‘Presence of Absence’ lends active agency to past objects

In a time in which it has become easier to meet up virtually rather than in person, with social media shaping our daily relationships, the exhibition The Presence of Absence: Medieval Art and Artifacts raises the question: What is the relationship between humans and nonhumans?

The Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) opened The Presence of Absence: Medieval Art and Artifacts on Aug. 18. The exhibition evolves around object-oriented ontology to bring a sense of agency to passive medieval objects. Breaking away from common conventions of passive objects installed primarily for the pleasure of human viewers, the works of art and artifacts shape the physical interactions people have with them.

Perhaps the most interesting thing that caught my eye was the Edwin Howland Blashfield Gallery, in which the exhibition was shown. The gallery was originally constructed in the 1930s to evoke the medieval era, and to hold WCMA’s medieval and early renaissance collections.  This has been the first time in over a decade, however, that it has actually been returned to a gallery space after being boarded up.

The newly-restored space has stained glass windows that let in sparkles of light that are reflected on the tiled floor. The beamed ceiling was retained from its original state. The lighting in the space is soft and warm, almost giving off a celestial aura. The objects themselves reflect this aura and represent the presence of the medieval period and the absence of their original contexts.

The objects contain the histories of past societies that used them for religious purposes, and are also retaining and absorbing new contextual histories as viewers in the present see them.

There is a sense that the history of an object is always growing. There is also, however, a sense of permanent absence when we consider the fact that we may never fully absorb and recall the various past histories and contexts that the object has resided in. The object that seemed to be the most weighted in history and therefore the most interesting to me was Byzantine Oil Lamp with Cross and Scallop Shell Cover on Stand, c. 5th-6th century. Even though the lamp was placed on top of a pedestal and out of its original context, I could imagine people in past societies using it as an oil lamp and illuminating their houses with it. The beauty of the object was both present in its actual display, and also present in the absence of what it once was.

The exhibition’s curator, Kevin Murphy, said that the purpose of the exhibit is to “contemplate the weird, the eerie and all the ways objects haunt us.” This was particularly fitting, given that the manner in which the objects remind us of a past seems to waver between the human and the nonhuman. “I see this installation as an opportunity to transcend or maybe even transgress norms of how museums display works that are foundational to the traditional Western canon,” Murphy said.

“I believe that emphasizing the agency of objects, however, will encourage audiences to engage with our medieval collection in ways they haven’t considered before.” The otherworldly aura in the gallery offers viewers an avenue to meditate and engage with the objects in a transhistorical manner.

‘The Presence of Absence’ is an exhibit at WCMA featuring medieval objects in a newly renovated room. Photo courtesy of WCMA.

  • Oh great. Now the staff at Williams College have decided to treat the beautiful objects created by Christian civilization as things to be ridiculed (transgressed) on Halloween.