A photo collage by Celia Perrin Sidarous in The Archivist

A few of her favourite things

Photographer Celia Perrin Sidarous captures her delight over objects in the exhibition The Archivist.

This fall the McCord Museum will be presenting The Archivist by the artist Celia Perrin Sidarous, an exhibit in collaboration with MOMENTA: Biennale de l’image, where the theme this year is The Life of Things.

The Archivist arose out of Sidarous’s exploration of the McCord’s collection, creating an exhibit that’s partly about the institutional collection and partly about objects she’s collected over the years — those items that accrue intense personal meaning that only grows with time, not unlike those catalogued by a museum.

Speaking to Sidarous about things, it quickly becomes apparent why the McCord approached her for this project. She is unequivocally captivated by objects, so much so that she seems nearly breathless talking about her favourite item in the collection: a clear 1930s uranium glass vase that blossoms and fans out at the top. “It shouldn’t even exist it’s so fragile. It’s on the border of nonexistence.”

There’s a paradox in museum conservation, given that viewing any museum object also means participating in its slow decay. Your breath, your skin flaking off, the light necessary for you to see anything — your human living presence is just intrinsically detrimental to delicate old things. That’s why huge chunks of museum collections spend years meticulously wrapped in ventilated rooms to which only a select few have access. It’s not only to preserve the big chic expanses of museum floor space across which hard-soled shoes eerily resound, but also to preserve the works themselves.

Thus, as Sidarous worked her way through the McCord’s catalogue, first selecting 300 objects that interested her, then finally 20, her first impressions were almost entirely gleaned through photographs. Sidarous is herself a photographer, but her practice also comprises ceramics, and as she studied the McCord’s collection she made replicas of certain objects, new creations she could actually touch and turn over to look at. She “wanted to find another way to speak about the objects without photographing them, another way of interpreting them” as well as exploring just what, inevitably, “is lost in the double.” At the same time, Sidarous was working with the McCord’s conservators, and the project “indirectly became about their role…what they do and how they [understand] objects.”

Sidarous’s personal collection of things is dominated by vessels; so too her selection from the McCord. Why her interest in vessels? For Sidarous, a container is “a subservient object.” She laughed, trying to find the right word, “What’s the opposite of a sculpture? Useful!” She’s attracted to the functionality of the vessel, and also its ancientness. After all, we’ve always needed to carry things, to put water in jugs, clothes in bags. And yet many of the receptacles she’s chosen to highlight have layers of decorative symbology, a particular favourite being a little papier maché box on which is painted an eye, an ear and a mouth whose lips are sealed with a lock: a Victorian child’s lesson to be seen and never heard.

For The Archivist, Sidarous is presenting, among other things, her copies of the McCord objects, a cut-up poem taken from the text of the catalogue, as well as alcoves in which appear various photo collages that function based on the peculiar internal logic of any collector: the spiral of a shell is echoed in the spiral of a minaret, for example, and the shells appear again as the pattern on a jug. In another collage, the clear pendalogue from a chandelier finds a strange affinity with a piece of corral. There’s a clear surrealist bent to her approach with these collages, one that Sidarous embraces. “I don’t find [surrealism] uninteresting as a genre to look at again differently, because obviously these were all dudes. Well most of the ones that are remembered, not all of them.”

Sidarous is interested in the world of objects as removed from people – an almost mystical conception of things – but The Archivist is as much about the work of conservators themselves, people whose cultural role can also feel quasi-religious. That strange and white-gloved calling.

Sidarous points out that the McCord’s acquisitions come through donations, and that while they have criteria for what they do and don’t accept, it’s “a place where something like inheritances end up.” Think of how daunting and emotional it can be to keep one thing and to throw another away. Are great-grandma’s baby teeth precious or disgusting? Is that hand-painted mixing bowl lovely but too delicate to use? Every family moving or migrating has excruciating decisions over what material culture they leave behind. We have intense bonds to objects, as burdensome or fulfilling as some relationships we have with people, and a museum collection becomes the culmination of generations of those fraught choices.

The Archivist is an investigation of our neurotic and endearing need to possess, and later, to preserve. ■

The Archivist is at The McCord Museum (690 Sherbrooke) September 5-January 12; Vernissage September 5 at 5 p.m. Free