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The Archeology of Everyday Life


Mia Unverzagt’s work investigates the ostensibly banal objects that make up everyday life. The work is driven not by a formal interest in an object’s surface, color or material quality but rather by the artist’s search for structural interrelationships among object, utilization and cultural context. As it is used, an ordinary mass-produced object becomes unique; by analyzing the traces left on that object we can gain valuable insights into underlying societal structures.


After all, do not the traces left when an object is used reveal much more about the history of that use than an image of the user can? A chair is a functional piece of furniture that someone either likes or is not fond of; it either works fine or is broken. But just as people are shaped by experiences, objects bear informative traces of the use that has been made of them. A chair, for example, can be described not only in terms of materials and fabrication techniques, but also in terms of the climatic conditions to which it has been exposed, the specific ways in which it has been used and the degree of care it has received. Unverzagt consciously breaks with traditional art-historical approaches to material things; she is skeptical of the concept of the authentic image and seeks instead the object’s own object(ive)ness.


Philosophical deprecation of the material world is rooted in a dualistic worldview that dogmatically divides the subject on the one hand from the object on the other. Thus René Descartes differentiated between res extensa, physicality or extension, and res cogitans, consciousness or non-extension; he thereby deepened the epistemological split between philosophical observation of mind and that of body. Mind, as an object-less “thing,” has always inspired metaphysical speculation, whereas the body in its apparent specificity has only recently been considered more closely. However, because it can be measured and mapped, the physical body continues to be neglected by scholarly discourse.


Let us seek here to foreground the close relationships that exist among an object, its utilization and its user. To do so we must rein in our egocentric vanity and direct our attention to the things themselves. Only then will we be able, with the help of the traces that mark the objects, to draw conclusions about the users. This method resembles forensic evidence collection, which seeks to reconstruct past events in an objectively verifiable fashion.


Both positive and negative life experiences shape a person’s growth; indeed, it is our biographical rough edges that make us unique. Life’s detours, and experiences like illness or personal crisis,, may well seem unbearable to us, yet later we might look back on just those moments and become convinced of our own strength. Human bodies likewise collect experiences and are marked by traces of life as they age. However, we generally attempt to restrain, diminish or at least hide those traces. The ideal many of us hold is that of a human being who is born with a flawless body and then develops and thrives – yet the fact is that scars begin to form the moment an umbilical cord is cut. And sometimes the marks on our bodies, such as the traditional dueling gash among members of certain German fraternities, are even intentional, serving as external signs of experience and of membership in a particular group.


Non-living everyday objects as well accompany our lives and become, through the traces left on them by use, reliable witnesses to the aging process. If we investigate those traces from an economic perspective we begin to see the potential for social analysis that the process of deterioration holds.[1] Wear and tear from proper usage generally seems to offer little insight, but traces of unusual use articulate individual and societal needs and provide objective interpretations of the user’s actual behavior. Consider a chair with broken back legs: a merchant would almost certainly attribute such damage to improper use, specifically to the user having rocked back onto the chair’s legs while seated. But should not this analysis of the damage lead us instead to consider producing chairs with reinforced back legs in the future, to make unrestrained rocking possible? Unverzagt, however, does not concern herself with such market-oriented considerations; instead, she relates the traces of use to the societal structures that cause them. How, she asks, can we evaluate, activate, transform and use those traces – and what role do they play in our memories?



Western industrialized cultures in particular are reluctant to accept the traces of use. We happily admire glittering virginal objects that no one has used before. What is the source of this fascination for all that is unmarked? Spaces that have been lived in and objects that have been used carry memories and link the moment that is “now” with a “before” that already carries meaning and significance. The places of childhood tear us away from the conditions of our current lives and involuntarily bind us to structures we have overcome, and memory and stirred-up emotion accompany our return to those places. This phenomenon exists in both a negative form and a positive one – mementoes of which we have grown fond can serve as bridges connecting us to the past.


[1] Cf. Toshihiti Chi, Immanuel; Stotz, Oliver: Spuren des Gebrauchs in: Kunstforum V. 130. 1995, pp. 213 – 214.