbing. Like many creepy-crawly creatures who don’t wear pants, they are pretty creepy, and mostly because they may or may not have pants on.

The Implied Beneath

While it might not be apparent on first glance, this is a salt and pepper shaker set:


This set represents the Bluenose, the Canadian fishing and racing schooner from Nova Scotia that has been appearing on Canadian dimes for many decades:


While it’s a little hard to make out, since it consists of slightly raised brown letters on the same brown background, the side of the shaker schooner proudly announces its name:

Bluenose name

Well, actually, the name on the shakers specifies that it not the original Bluenose, but rather, Bluenose II, the replica of the original Bluenose built in the sixties.  That replica has itself recently been in the process of being restored at a shipyard in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia, as this photograph shows:


What this photograph also reveals is what might not first be apparent when you look at the shaker version:  the shaker version does not depict the complete schooner.   It shows only what would be visible above the water if the schooner were at sea.  In other words, the shaker set implies that part if it, actually not seen, is nevertheless there, under whatever surface you might happen to put it on. 

I like the idea of the implication of something beneath, something unseen but that a viewer can know is there.  Something like that does, of course, occur again and again in photographs, painting, sculptures.  A bronze bust implies the rest of a  body that comes below the parts it actually depicts.  A painting of a figure looking out, even a full length one, implies a back that isn’t actually there.  We viewers are assumed to be willing and able to extrapolate beyond the borders, to assume they represent not the actual edges of whatever is being depicted, but just a point beyond which what still exists nevertheless cannot be seen.

But there’s something special, something unique, about the way in which these shakers do that.  I’m not exactly sure about this, but I think it’s that, in cutting off the bottom part of the ship that would in fact not be visible if it were a real ship floating in actual water,  the shaker Bluenose II magically transforms the surface it sits on into a representation of water.  There is no water, and the shakers contain no depiction of water–and yet they manage to transform part of their environment into something that has a quality of water.  In other words: the magic is that in putting them in relationship to something else, a mere flat surface, a tabletop or window sill, they have the ability to transform that flat surface into something else, something different and more meaningful than it ever was before.  And they imply a depth beyond the surface of a solid object, an apparently but nevertheless impossibly penetrable depth that the unseen underside of a ship might float in.

Again, that the kind of magic a painting often performs–it suggests that the flat wall it hangs on is actually a window into another world beyond and behind the flat surface.  But that’s a magical aspect of paintings that many of us are so used to that we simply take it for granted.  It happens less often with three-dimensional objects like my Bluenose shakers than it does with two-dimensional ones like paintings or drawings.  And painting don’t appear to turn the still visible surfaces of the walls they hang  on that surround their frames into something else.

For those who might be wondering why I keep identifying what appears to be just a single object, a depiction of a schooner, as a set of shakers: it is actually a set.  It does consist of two separate and separable pieces, as can be seen here:

half blueThe designer of this set has solved the problem of turning one schooner into two shakers through the simple act of just dividing the ship in two, right down the middle, and making each of its separate parts a separate shaker, two fragments that become one whole ship if probably placed beside each other  It is, then, an example of what I identified in a previous post an example of bisectionality.  I have a number of other strangely bisectional shaker sets, which I might get around to discussing in later posts.

One of Chicken’s Children Got Shoes

The fifth or sixth egg of the eleven in my salt and pepper shaker collection is most notable for its footwear:

egg shoesThis freak of nature was born with its shoes already on, it seems. How the shoes got inside the shell is unclear–unless perhaps, those are not shoes at all, but this particular chick’s actual lower appendages. Perhaps, before giving birth to it, its mother had a passionate encounter with a stranger of the Adidas or Reebok persuasion.

And who knows what else will emerge as its shell breaks further open? A chick in jogging shorts? A tiny human in jogging shorts who has somehow been imprisoned in an egg? On the face of it rather cheerful, this egg and its apparently more ordinary companion are really kind of creepy. I mean, maybe I’m reading the scale all wrong. Maybe it’s actually a miniaturized version of a human-being-sized set of eggs, in which case, the one on the left is just a person wearing people shoes enclosed in a giant eggshell, whereas the creature on the right then seems to be a giant chick about to emerge from an equally giant shell and wreak havoc on horrified bystanders. Or maybe those are just fake chicken feet after all, and the two are just plain human children in unsettling Halloween costumes. Or hey, wait a minute, maybe it’s just a person in jogging shoes and a giant chicken who happened to be just standing there when two huge egg-shaped spheres flew down out of the sky and almost completely surrounded them. It might be a fifties movies called The Attack of the Alien Layers or something.

