time and rust … a good place to start

Far too long since last posting, but such is the way of it. Grant writing, project work, field work and travel have all taken me away from this endeavour. But this is a good point in the year to begin afresh, and with a little luck, maintain the momentum once begun.

So … to turn to the thin thread of thought I was initially teasing out of my muddled brain a while back:
Things: and why I obsess about certain of them.

It seems logical to give pride of place to the category of object for which this blog is named.

Rusty Metal Things is a rather broad and rambling category for me in my collecting, but generally, the objects I find most interesting fall into two groups: those that have degraded to such a point that their former life/purpose/entire form is no longer discernible, and those that are newer to the world of oxidation, and can still tell their story of former utility. I collect  – and this is by no means an exhaustive list – tin cans (usually crushed into some interesting shape by vehicle wheels), hinges, bits of wire and wire gridding/mesh, sections of pipe (especially ends bits with joints or connecting frameworks attached), flanges and other round bits that indicate the object’s former existence as part of a structure that opened into (or closed off) something else, bolts, screws, keys (especially rusty skeleton keys!), and of course the previously-mentioned random bits of metal that have so corroded as to be interestingly-shaped abstract artifacts of who-knows-what, as you can see below:

… a bit of wire, and two bits of flat metal, one of which has numbers and letters embossed on it … probably some sort of strapping for identification purposes. All of these objects (and those imaged below) were found on Marginal Road, by the Halifax Seaport.

… a squashed bottle cap, a bit of what appears to be pipe, and some sort of flange or metal gasket.

… an old railway spike, and a rusty bolt. Love rail spikes … one of my favorite things to find – perhaps because the rail system that helped build Canada is a fading memory.

— a bit of extremely fragile metal; this piece is so powdery, and will fall apart in my hands if I am not careful.

What strikes me initially with all of these things is the surface texture. Some are bumpy like coarse-grained leather, some flaking, some sharp even on flat planes. The diversity is quite remarkable, but consistent in the transformation of what was once a smoothe, and oftentimes shiny, thing. It is as though a skin has been shed to reveal a truth lying dormant just below the surface. I am fascinated by the processes of change on and in the metal itself – the slow breakdown and erosion of shape and surface texture, and the eventual decomposition that leaves the original form and meaning of the object entirely in question. I also love the fact that most often, I have absolutely no idea what these objects once were, or what function/meaning/significance they once held in the doing of things in the world. They now have to be taken on their own terms, as they are, not as they were or ‘should’ be.

So at the root of my delight in rusty metal things is the notion of transformation, and its sisters transience and decay. These man-made objects reveal to me the human desire for some sort if permanence in this world – which of course, is the desire for an entirely illusory state. The chemical processes at work on the metal bring it away from the fabricated world of humans, inexorably back to the earth – to the land from which its components were initially extracted. There is such simplicity embodied in the corrosion of these objects, the way they encapsulate the sheer inevitability of this process. I find it both brutal and disarmingly beautiful.

I realize my position here could seem romantic – a nostalgic eye to loss and ‘the better past.’ But while an acknowledgment of loss evident in the pleasure I take in these objects, I feel they serve more as markers of the continued human blindness to the inevitability of decay and change; this is where the delusion and romanticism lie to my mind. I find the obsession in popular culture with the new – the shiny, the (eternally) young – to be exceedingly morbid. As if the world and its contents could be cast in resin, eternally the same … but of course, to do so in reality would be to preempt the consuming machine, the ‘must have more’ imperative inherent in this world view. So instead, new (artificial) obsolescences are created to feed the beast. But I digress somewhat … . Yes, an acknowledgment of loss is part of the attraction, but only insofar as that loss is really not loss at all – merely a state-change.  An example of things as they truly are.


I have been contemplating the relationship I have to things – objects, that is. This in part because of several conversations I have had with various people lately, some of them questioning my desire for –  and collecting of – what amounts to garbage. I am drawn to collect various cast-offs to the point of obsession: rusty metal things, crow and raven feathers, bits of broken or disassembled clocks and machines, the requisite beach bits (a must for a prairie-born scavenger like myself). Even here, in this small apartment, I am unable to stop myself from bringing random things home as I find them (it’s more like they have found me).

Really the question is why? Why this particular affinity for particular forms of detritus? On one level the answer is simple – it is fodder for my work, and they are objects with shapes and textures that I find pleasing. But this does beg the question, really, and raises another whole set of questions about the nature of my work. Perhaps I need to engage in a process similar to that if Roger-Pol Droit in his book How Are Things? and catalogue my response and relationship with the objects I collect, or at the very least, examine my fascination with the categories of things that increasingly inhabit my world. (This book is, by the way, a delightful read – and a fascinating exploration of the relationship between objects, their roles in our lives, and the emotional and physical connections we have with them.)

I find myself beginning this examination with a passage from Droit’s book, that bear reproducing here:

“Is anyone really persuaded that our external reality teaches us nothing? That their [things’]  quantity is indifferent, their diversity without significance? That their variety, categories, genealogies and metamorphoses are as nothing — just so many irrelevant culs-de-sac? On the contrary. Things have no residence other than in their absolute singularity. Matter in this particular place, under this particular form. Displaying this colour and no other. This texture and no other. This degree of wear and tear and no other. Each thing is itself and no other.” (pp 9 – 10)

It is indeed this – the singularity of each object that I encounter  – that draws my initial attention. But this could be true of any collection;  so the additional layer of understanding that must be gained revolves around the particular categories of object that I collect, and what whose categories and the individual characteristics of the objects within each category provide in that way of … what? Satisfaction of some sort? Understanding?