Objects & Memory

In my last post, Gathering Memories, I wrote about how memory is a central theme in my work. Installations and videos I have made have addressed our relationships with the things that we keep, in our homes and in organised collections in museums, galleries and places of heritage. These objects link us to the stories of the past, whether that is the memory of a loved one who owned an object now within our own keeping, or a museum object that may or may not be displayed alongside the story of its origin.

Two girls from different paintings, with a line of roses passing between them
Rebecca Farkas, Object Love (still from animation, with girls and roses), 2021

The objects that surround us appear in the work of many artists. Cornelia Parker has an exhibition in London at the moment and I came across some new articles about her work, including this piece of writing by Colm Tóibín. Parker has made a lot of work that links objects with memory, including a well-known piece called The Maybe, in which actor Tilda Swinton lay in a display case in the Serpentine Gallery, as part of an exhibition. Interestingly, displayed alongside the sleeping figure were objects filled with historic resonance, such as Scott of the Antarctic’s last provisions and Queen Victoria’s stocking. These mundane objects compact our sense of time and link us directly to historical figures, closing the gap between us and them while making these people from the past seem more human. 


Exploring a much darker side of being human, in her Avoided Objects series Parker used a camera that belonged to Nazi Rudolf Höss, the longest serving Commandant of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, to ask questions about whether using something that belonged to a person who committed acts of great evil would make the outcomes (here, photographs of clouds in the sky) somehow intrinsically evil. It is an interesting question, but for each of the objects mentioned here, we as viewers must be told the context, i.e. the story of the object or its owner, in order to grasp its significance. Without this context, the object we see is just a stocking, some provisions or a camera.

Cornelia Parker, Avoided Objects, 1999. © Cornelia Parker. 

Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London / Photograph Cornelia Parker

Within my own work, I often work site-specifically or by connecting with other people, gathering stories of places or objects as part of my process. When I made animation Object Love, I asked people to share the stories of their favourite object from Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum’s collection or from their homes. Although the stories are not used in the film itself, they felt important to me as I created the work over a period of months. I made a booklet to accompany the artwork (see the booklet here). It contains each person’s memory of the object they nominated to be part of Object Love.

One of my favourite responses to the callout for people’s favourite objects was from curator, Emalee Beddoes, who wrote, “THE SANDWICH!!! It’s a half-eaten beef sandwich from the late 19th century that was found wrapped in newspaper down the back of a sofa that was acquired by the museum. It’s now kept in a cigar box and is one of my favourite museum objects. It should be one of the wonders of the world.”


One of the Museum’s staff kindly searched out this sandwich during a Covid Lockdown and took a photo for me, which I used to produce a very short animation (see the GIF below). The memory of this interaction always makes me smile. It also makes me think about the fact that we don’t know exactly how the sandwich came to be down the back of this particular sofa, but its discovery by the museum’s staff has given it a new story.

Rebecca Farkas, The Sandwich, 2020


We all hold onto things because we attach a memory to that object. I have things in my home that belonged to each of my grandparents, and this knowledge imbues the objects with additional resonance, which is particular to myself and my close family. These things infused with memories are important as mementoes, and also as memento mori (or reminders of mortality). An object that we choose to keep for reasons other than its functionality often relies on an application of context through story and memory. 

This week, I listened to a brilliant podcast that takes four objects currently held in the collections of UK museums, but taken from other countries during the era of the British Empire. The Museum of Bad Vibes by Hanna Adan asks questions about whether the artefacts could or should be returned to their countries and communities of origin, which is an important discussion to have. What struck me about the objects themselves was their totemic connection to each community's ancestors, and the rituals attached to the artefacts that helped to ensure that memories were kept alive. The podcast says that these ceremonial objects "link the tangible to the intangible," and I feel that this is something that our own precious objects do too.


This is an ongoing project and period of research. If you have thoughts on how objects link to memory that you'd like to share, please leave a comment here or send me a message.