Ephemerabiliaphilia: The (Unreturned) Love of Re-Collecting the Largely Neglected

My memory is poor, generally, and getting worse.  My desire to remember the forgotten – the ostensibly unmemorable – remains strong.  It is a love rooted in the need to champion the unloved, or, rather, the dis-loved, and abandon myself to the abandoned.  It is a queer thing, to my thinking, which is queer always and could not be otherwise.  To love, perversely, what has been discarded or deemed unworthy of consideration, means disregarding what is widely held to matter and instead be drawn – draw on and draw out – what is devalued as immaterial.  It involves questioning systems of valuation and creating oppositional values.

Commenced in 2005, this journal was dedicated to what I termed “unpopular culture,” the uncollected leftovers that linger on a trash heap beyond our mythical collective memory.  To this day, down to my current project, Asphalt Expressionism – a curated collection of images engaging with the visual culture of New York City sidewalks – I carry on caring about the uncared-for and neglected, the everyday past which others tend to walk without taking notice.

There is no such thing as trivial matter.  Nothing is negligible in itself.  What makes something worthless is not a particular quality or lack thereof.  Rather, it is an attitude, an approach, a judgment – itself often a product of a cultural conditioning.  Nothing is intrinsically trivial, but anything may be trivialized.  As I put it, years ago, when I curated (Im)memorabilia, an exhibition largely of mass-produced prints entirely from my collection – “Trivia is knowledge we refuse the potential to matter,” whereas “Memorabilia is matter we grant the capacity to mean differently.”

Low as a Kyte? A 1934 Wills’s Cigarette card featuring Sydney Kyte, a bandleader to whom no Wikipedia page is dedicated. The card sells online for under £1.

A 1930s cigarette card, for instance, may have once served the purpose of boosting sales by prompting smokers to collect cheaply mass-produced images of film stars or flowers or tropical fish.  Collecting them nearly a century later – long after the advertising campaign has folded and the image has become removed from the product it was designed to promote – means to extend the lives of such devalued objects by moving them into the sphere of our own temporary existence of which they in turn become extensions.  

Whether or not we take measures to preserve their afterlife, we instill collectibles with new meaning, give them value by investing them with our longings.  I, for one, never regard my belongings as financial investments; I do not collect calculatedly, anticipating that what I gather might be the worth something to someone else some day.

I also refuse to intellectualize my desires; I am wary of turning passion into an academic exercise.  That is, I do not rescue the marginalized for the purpose of demarginalizing my own existence by convincing others of the cultural value or historical significance of devalued objects – and of the case I make for their value.  Still, there is that longing to be loved, to feel validated, for all the reasons that many, I suspect, would regard as wrong.  

Why waste time on what is waste? Why dig up – and dig – what has become infra-dig through the process of devaluing, a hostile attitude toward the multiple, the unoriginal and commercially tainted to which we appear to be conditioned in a capitalist system that makes us feel lesser for consuming the mass-produced within our means so that we aim to live beyond those means, always abandoning one product for another supposedly superior?  There can be no upgrading without degradation, no aspiration without a looking down at what has been relegated to refuse.

I remember a gay friend telling me, decades ago, that when he was a child, drawing in kindergarten or elementary with other children, he would pick the color that was least liked by his fellow creatives.  I did the same thing when toys were being shared.  This unwanted thing could be me – this is me – is what must have gone through my mind when I took temporary ownership of the object of just about nobody’s affection.  And this, I believe, is at the heart of my impulse to make keepsakes of the largely forsaken.

I started writing this on the one-hundredth anniversary of the first radio broadcast in Britain – 14 November 1922 – by what was then not yet the BBC.  Sound, after all, is the ultimate ephemera, fleeting if uncollected, lost if not cared for.  The BBC used to erase recordings of its broadcasts, turning the potentially memorable into the immemorabilia beyond my grasp, and, in turn, turning my determination to lift them into my presence into futile longing, a nostalgia for the unrecoverable past.