The point is, the shoes included in what would otherwise be just a pair of chicks beginning to emerge from their shells are a strange and unsettling detail that just doesn’t seem to fit the rest of the picture this pair of shakers creates. The result is a kind of absurdist theatre, a surreal form of wit that I wouldn’t have expected in the context of the salt-and-pepper miniverse.

Note, also, the ongoing humanizing of the animals of the miniverse. Without the presence of chick faces to put lashes around the eyes of and pinkish blush on the cheeks of, the maker of this pair has chosen to add a pair of human shoes–a detail that implies far more than the more conventionally cute blush or lashes do that this is a creature somehow on the border between human and animal, a transitional being neither human nor animal nor humanized animal, and therefore, a disturber of established categories and very unsettling. Deliberately unsettling, or just trying to be cute? I do not know. I just know it’s way too disturbing to be successfully cute.

The Power of Demotic Objects to Tell Grand Narratives

Be patient, please.  Eventually I am going to get around to talking about this set of salt and pepper shakers:

casa loma

But first, I need some context.

A friend who knows of my interest in shaker sets sent me a link to a review in the New York Times Book Review of The Innocence of Objects, a book describing a museum the novelist Orhan Pamuk created while writing his 2008 novel The Museum of Innocence.  In the novel, it seems, after a brief love affair with a distant cousin, the narrator Kemal obsessively amasses objects that evoke their relationship in 1970s Istanbul. He has become, he says, “the anthropologist of my own experience.”  The reviewer, potter and writer Edmund de Waal, suggests that Kemal realizes that “objects beget narrative, just as stories need objects.”  Apparently Pamuk realized that, too, for he collected objects to recreate the museum his character created.  One of the vitrines in the museum he made actually includes a salt shaker: “this saltshaker: Just as she picked it up a rusty Soviet tanker rumbled past the window, the violence of its propeller shaking the bottles and glasses on our table, and she held it for a good long time.”

de Waal calls The Innocence of Objects “a manifesto for the power of demotic objects to tell grand narratives,” and quotes Pamuk:

If objects are not uprooted from their environs and their streets, but are situated with care and ingenuity in their natural homes, they will already portray their own stories.

Well, then: my salt and pepper shakers are objects.  I have collected them.  Can this museum of Pamuk’s help me to understand them better?  Is there a way in which they, too, portray a story?

The most obvious answer to that question is: no.  What Pamuk described in the novel and what he then created in his own reality was a collection of objects with personal resonances for his character and himself–things that had power for him as an evocation of a personal past because his character or he himself had once interacted with them, in times that now figure prominently in memory.  The shakers in my collection tell me nothing about my own past, for they never figured in that past.  They didn’t enter my life until they became part of my collection.  Some of them have been in that collection since it began, maybe ten years ago now–and so they carry with them my personal memories of when I got them, who gave them to me–things like that.  They tell the story of some moments of my past, then.  But all those memories are related to the collection itself.  They are not a collection of memories, but rather, memories of collecting.  Ok, so maybe they are then a collection of memories of collecting.  But that makes them quite different form the kind of “museum” of the personal past that Pamuk made.

But while my shakers don’t have any long-standing personal resonances for me, there is still something evocative about them.  They do still, in a way, evoke or maybe just imply a kind of grand narrative of an earlier time, even if it is not my grand narrative.

Once, on the original British version of The Antiques Roadshow, a woman came on to show her collection of children’s shoes.  She had shoes from the eighteenth century onwards, and she said that what made them so interesting to her was in what bad repair they were.  They had signs of use, spots of dirt, holes worn in them, and such.  They had clearly ended up on sale in antique stores and junk shops because they were no longer of use to their previous owners.  But they carried with them signs of that use, evidence of that previous ownership.  The collector then found them deeply evocative, signs of children’s lives once led and now gone.  They were for her, then, powerful demotic objects, ordinary everyday things that implied the grand narrative of people she had never known in a way that seemed to bring those people, and their childhoods and the ends of the childhoods, closer to her.  They were leftovers after the feast that spoke of what the feast was, reminders of  lives once lived.

And in a sense so are my shakers.  For most of them, I think, I was not the first purchaser.  They belonged to someone else–and some of them come with signs of wear, their tails or limbs broken off and such.  they carry with them something of the story of how they were used–evidence of their history.

But more to the point:  even if they did belong to someone else, I have no idea who it was, or what they might have done with them, or why they might have parted with them.  If they are a museum of the past, they are a museum without identifying labels or captions or explanations.  There is no guidebook.  They evoke an absence, a memory wiped out.  As ephemera, cheap souvenirs easily bought and just as easily discarded, they have come to me from somewhere forgotten  and thus become, somehow, a kind of powerful marker of forgetting, a reminder of what is not remembered, what might not even be particularly memorable,  The evoke what they do not and cannot in fact speak of–the absence of memory.

