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The following review was written by Harriet Edwards of the RCA for the Writing Pad resource (Writing Purposefully in Art and Design)



The Secret Life of Objects, collected writings from the 90s to the present day, ranges over textiles, jugs, washing machines, cars, photo albums and more. The author, Jane Graves, calls the book ‘a dialectic between making objects and a psychoanalytic practice’ that  ‘gives us a new perspective on the object’. Yet the range of influences goes far beyond Freudian psychoanalysis to include dance, literature, sociology, dyslexia, film as well as figures from her communities of practice and her family.


It is not only the range that impresses but inseparable from that, Jane Graves’ contagious appetite for life and her massive energy, alarming and tantalising. For far from being instructional, this book leads us down back streets, through alleyways, on deviations all of which are illuminated by a mind that will not rest – it bubbles, reflects, provokes, guffaws, juxtaposes, narrates. The hidden is illuminated though no easy get out is offered. By the end, what do we see? The object is never just an object – it is everything else besides.


Alleyways then, and well, back passages: the Freudian faecal writ large; the basic instincts and primal patterns that turn us all into obsessors – with clutter, with mess, with repeating. In what seems a casual, spontaneous way via the process of free association, Graves threads together the material object with experience, memory and meaning. And in her defence of such an intuitive, loose method, the parallel with design processes begins to emerge.


Incidentally, some of the best things about Freud (so long out of favour) are resurrected en route:  his appreciation of the joke; his own case studies written as stories; the fort da game; the visual, symbolic and hidden nature of our dream; the id and the pleasure principle and desiring; crucially, the notion of the unconscious as well-spring for creativity – always a link back to art and design.


Further, we are invited, like Graves’ patient (Dance with Skeletons). to take out the skeleton from the cupboard, (I can imagine the author herself brandishing a flamboyant, multi-coloured duster) and dance with it.  There is no dodging for Graves: as she comments in When Things Go Wrong, Inside the Inside, ‘…the only pain we can avoid is the pain of avoiding pain.’





    Wear your hat, Jane, we’ll take ours off to you!



Then there are the drives of eros and thanatos, towards life and towards death, competing through the narratives as with the photo album shorn up against loss, or as described in Dance Desire and Dyslexia: ‘…it is only through our creativity that we are able to be fully in touch with the joy and sadness of the ephemeral moment - the moment when we run the risk of being totally alive.  Paradoxically, this requires us to be totally in touch with our mortality…’ The author has a grip on humanity, its impermanence and moreover, its value. Hence, the plurality of experience espoused in postmodernism is echoed whereas its reduction to an amoral landscape – ‘peeling away hyperbole to reveal precisely - nothing’ - is rejected.  In this sense, semiotics is reductive: a chain of signifiers in a game of surface flatness lacking the depth, the ethical consideration, that psychoanalysis allows.


Graves defends the access to the unconscious space, essential for things to stir, but will also defend the visual sphere that is ultimately pushed into second place below the verbal sphere by Freud. Does this have something to do with the conflict of Hebraism and Hellenism? (Freud knows his Greek myths but does he know his ekphrasis?) A matter pertinent to Writing PAD debates and art/design curricula at any rate. 


Thus it may be that Graves’ manoeuvrings around objects - her web - is a tangled one, and the load of psychoanalytical thought a challenge (beyond Freud to Lacan, Winnicot, Philips; the glossary is a boon), but the gems abound for the mining:


On objects: ‘objects are neither people nor nature, yet they contain elements of both. They function as a disturbing interface, an ambivalent love affair.  We ourselves are subject to the laws of nature.  We breed and die and are the potential victims of natural disasters.    Objects remain stable in the face of these disasters, even when damaged or destroyed…’ 


On Ben Hughes and the ID department journal: ‘… fantasy, the opulent use of all the senses, is in tune with the imagination now central to design thinking.


On clutter: ‘clutter is the glue that keeps us together, the faint ring of defiance in the face of a hostile and alien world, the few tatty props which can create the illusion of a lived life.’


On method: ‘”scattered attention” and “reverie”, the cornerstones of psychotherapeutic practice, are as much value to the design process as more structured research methodologies.’


On the kitchen and play: ‘My experience of the kitchen has been that of a Mother with four small children under five. In those most significant years, the kitchen is critical. (After all, children must be fed.) My true object of fantasy was, however, the playroom, in which I preferred to spend my time.  It was the obscure object of desire and the kitchen the dire space of necessity.’


On pattern: ‘Textile designers need to run risk as much with their selection of motifs as with design itself, to play with disruption and contradiction as well as order and containment and to escape the shackles of the “nice”’. 



