Thursday, February 02, 2006

Object Overload

Less is more ... or is it?

by Carla Diana

SANT'ANTIOCO, ITALY, June 11, 1997 -- In [Image]
Manhattan, where a square foot of floorspace is
about as coveted as a Vatican jewel, the accumulation of
stuff is a constant preoccupation [especially in my
apartment -- Ed.]. "The less, the better" was an unspoken
credo I shared with neighbors when I lived in the East
Village. Getting rid of a slightly ratty couch or a pile
of unhip clothes was a source of pride and a spiritual
catharsis worth boasting of to friends during an evening
gathering. I can still remember experiencing the rush, as
if the physical act of getting rid was a necessary
precursor to gaining greater control over life and making
room for the future.

Living in Italy, a country whose culture focuses on its
ability to keep intact precious items -- buildings,
paintings and artifacts -- has challenged this point of
view. As I sit writing this column from the island of
Sant'Antioco, just off the coast of Sardinia, the human
tendency to collect objects takes on new meaning for me.
Sardinia is filled with "nuraghi," fortress-like ruins in
the shape of round towers built between 1800 to 500 B.C.
One part of me marvels at ancient construction efforts
and the excitement of being able to touch something that
was used by people so long ago, while another part
wonders why in the dickens these particular piles of
rocks are left to stand untouched and uninhabited while
structures throughout the world are being demolished to
make room for new buildings. I'm not talking about one or
two "nuraghi," you see, but rather a network of remains
of some 7000 structures on an island smaller than New
Jersey. In addition to the towers, there are several
museums housing the trinkets left behind by the ancient
peoples: vases, tools and bronze sculptures.

"Look at all these things!" I exclaim with delight as I
read about the artifacts in preparation for my travels.
Yet that's the same sentence I mumbled with disgust when
touring the flea market in Cagliari, Sardinia's port city
and capitol, this Sunday. Amid the hamster cages, cheap
cameras and old porn tapes were other questionable items
such as a Commodore-64 cassette tape disc drive, a bulky
"portable" tape recorder, and a super-8 camera, complete
with a single roll of Kodachrome 40 film. These were
painful reminders of how much junk there is in the world,
filling our landfills, creating eyesores in our homes,
and burdening us with more decisions about how to manage
all the stuff.

With all the products in our culture that are
unfortunately designed for "obsolescence" (that is,
created with the knowledge that they're not going to last
too long either in style or function; quasi-disposable),
I wonder when the things we now hang onto will become a
burden. After all, we're usually not predisposed to hold
onto other people's stuff. Recall George Carlin's
observation on the nuisance of having long-term visitors
in your home, sort of: "Their stuff is junk, but your
junk is stuff!"

Down the block from the house where I'm staying, the
repaving of a well-populated square has been suspended
indefinitely due to the discovery of an Etruscan urn
under the street. Similar situations were common in Rome,
where torn-up streets can be seen around every corner,
and plans for expansion of the extremely limited subway
routes are always interrupted by the disovery of ancient
ruins. What would an Etruscan think about our hanging on
to another urn? Would it be similar to how someone today
would respond to the veneration of an old piece of
Tupperware? At what point in time does other people's
junk turn into stuff?

The real quandary, of course, is deciding what's precious
and what's not. Etruscan urns and bronze statues are kind
of cool: they're handmade of dense, durable materials and
take interesting forms. They've retained rich textures,
developed new patinas, and offered us a window into the
past that we wouldn't have otherwise. Early '80's
computer peripherals and cheap plastic ashtrays aren't
quite so compelling, and we've got much better ways to
record our history. At some point it's time to clean out
the attic and 'fess up to the fact that we've bought into
our disposable society by wanting the latest innovation
long before the old one was ready for the graveyard.

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