Nor does my “museum” try to place them in their ‘natural’ homes, whatever those were.  For I don’t in fact know what those homes were.  My museum is the set of shelves I’ve placed them on  in my study (as can be seen in the second post on this blog), where they sit en masse and unlabeled, more or less indiscriminately grouped together  They have a new context in my museum–they are there, not primarily as dispensers of salt and pepper, not even as aides-memoires that those of them bought as souvenirs of particular times and places were or as the signs of affection or duty that those of them that have been gifts were.  They are now primarily representatives of binary opposites and racial stereotypes and gender roles and such.  They are, above all, each set of them, just individual components of a collection–another, different set of salt and pepper shakers, another representative of the nature of that peculiar miniverse.

Which brings me back to that set of Casa Loma shakers.

casa loma close

What most interests me about them in the context of “the power of demotic objects to tell grand narratives” is how little access I have to any narrative they might once have told to the right audience, grand or not.   Who once bought this set?  I don’t know.  When and where did they buy it?  I don’t know.  And above all, why did they buy it?  I don’t know.

I actually can’t even begin to figure out why.  It’s identified, literally identified, as a “souvenir of Casa Loma, Canada.”  It’s interesting that it actually says that–that it was made exclusively for the purpose of being a souvenir, and that its self-identification as such presumably led it to be available in a place where someone might be seeking such a souvenir.  But what I don’t get is how, other than its telling us so, it could actually be a souvenir of Casa Loma.  It has nothing to do with Casa Loma in any other way I can think of.  What do two folksy-looking wooden lampposts with pictures of roosters on them have to do with Casa Loma, a noble pile of a mansion built to house a late Victorian Toronto millionaire:

CasaLoma castle

There are no similar lanterns at Casa Loma that I’m aware of .  And there are surely no roosters there either. So what’s the connection?

I found the answer to that question while looking for evidence of distinctive lanterns at Casa Loma online.  While I didn’t find any, I did find this salt and pepper shaker set:

casa loma not

Yes, it’s more or less the same set of lampposts, and with the same roosters.  Only this time, it’s a souvenir, not of Casa Loma, but of an entirely different place: Riviėre de Loup, a town in the province of Quebec.  So the set is apparently, a generic souvenir–once purchasable as a souvenir of a variety of places that it represents or evokes only because it says so, not because of any actual connection between what it represents and the place it stands for.   If my Casa Loma set once evoked a memory of a visit to a previous purchaser of it, it was not, then, because lampposts and roosters ever had anything to do with Casa Loma.  Kt’s because that was the place where the lampposts were purchased.  The imagery, the thing represented is meaningless–the word “souvenir” imprinted on the lampposts tells it all.  If my salt-and-pepper shaker sets don’t evoke their specific past for me, it might be exactly because, as in this case here, they actually don;t even try to evoke anything of significance about the places and occasions they claim to be representing at all.

With thanks to Jerry Griswold for the connection to de Waal and Pamuk.

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.

A Coupla Chicks Sitting Around

After generalizing about there being no same-sex pairs in my salt and pepper shaker collection, and then being surprised to find all the many male pairs I’ve been discussing in my posts over the last week or so, I decided it was about time to see what I could find in the way of female pairs.  The results are pretty depressing.

There are the two mixed-race nuns or market-going peasant ladies of an earlier post:


There are the feminized buttocks of another earlier post, happily eyeing each other across the gulf that divides them:


And after that?  Well, I could find just one more set of two females–this one:

Two Chickens

Two chickens.  No rooster.

So that means that after those nuns (or peasants), there are no other pairs of female humans in my collection.  Nor for that matter, no other female pairs but buttocks and chickens.  Oh, and I almost forgot:  these breasts:

Not Cute?
See their separable body here.

So pairs of body parts and birds, but hardly any pairs of female humans.  An intriguing absence.

As for those chicks: they roost together in a wire nest.

chicks in a basket

The nest contains a cardboard insert, covered in plastic wrap, that identifies them as a souvenir of a particular place:

Calgary Tower

This is the Calgary Tower, which was, according to its website, “built to honour Canada’s centennial and . . . intended to promote the downtown core as a part of a Calgary urban renewal program.”  An apparently successful program: the Tower now stands  amongst much taller buildings than those depicted in the image on the chicken basket:


But what does this structure in the heart of a large city have to do with poultry?  What do chicks in a basket have to do with urban renewal?  Excellent questions, for which I have no answer.  As often appears to be the case, the salt-and-pepper souvenirs once (and maybe still) available to memorialize visits to particular places represent objects that have nothing whatsoever to do with that place.