An Object is just an Object, or is it?

Research Question

A comparative examination of the selected artworks ‘Personnes’ (2010) by Christian Boltanski and ‘Present Tense’ (1996) by Mona Hatoum; in the critical context of Involuntary Memory and Collective Memory.

These creative works will be objectively evaluated against the critical context of the wider theoretical concepts of involuntary memory and collective memory first introduced by Marcel Proust and Maurice Halbwachs.

This Research Paper will consistently advocate the philosophical argument that personal involuntary memories can spontaneously appear through direct or indirect interaction with insignificant, inauthentic objects. Our personal associations with such commonplace objects are also influenced by the collective memory of our local community and the social framework where it ordinarily resides.


Boltanski | Hatoum | Involuntary Memory | Collective Memory | Objects | Halbwachs | Proust


The artist Christian Boltanski typically adopts familiar objects in his completed artworks to invoke involuntary memories that intimately relate to specific community groups and historical recollections. He deliberately reveals seemingly irrelevant objects as historical and significant where unconscious associations are established through individual relationships with these contrived artefacts and the implied circumstances. He plausibly suggests that ordinary materials and commonplace objects are inherent to our conventional lives and profoundly integral to our unconscious minds.

A symbolic mountain hauntingly comprises many used tonnes of discarded clothes in the selected artwork ‘Personnes’ otherwise known as Clothes as Bodies. Each particular piece of clothing representing and individual person. The massive size of the formidable pile of well-worn clothes emphasising the countless people long since gone. Each forsaken piece of dishevelled clothing reverently placed at the highest point of the overwhelming pile to symbolise a supported return to a higher place for their dear souls. An evocative piece that invokes both personal memories in the critical context of the collective and historical remembrance.

Mona Hatoum consistently produces completed artworks that abruptly stimulates our intuitive senses and intentionally establishes familiar objects into unfamiliar surroundings invoking personal involuntary memories and historical recollections. Her commissioned artwork ‘Present Tense’ accurately reflects an ongoing political situation in Palestine. Faithfully reflecting the historical endurance and indefatigable perseverance of the Palestinian people, invoking recollections and cultural remembrance. These personal and collective recollections naturally occur through the intuitive senses of sight and smell and the practical use of a simple traditionally produced product Nablus soap.

The French Novelist Marcel Proust advocates that our forgotten memories are buried somewhere deep beyond our conscious minds. He suggests these concealed associations with the unremembered past can spontaneously resurface through our unique interactions with material objects.

In his final novel ‘À la recherche du temps perdu’ Proust recounts the emotional moment he savours a madeleine soaked in hot tea, his Proustian Moment. The Madeleine acts as a personal memento involuntarily accentuating his previously obscured correlations between his heightened senses, emotional perceptions and his own subconscious mind.

Maurice Halbwachs, the French Philosopher and Sociologist theorises that our individual memories not only contribute to our personal identity but our proper place in civilized society. Plausibly suggesting that the conscious mind will seemingly reconstruct our forgotten memories within the confines of acceptable societal interaction. We invariable associate with those who typically maintain similar recollection, yet our personal recall of historical events can generally be dissimilar from the collective remembrance.

This research paper aims to clarify that involuntary recall of a historical event can happen spontaneously with no first-hand experience and on direct interaction with a familiar object. The fundamental notion that seemingly irrelevant, inauthentic yet commonplace objects can be utilised in a completed artwork as emotional triggers becoming characteristically memorable when put into a critical context.

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