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Broken treasures and unusable heirlooms are given a new life in this inspiring project

Matt Ravier

Welcome to the 19th guest blog post of Time Out Sydney's 52 Weeks of #SydCulture 2017 challenge! May's culture selector is Mathieu Ravier: manager of Programming at the Australian Museum, board-member of Sydney Film Festival, and founder of The Festivalists (behind Jurassic Lounge and the Possible Worlds Film Festival, among other things). Every Tuesday of May, Matt will be telling us what he loved the week before. Think of it as your recommendations for this week, from someone who sees a helluva lot of arts and culture. Over to him.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the personal significance of objects lately. For most of my life, objects have been more of a burden than something to covet, cherish or value. Having lived in seven different countries, I’ve had to move quite often, without the luxury to take belongings along. Over time, I’ve learned not to accumulate, to let go of possessions easily, to collect experiences rather than things. Everything I owned felt like an anchor weighing me down, a reason to stay behind rather than explore the world.

Even when I decided to settle down in Sydney a few years ago, I was reluctant to acquire objects. I let go of semi-disposable furniture when I moved in with my partner (who is very attached to his designer pieces). I don’t collect books, records or DVDs (though my devices are full of transient novels, music and movies). I’m not poor, but everything I own fits inside a suitcase. I cherish memories and photographs but very little of what I own has sentimental value.

Installation view of 'Object Therapy' exhibition at the Australian Design Centre
Photograph: Vincent Buret

This week I saw an exhibition at the Australian Design Centre in Darlinghurst called Object Therapy, which takes 29 broken objects submitted by members of the public and offers them up to designers to repair. In many cases, these sentimental objects are not just fixed or patched-up but re-imagined, reconfigured or remixed, extending their shelf life while adding another chapter to their story. The show questions our relationship with objects, and through it our identity and our heritage.

It’s a very clever show, one whose rewards are proportional to the time spent learning the story of each object.

One woman’s large leather bag, which once belonged to her father, leads her to learn more about his life. A design workshop in Alice Springs transforms it into three separate bags, one for each of the three daughters.

Elizabeth and her knitting needles (right) repaired by Kyoko Hashimoto and Guy Keulemans (left)
Photograph: Lee Grant (c) Hotel Hotel, Canberra

Another’s broken knitting needles, handed down by a beloved grandmother, are turned into a wearable bracelet that becomes a symbol for generational transmission.

Some fixes are immaterial. A broken archaeological surveying tool, once used to unearth Aboriginal artefacts, is “repaired” by a curator at the National Gallery of Australia, transformed into an essay about the limits of Western scientific instruments in understanding a culture that has managed to survive for over 50,000 years without the benefit of Western science.

Richard with his Theodolite (left) and the object reimagined as an essay by Franchesca Cubillo, senior curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at the National Gallery of Australia

For the last three decades or so, I’ve lived disconnected from my homeland, far from family, relatively uninterested in the handing down of objects, whether their value be sentimental, financial or both. Having a child as a gay man is not easy, so the idea of transmission hasn’t been central to my thoughts.

But recently I took on a job at the Australian Museum, an organisation which for the past 190 years has been the careful custodian of thousands of objects, of immense cultural, scientific and spiritual value. I’ve been thinking more and more of the way objects act as repositories for narratives that together tell the story not just of individuals, but of entire people.

Working alongside my Aboriginal colleagues in particular has alerted me to the immense power that objects can have to awaken cultural identity and connect ourselves with human traditions that precede us. It’s not just a metaphor, I’ve seen up close how some objects are literally embedded with the DNA of their creators, users or custodians.

I left the Object Therapy show feeling moved by these strangers’ stories and inspired by the ability of art and design to inject meaning into ordinary items from our daily lives. Like the best exhibitions, it leaves you questioning your own assumptions and behaviors. Am I too quick to dismiss or dispose of objects? Have I forgotten people, stories or traditions by choosing to live unencumbered? In our consumerist society, is there such a thing as soulful materialism?

Object Therapy is at the Australian Design Centre until June 7 before touring nationally.

Check out our hit list of the best art in Sydney this month – then read more about our 52 Weeks of #SydCulture challenge, and let us know what you're seeing/loving on Instagram via the hashtag #SydCulture.

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