There is something else. A. S. Byatt had a lot to say on weaving/spinning in the Guardian (June 21, 2008) recently, in her articulate, scholarly and comprehensive manner. Scholarly yes, but would she know how to handle faeces? In Graves’ account, the physicality of all stuff counts: we get down to essential smell and touch, not just sight. So, the textiles episodes do not receive an abstract semiotic and linguistic treatment, but become a weave of memories of a certain hive of industry or home, of smell and touch and time.  ‘The role of the artist/designer is to summon up in the object a full body of sensations’.  This full body of sensations is what Jane espouses and what she also conjures for us.


What is more, the dirt is not separate from the sublime: we see one, we see  the other. Theory and literary quotation alike are there not to take us away but to bring us back to this everyday core of life that is, to misquote Dunne, ‘mixed of all stuffes.’ So, faeces and Greek tragedy in one, no ‘high’ and ‘low’ apartheid. All this in a vein that is reminiscent of an old British vein – the earthy ribaldry of Chaucer, the double entendre of Shakespeare; much more recently, the sensual extreme of Angela Carter perhaps, except that in Graves’ down-to-earth there is laughter and some self-mocking…Jane and a  beast costume; sharing a joke about the fetish and the car as desiring machine; remonstrating with passport officials that ‘mother’ must go down in the passport and not ‘housewife’. These roots too of family, and elsewhere class, are fundamental to a notion of belonging and identity, of how we see and make. They are not cut off but nurtured and brought into creativity.


And even with erudite quotation, Graves’ voice remains the spoken voice.  There is an immediacy that goes with the strong grasp of the material and the sensual of the everyday. This is a breath of fresh air away from worthy prose, pretentious prose, jargonese, the ‘pc’. However, there is no monologue but as Graves insists, a series of conversations. With family, with objects, with textiles, with memories, with patients, students and colleagues.  Everything informs on everything else; everything responds and contributes. Graves herself responds in a spirit of generosity, with gratefulness, as if surprised and glad to find herself here and alive, as she says of children.


There exist specific collaborations too: with Stuart Evans, Ian Padgett and  Andrew Wallace, for example. And, as expressed in The Logic of the Shadow, ‘the conversation between the word and the image [forms] the nub of my personal interests’.  Hence the collaboration with Ben Hughes and Industrial Design at St Martins that has led to their engaging in Graves’ writings as she has in design objects: the outcome a number of collages that converse, producing ‘complex, ironical and sometimes bizarre’ responses in an ‘oscillation’ between text and image. Hughes comments that collages offer layered readings across boundaries, and like Graves’ texts, they are full of play. Again, we see a democratic and participatory response; one that opens up and does not close down.


Could it be that the book is out of date, centring a lot on the nineties, looking back to Freud? Not at all.  Its scepticism of the postmodernist amorality is warranted in the 21st century with its more urgent review of how we live together in difference - and how we tackle our ecology. And curiously, while Freud has long been criticised for his patriarchal bias, the author manages to absorb his ideas into her own rhythm of practice convincingly: she deals with emotion minus sentimentality, needles away at repression, celebrates desire and describes a ‘disciplined dreaming’ that begs the defence of a space for art/design and psychoanalysis alike in which forgetting - or uncluttering - allows the unconscious to yield. This is a space we might say is currently threatened in colleges by accountability or validation or numbers.


Then again, a distinct contemporary resonance is found in Nature, a New Look at an Old Problem which points to Textiles’ potential to absorb new iconographies forged from extremes of technology-enabled micro and macro perspectives of nature. These might invigorate pattern and the way nature and ecology in the UK is viewed, moving beyond the domestic to something wilder and larger.  


But what about something smaller, namely, the microscopic font? The author confesses this is something of a mystery: the text went in as a 14 and came out of the washing machine in shrunken form as a size zero or thereabouts: she apologises.  There is also the issue of copy-editing where a few more service washes would have helped, though I am inclined to cry, banish the pedant within!  And direct critics to Graves’ comments on the anal, or Deborah Cameron’s comments on verbal hygiene (1995) followed by David Crystal’s in a similar vein (2006).



When turning back to our desired objects or our making of objects, we will clearly see them differently. We will have been enriched by The Secret Lives of Objects: ‘What conversations, what dances, what jokes, what larks, what shadows!’ We have witnessed a writer, a woman, who grips the world by the balls with no trace of timidity or apology.  Jane Graves out-stares fear.  She relishes everything that makes our transitory stay on the planet a treasure. And has given us a treasury.


2010 janegraves.org.uk