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Love In The Museum

I went to the Museum of Broken Relationships (MOBR) when everything was boiling.  The Zagreb summer, the fights we were having, a rolling, endless boil between us.  I went to the Museum to be immersed in other people’s difficulties in love;  for comfort and solidarity and I found this, but I also found insights into the meaning of time and of objects in love too.

The MOBR is a museum of objects, each representing a romantic relationship that has ended. There are objects you might expect;  wedding dresses hang sadly, a Valentine’s day bear holding a red ‘I love you’ heart is accompanied by the note ‘LIES DAMN LIES! This is just what you think when you’re young and naive!’ There are some more unexpected objects too; a garden gnome with a bashed-in face and a large, blue sharply bladed axe, which the broken-hearted used ‘every day’ to

‘axe one piece of her furniture.  Two weeks after she left she came back for the furniture.  It was neatly arranged into small heaps and fragments of wood.  She took that trash and left my apartment for good.’

The objects at the museum are all contemporary, due to the collection being made up of recent donations but we have known for a long time that objects are important in the romantic relationship.

Artist Leanne Shapton in her fictitious auction catalogue tells the story of Hal and Lenore’s relationship through objects.  Shapton and the Museum of Broken Relationships expose the particular way objects are fetishised in love, where to fetishise means to give the object symbolic value which transcends its ‘real’ attributes (as Marx knew).  To be clear: these objects are already loaded with meaning, already fetishised as commodities.  The porcelain dog set already represents a class of people who have knowingly ironic vintage home ware in their Brooklyn lofts.  But Shapton loads them with something specific to the romance between Hal and Lenore and it’s up to us, as readers, to decipher the way the dogs have been specifically fetishised between them and given a place in the story of their romance, reaching far beyond their painted-on smiles and shiny glazed tails.

We can relate to Shapton’s book and the MOBR precisely because when in love we fetishise the objects related to our lover to the extent that the objects stand in for the one that we love.

Sometimes these objects are banal, or rubbishy or a bit disgusting, like the pair of pants in the MOBR or a brush clotted with hair in Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel ‘Patience’.  The protagonist will settle for sticking his nose in the hairbrush of his beloved, in place of her.  In love, other objects, unattached to the love relation, usually weighty with symbolic value, hardly matter.  In my case I like art and books, and I fetishise these too, usually.  Except when I’m in love and alone;  then only the things of my beloved – a cinema ticket stub left by my bed,, an old woolen navy jumper – have any significance.  I’m bored of Miro, tired of the new Granta magazine, which lies unloved beside me. This is what Barthes means when he says ‘I am dead to all sensuality except that of the charming body’ and what Sinead O’Connor means when she says ‘I can eat my dinner in a fancy restaurant, but nothing compares to you.’

And speaking of being alone, time too is different in love.  Usually when I visit a museum – especially the big hitters like the British Museum or the Imperial War Museum, time is presented as linear, progressive and regular.  These institutions tell us that we can learn from the past and try to caution us against repeating historical mistakes. But as the Museum of Broken Relationships shows, time in love is not linear.  The objects here represent a series of messy endings and circles, of people ‘seeing all the consequences looming and doing something anyway.’  (Chris Kraus).

Neither does time march regularly in love and this is reflected in the collection of love letters sent during war time, held by the Imperial War Museum.  Many of these moving and intimate letters speak of the soldier’s hell of waiting for post from lovers, the joyful speed at which letters are read and digested and so the way this joy is then quickly replaced again by waiting. There is nothing even and uniform about time in love.  As the letters show, anxious waiting slows time down, whilst time spent in passionate intimacy with another makes time fly.

I went to the Museum of Broken Relationships that summer in Zagreb, to get some perspective beyond us.  And I got it, in the form of a difficult question:  if time is not linear, progressive or regular in love, is it ever?  What do you think?

Books I had in mind and referenced when writing this piece were –

‘Important Artefacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry,’ by Leanne Shapton

‘A Lovers Discourse,’ by Roland Barthes

‘I love dick,’ by Chris Kraus

‘Granta Magazine, 96,’ ‘Loved Ones’

‘Hot Milk,’ by Deborah Levy

‘Ugly Feelings,’ by Sian Ngai

‘Monkey Grip,’ by Helen Garner

‘Marx on the Commodity:  https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/commodity.htm (taken from Capital, Vol 1)