Pattern & Chaos

Unstable Surfaces: Slippery Meanings of Shiny Things

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A presentation by Dr. Nicolas P. Maffei, Norwich University of the Arts and Professor Tom Fisher, Nottingham Trent University delivered for the Skin of Objects conference. Organised by the Sainsbury Institute for Art and the Norwich Castle Museum and Galleries, Norwich Castle Museum: 27 June, 2015.

Unstable Surfaces: Slippery Meanings of Shiny Things

It is perhaps the quality of objects’ surfaces that most clearly establish their presence and our relationship to them. The rich texture of silks, the depth of polished wood, the evenness of enamelled steel make these things hard to look at without wanting to touch them.

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Light plays in particular ways on these more or less shiny surfaces and enriches our material environment.  But shiny stuff is not simply a matter of sensation: the shininess of materials and objects associates them with strong cultural themes and historical epochs, and is markedly paradoxical.

Equally intriguing is the possibility that stable meanings, dependent on historically specific contexts, can be located within a seemingly unstable phenomenon. Shine implies the inner nature of some objects: people glow with health and in some cultures this is indexed in shiny skin and hair.[i]

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Shiny surfaces, whether inert or animate, may radiate because of effort applied to them and, whereas the immanent shine of gold, skin or hair may be attractive, the shine of viscous, oily ‘slimy’ surfaces, which are not clearly solid or liquid, may be repellant, as Sartre noted. [ii]

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The shine of one object may strongly connote value while the gloss of another may suggest cheapness and ‘glitz’.  In a similar way, the ‘deep’ shine of an old patinated surface speaks of the labour required to produce and maintain it – it requires work and may connote leisure and status – while the temporary shininess of many consumer goods aligns precisely with the alleged instability and superficiality of postmodern culture, yet signify technological modernity.

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