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  • Ellie Harrison

Holding On And Letting Go

Holding on and letting go… and borrowing things


I am a hoarder. And whilst I am often embarrassed by it, I love to own things and have those things around me. I am currently collaborating with photographer Roshana Rubin-Mayhew. As we work it becomes clear how different my feelings about photographs are to hers. It is about the present moment for her, about the taking of photographs rather than the having them. If she is engaging with something or someone in a particularly meaningful way, taking a photograph adds another dimension to her engagement with it or them at that moment. As an artist I talk a lot about process but in reality I long for that Christmas morning feeling when Roshana sends me new images to pore over. It feels like unwrapping a present. And it is. Our participants have been generous with their time, with their histories and with their present. And I value these for the right and wrong reasons. I value the sharing involved but I also value the objectness of it. I have that photograph now. Forever. It won’t dissolve or decay like a performance or the real person. I consider this with the vague feeling that it’s not a good thing but also with the acceptance that that’s how I am. I think about my desire to hang on to things.


A friend pointed this excerpt of Howards End by E.M Forster out to me last night as it had echoes of Part 3 and also I suspect because it reminds her a little of me.


Chapter 17 The Age of Property holds bitter moments even for a proprietor. When a move is imminent, furniture becomes ridiculous, and Margaret now lay awake at nights wondering where, where on earth they and all their belongings would be deposited in September next. Chairs, tables, pictures, books, that had rumbled down to them through the generations, must rumble forward again like a slide of rubbish to which she longed to give the final push, and send toppling into the sea. But there were all their father's books--they never read them, but they were their father's, and must be kept. There was the marble-topped chiffonier--their mother had set store by it, they could not remember why. Round every knob and cushion in the house sentiment gathered, a sentiment that was at times personal, but more often a faint piety to the dead, a prolongation of rites that might have ended at the grave.


When my mother died I inherited the contents of a three bedroom house. My mother was also a hoarder. There was a lot of stuff. My sister and I grieved in different ways. I was filled with a desire to go through boxes, to order my mother’s life or re order it to make sense out of it. To divide into nice neat piles. To keep. To bin. To donate to friends. To go to the charity shop. To sell. My sister and I got rid of a lot of things but there was a lot there in the first place so even after getting rid of mountains of clothes and donating books there was a lot. My mother grew up in a large house which I will happily brag about given half a chance over a glass of wine but that’s a whole other conversation all about class. Perhaps this was why she hoarded. Because she could, she grew up with the unconscious expectation that there was enough space. But she also grew up during the war. Perhaps the waste not want not mentality was instilled in her. She was a woman of great ingenuity: an artist and a writer and a mother who was always transforming things, recycling things. One of my favourite books was Mary Norton’s The Borrowers. For those of you not familiar, they are tiny people who use and reinvent the objects mislaid and left behind by human beings. We spent ages making a house for the borrower dolls my mum had made out of paper mache. There were chests of drawers made out of matchboxes and curtains made out of handkerchiefs. I loved to transform things and re-purpose things.


My sister has a very different approach to her valuing system of objects. For her, old means tired out, dated and fuddy duddy. For me, the older the better. I love things that are beautifully made and made to last several lifetimes.


I have recently auctioned off some of the things I inherited when my mum died. Not priceless artefacts or deeply sentimental things but the things that stayed packed up in boxes. They have gone to a new home. In my personal life I am letting go of the parts of my mother’s story that don’t somehow have me in them whilst almost greedily accruing the stories of others through my work. But as one participant said of an object they acquired from a lost loved one ‘I don’t own it. It’s not mine’. He’s right. I don’t own these people’s stories. They lend them to me. Perhaps I am borrower. I hope I am in the business of transforming or reframing things. Perhaps my participants are borrowers too? And they pass the objects they’ve borrowed on to me through the photos and stories. And we pass them on to you.

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