“Bloody strange but not, I have decided, queer”: Ngaio Marsh’s Killer Dolphin (1966), the Theater, and the Sexual Offences Act 1967

A scene from Grace and Frankie

“Theater Is Not for Fags,” the sign reads.  It was brandished, among other such boards, in a rather unconvincing crowd scene in “The Other Vibrator,” the possibly well-intentioned but insipid eleventh episode of Grace and Frankie’s third season, with which I eventually caught up only a few days ago.  The morning after, I finished reading Ngaio Marsh’s Killer Dolphin (1966).  And the way that my wayward mind works, I put it down with that slogan in mind.

Retitled Death at the Dolphin, Marsh’s mystery novel was published in Britain in 1967, half a century before the Grace and Frankie episode first aired.  That means it came before the public just as the Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalized consensual – and private – homosexual acts among adult males in England and Wales.  This being Gay Pride month, I am perhaps especially alert to anxieties surrounding gender and queer identity.  At any rate, I detected an unease – or a playful response to public misgivings, actual or perceived –about homosexuality in Marsh’s narrative, which features a single gay character, and a minor one at that, while most of the other players – actors and creatives all – are carefully coupled in more or less, and mostly less, cosy heterosexual bonds.  

Could it be, I wondered, that Marsh, herself a theater director, was sharing the sentiment that public playhouses – in swinging London, to boot – are not a platform for gay men?

Continue reading ““Bloody strange but not, I have decided, queer”: Ngaio Marsh’s Killer Dolphin (1966), the Theater, and the Sexual Offences Act 1967”

Make/Believe: Photographs of/by Angus McBean

The illusion of the stage. The magic of the movies. The glamour of fashion. In a career spanning half a century, Angus McBean (1904–1990) turned instances of make-believe and masquerade into enduring records of enchantment.

Poster design by Neil Holland, from a photograph of Angus McBean by Robert Greetham

McBean was born and raised in South Wales. His father had worked in the collieries. Encouraged by his mother to make art his life, McBean moved to London. After working in banking and retail, he became a theatrical mask-maker and designer before achieving international fame as a photographer.

This year’s exhibition at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University, showcases McBean’s work in advertising, his commissioned portraits, and his annual Christmas cards. It offers rare glimpses of McBean’s private life, holidaying on the continent, as captured in two unique photo albums. Also featured in the exhibition are portraits of McBean at home, in later life, by the contemporary photographer Robert Greetham.

Make/Believe installation view

Not all the personalities on view in this exhibition – Marlene Dietrich, Ruth Draper, Audrey Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, Claire Luce, Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, and Welsh icon Ivor Novello among them – are as familiar today as they once were, even though some of them, including Rosemary Harris and Maggie Smith are acting to this day. All of them, like McBean, lived by their passions, whether performing on stage and screen or playing on the tennis court, as Wimbledon champion Helen Wills Moody did.

Make/Believe installation view

McBean’s photographs were made in the pre-digital age of the medium. Using scissors and paste, montage and collage, as well as elaborate sets and props, McBean employed every trick of the trade to bring out the beauty, vitality and personality of his subjects. His photographs were staged, not taken.

Drawing inspiration from Salvador Dalí, whose exact birthday he (incorrectly) claimed to share, McBean ‘surrealized’ many of them. ‘This thing of truth doesn’t really come into it,’ MacBean said in late life of his portraits.

Make/Believe installation view

The theater, to McBean, was ‘fantasy.’ It was ‘what you wished it to be.’ It was also the refuge McBean needed at a time when being queer was a crime. During the Second World War, he endured a two-and-a-half-year sentence of imprisonment and hard labour. His work is a testament to the imperatives of making, believing, and make-believe.

Make/Believe, which draws almost entirely on the School’s collection, opened to the public on 16 May 2022 and runs until 30 September 2022.

Curators: Hannah Beach, David Eccles, Helen Flower, Ellie Hodnett, Mayu Maruyama, Ekene Okoliachu, Lucija Perinic, Joanna Reed, Katerina Vranova, Portia Sastawnyuk, Anna Slater, and Helena Zielinska. with support from Senior Lecturer Harry Heuser (text and concept) and Senior Curator Neil Holland (staging and design).

Make/Believe installation view