January 7, 2013

Much to do about stuff

Student explores changing views of material culture


---- — CHAZY — Christina Elliot possesses a keen interest in material culture.

She enjoys exploring how antiques and relics circulate from private to public spheres and how their histories are constantly recreated and reinterpreted.

On Wednesday evening, Elliot will present “Engaging [with] Relics” at the Alice T. Miner Museum in Chazy.

During her lecture, Elliot explores the evolution of rubbish to relics, currency of “Antiques Roadshow,” how contemporary society interfaces with relics and the impact of new media platforms.

“What we collect says something about who we are in a society,” said Elliot, who is enrolled in the master’s program for contemporary art history, theory and criticism at San Francisco Art Institute in California. She is a 2003 graduate of Peru Central School and an alum of Clinton Community College and SUNY Plattsburgh.

“Who we are is reflected in our material culture and how they are collected, from a $100,000 comic-book collection or Rosewood glass or Redford glass. It depends on the personality of the person and how a collection is an important aspect of ourselves and our history,” she said.

Elliot has a penchant for small boxes and containers made from wood, glass or metals.

“It doesn’t really matter,” she said. “I find (it) really interesting to put tacks and beads in little containers. It’s interesting in this area. You’re downtown in the flea markets and poke around. It’s like a treasure hunt in itself, the mystery of the history they carry and how they invoke the imagination. I’m thinking how these things have a past life and what lives they’ve previously lived.” 

Private objects circulate more fluidly among the masses through online markets such as eBay. Alice T. Miner would have loved it, and her collection, its authenticity and proximity puts Elliot in a state of awe.

She interned there as a docent while studying at SUNY Plattsburgh.

“They have a Civil War service record signed by Abraham Lincoln. I remember being astonished by a 15th century illuminated manuscript. It’s mostly a post-colonial collection, but they have a lot of diversity there,” Elliot said.

The Alice T. Miner Museum wafts authentic aura as articulated by Walter Benjamin, a 19th century theorist.

In her thesis, Elliot writes about the circulation of antiques and relics, and how that transverses the boundaries of private ownership and public display.

“The Alice is an amazing place to have this presentation,” she said. “It’s set up like a post-colonial house. It feels very private, but it is a very public entity.”

Elliot deals with antiques and domestic objects such as tools, pots and guns.

“The yard sale is interesting. This private element is exposed to a pocket of display. Yard sales are a microcosm of this. If you think of giant museum collections that rotate stuff to show things off in their archives, a yard sale is a smaller version of that. (It’s) a person opening up an exhibition of their private things in a public way,” she said.

She is a fan of “American Pickers” and other similar reality TV shows that unearth the value of Americans’ stuff.

“They really do attach a commercial value to all these objects. The fact that so many of these shows exist ... there is a huge audience out there, a mass of people collecting as hobbyists. It’s a real growing subculture,” Elliot said.

The exposure changes views on what art is.

“Gas pumps and guns are now being collected and (are) boasting a price tag more than some watercolor paintings,” Elliot said. “They have a growing aesthetic value. The plethora of these shows are just illustrating that in a contemporary mindset, we are changing what we see as art. Andy Warhol started this with the soup can, and more acceptance of pop symbols within contemporary culture are also being reflected in art.”

Email Robin Caudell:

IF YOU GO WHAT: "Engaging [with] Relics," a lecture by Christina Elliot. WHEN: 7 p.m. Wednesday. WHERE: The Alice T. Miner Museum, 9618 Route 9, Chazy. RESERVATIONS: Call 846-7336.