In this installment of our artist-in-residence series, Adrian Marshall talks to Mindy Lu about her recent solo show To have is to own at the Jay Gallery in Seoul, South Korea. Lu studied art and history of art at Yale University, from where she graduated in 2010. She now lives and works in Seongnam-Si, South Korea. Lu’s work picks apart our desire for objects, how that desire translates into value, and what objects say about their owner. You can find more of her work at www.mindylu.com.
491: How much do you think the objects we own define our personhood?
Mindy Lu: I don’t know if we consistently and deliberately build up identities through the things we buy. Our purchases may seem like a series of disparate, private and somewhat unconscious decisions, but they reveal our a lot about our values.
I think that we use objects to remember our relationships to other people. I think that objects can be stand-ins for other people. Why else would a company like Life Gem exist? Or snuff boxes? Or reliquaries? Or why did people exchange lockets of hair for centuries? Barbara Bloom used a great example of objects as stand-ins for a piece. Apparently the colonial Dutch marriage market was such that young men in the colonies would marry women in Holland in absentia. Separate wedding ceremonies were held across continents in which the bride and groom would “marry” one another while holding a single glove instead of their spouse’s hand.
491: Does having fewer objects leave us unfulfilled or do we just imbue each object with a greater sentimental value?
Mindy Lu: I don’t think that quantity or cost has a stable relationship with sentimental value. If something is irreplaceable to you, it’s irreplaceable. I am hesitant to say that I value things more than someone who has much more than I do. Maybe sentimentality is like will power and there is a limit to how much we can have at one time. Maybe everyone has the capacity to really care only about a few things, no matter how many things he or she might have. I ascribe a lot of sentimental value to most of the things I own, and I wonder if this is rational or normal. I buy things in multiples and wonder if it will make me value each one less, if I can’t tell the difference between them. Sentimentality can be nauseating. I just threw away my fifth grade D.A.R.E tee shirt.
491: What I found most striking was in the narration, when you learn that Madame Bovary’s main motivation in acquiring things was that they “softened the bitterness of her life.” It removes any intrinsic value of the objects so that their value becomes about possibility–you are able to have them. This fit so perfectly with the Madoff auction, where you really kept hearing over and over how much of his stuff actually wasn’t very “valuable”. In his wine collection for instance, there was no evidence that he was a connoisseur. Was this mentality of buying for the sake of buying something you found to be born in the Baroque?
Mindy Lu: I don’t know enough about the history of commodities, but I think that what is interesting is that an auction is such a public form of punishment. I initially became interested in auctions when I was a Bartels fellow at the Yale Center for British Art. For an entire academic year I read about this huge, 30-day long auction at Stowe House. The auction came after the Duke who owned it had racked up the modern equivalent of 200 million dollars in debt; he even tried to run away from his debtors. The disgrace of the auction was supposed to be so great that the catalog discouraged people from gossiping about it. Auctions can be almost violent: the estate was described as being “shivered to fragments”. On the other hand, if you are loved, people step in and try save your material legacy—Daphne Guinness stopped the sale of Isabella Blow’s hats just last year.
Did Madoff’s things bring him joy? He probably had a really fraught relationship with his possessions because he (and a few other people) knew that these status symbols were being used to further deceive people. He couldn’t have taken his possessions for granted after a certain point. Shortly before I moved to Korea, I went to the auction preview for his Manhattan belongings in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The auctioneers wouldn’t let me take video, because National Geographic was filming a television episode that day. Part of the punishment of this kind of auction is that he couldn’t curate or present a public version of himself the way wealthy people can under other circumstances. It was really strange—knick-knacks were laid out on plastic tablecloths, furniture was arranged in room-like configurations. The auction catalog was no Sotheby’s tome. Madoff didn’t care about art. All of the paintings were of ships and horses. There was that Louis Quatorze gilt table, and that canopy bed! The auction revealed his and his wife’s taste—maybe it brought his family joy to have the things they wanted, even if those things were tacky.
I think a lot about Madoff and Madame Bovary together because in both cases, auctions were punishments for their selfish and destructive pursuits. They kept on taking more than they could pay for. Emma drove people into financial ruin, and she would have abandoned her daughter too if she could have. She didn’t even think of killing herself until her husband found out about the auction to pay off her debts; she was humiliated when the authorities came to inventory everything. I thought of making another piece “Emma and Bernie run away together” where Madoff is Rudolphe—wouldn’t that be great?
491: What were you thinking about in constructing the fictitious auction of all of your own possessions? Watching the video, there is something freeing about seeing these past excesses piling up. Watching, I couldn’t help but think that if someone was going to come and take all of your stuff away, it provides you this clean slate to just start acquiring all over again. Did you still feel a personal attachment or did your things, piled and inventoried, become foreign to you?
Mindy Lu: I wonder if the objects I own can communicate more or less about me than the ones I make myself do. An auction of my things is strange because I’m not an important person; I’m still alive; I’m not being publicly punished for anything. I don’t own things that would be worth much to anyone else. But I have thought for a while that it would be important to really know just exactly how many things I have and what kinds of things they are. The distance between what I want and have is sometimes really close and sometimes really far, it yo-yos. The video on the whole reminds me of how young I am: this is the first time that I live alone, where everything in my living space is actually only mine. I had to whittle down my belongings so that they would fit into two suitcases in order to move to Seoul. Seeing all of my things in piles made me want to be even more selective in what I have.
I get tired of lugging around old things; it feels like I’m being held responsible for all of these decisions I made a long time ago. Sometimes I wish airlines would lose my luggage. But maybe it’s a test I’m not willing to put myself through yet—to determine how much things mean to me, to know what it’s like to really have nothing.