Kija Lucas’ ‘Museum’ Photographs the Reassuring Burden of Sentimental Stuff

Kija Lucas, 'Museum of Sentimental Taxonomy, (untitled),' Photographed 2014-2019/Printed 2020 (Courtesy of the artist)

The impetus behind Kija Lucas’ ongoing project, Museum of Sentimental Taxonomy was a desire to understand our stubborn attachments to our material surroundings. “I started wondering about why we hold on to the things we hold on to,” the artist says.

Lucas has staged the itinerant and stridently egalitarian project in Pittsburgh, Tulsa, upstate New York and now in her native Bay Area, at the California Institute of Integral Studies, and welcomes any and all who want to join in. Through self-selected “sentimental” objects, participants explore the knots of emotion, memory, and materiality that shape our lives, ever expanding Lucas’ own understanding of how—and what kind of—stuff can be meaningful.

“Museum”—or a related term, “archive”—may call up ideas of formal, institutional collections of objects that curators organize so as to convey knowledge. Both terms are also rightly linked to cultural appropriation, disastrous historic settler-colonial projects, and the sale or outright theft of objects and artifacts. Lucas is wary of these associations. Her use of “museum” evokes respect for the objects that are temporarily in her care (regardless of their monetary value), and for their owners.

Installation view of Kija Lucas' 'Museum of Sentimental Taxonomy' at the California Institute of Integral Studies, 2020. (Deirdre Visser)

The process begins as Lucas asks participants to complete a basic questionnaire, requesting name, age, city where they live, and a few words about the object(s). Lucas then photographs the participants’ offerings, capturing their physical qualities as best she can. Well after a session ends, she arranges the individual images in Photoshop to produce a single composite photograph and shares with participants the image link on her website.

In the early stages, Lucas created composite images using objects that she photographed in the same location, i.e. Pittsburgh or Tulsa. Over time, she abandoned that method and grouped images based on an intuitive aesthetic impulse. What we see, then, is a collection of unrelated items representing stories of which we know neither the beginning nor the end.

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For the current installation, the large-format photographs are suspended from grommets in the Institute’s Mission Street windows, or wall mounted, or laid out in elegant, blonde wood vitrines constructed by CIIS curator and master woodworker Deirdre Visser. The objects are as diverse as the emotions they arouse: a collection of action figures, or a stuffed bear, may evoke happy childhood memories. A miniature statue of the Virgin Mary may activate one’s faith, or membership in a global spiritual community.

Still other items—a newspaper headline reporting Nelson Mandela’s 1994 presidential election, or Elvis Presley’s death in 1977—denote someone’s personal investment in events that shape our collective cultural life and history. Overall, the photographs read as a visual account of a relatable human urge to invest otherwise imperfect memories in stable, tangible forms.

Kija Lucas, 'Museum of Sentimental Taxonomy (untitled)'; Photographed and printed 2018. (Courtesy of the artist)

There is pleasure in that emotional or monetary investment. In his 1968 book The System of Objects (Le Système des objets), French sociologist Jean Baudrillard argues that much of our love of collecting stems from scarcity, or depriving someone else the pleasure of possessing an object. He also writes of the physical and psychological burden that comes from collecting material items.

As I write this, I wonder about the MoST participants and how they manage the simultaneous satisfaction and dread embodied in these objects, and how I manage such psychological extremes. I wonder what it would feel like to be free of material entanglements, or if what Milan Kundera described in The Unbearable Lightness of Being as “an absolute absence of burden” would be too much?

Lucas’ project blurs photography’s already ambiguous relationship to truth or narrative purity by blending the individual stories and personal mythology embodied in the objects. I found that ambiguity unexpectedly comforting. It feels good to know that the often inarticulable feelings we harbor for the totems we collect are wholly relatable, perhaps all too human. Museum of Sentimental Taxonomy opens at an achingly poignant moment as twin plagues—COVID 19 and systemic racism—command a long-overdue reckoning with numerous broken social support systems.

For every life lost to either viral or social contagion, treasured belongings like those we see in Lucas’ photographs are left to survivors to organize or give away, their sentimental meaning dying along with people who treasured them—or living on in their inheritors.

‘Museum of Sentimental Taxonomy’ is on view at California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) through Dec. 15, 2020. Thirty minute, one-on-one exhibition tours may be scheduled by emailing arts@ciis.edu. Details here.