Essay by Edie Duffy for Contextualising Practice.


A Painting of an photo of a lava jug projected onto a wall over a brown chair
Or however many it’s been through by Edie Duffy was completed in late 2021, in oils on a large MDF panel (120cm x 90cm).

The painting Or however many it’s been through depicts the corner of a darkened room, nearly empty, only a solitary bent-steel chair sat against the wall. Projected onto the scene is the gleaming image of a vase, its surface bubbling with brown and white growths of volcanic glaze. Lit by a camera flash, it leaves a golden shadow in its wake. The image sits both within the space, fitting into the room’s corner, and above it, on another plane, being drawn forward by its supreme lightness. A glow radiates from it, reflecting off the varnished wood floor and patent leather seat.

My painting Or however many it’s been through is a discussion of the second-hand through which we perceive history and temporality, as well as originality and actuality, in complicated and complementary ways. By imposing a simultaneity of past and present, myth and reality, object and image, my work does not attempt to answer a question, but raises it, hoping for your answer. Here, the ‘second-hand’ will be engaged in three distinct ways: as SECOND-HAND OBJECTS, as SECOND-HAND IMAGES, and as THAT WHICH IS RECEIVED SECOND-HAND. I draw much from the work of Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin, and those whom he influenced, such as his friend and contemporary Theodor Adorno, American writer Susan Sontag, and Australian academic Ursula Cornelia de Leeuw.



‘Fat Lava’ pottery was mass-produced in mid-century West Germany, born out of a relatively flourishing post-war arts and craft economy that, according to one of the few books on them, had crashed by the 1980s (Trembley 2011). After falling by the wayside as relatively ugly ceramic oddities for a few decades, it was found that the Fat Lava did spectacularly on eBay. In a simulated auction house full to the brim with clumsy product shots, their striking appearance gleams through. This is the origin of the vase that is central to Or however many it’s been through. The surface is slightly reflective and mottled with a cool light, a handle pulls out from the narrow torso down to the bulbous base, and root-like growths of sandy glaze swarm around the vase’s middle. It is a captivating object, not only aesthetically, but conceptually: it is inescapably engaged with our perceptions of the past and the real.

Antiques are in constant reference to history, often referred to by the era in which they were made — such as ‘mid-century’ — and considered in the context of their creation — such as West Germany’s post-war economy or the Modernist influence on art and craft (Markus 2011). They have an age, thus, they were once born, and have had a life since — passing through various hands on the fateful journey to their current owner. As Benjamin says, “everything that has a history of its own, and is not merely the setting for history, is credited with life” (1968, p. 71). According to French semiotician and philosopher Jean Baudrillard (1996), this sense of embodied history gives the antique its real purpose: as a testimonial to the past having taken place.

The antique’s past is a mythological one. As semiotician Massimo Leone points out in Longing for the past, much of the second-hand market’s participants are “temporal tour[ists]” (2015, p. 10), strangers to the referenced time as place witnessing only a very constructed image, refracted by lost information, romanticised memories, and changed values. This aligns with Benjamin’s view of the Urgeschichte, ‘prehistoric’: the quixotic past seen through modernity’s gaze. According to de Leeuw (2020), our dissatisfaction with current conditions compels us to envisage historic life as utopian. This comes through in the Fat Lava’s own material, its volcanic glaze that evokes both the ancientness of ceramics, and the aesthetic revolution of the 20th Century. On eBay, the Urgeschichte vase is re-listed in the cultural canon, allowing a whole new audience to bear witness to its past-ness.

To Baudrillard, the antique references its own genesis. They are often interpreted through their provenance — tracking their lineage through any number of hands, right back to the hands of their creator. The moment of its creation is an event in history. Even in the mass-produced Fat Lava vase, each version is unique through the glaze’s uncontrolled reaction in the kiln’s forging flames. In there, it becomes a “fully-realized being” (Baudrillard 1996, p. 76), irreplicable, immutable. This real-ness is experienced by us as its ‘aura’: the atmospheric pressure surrounding a unique object, the feeling of authority and presence that emanates from it (Benjamin 1936). To Adorno, objects should be a medium though which ideas flow. Engagement with an auratic object should create a moment of clarity, of mutual recognition, of intimacy (Buck-Morss 1977). The vase is not just a vase, it is a vessel for ideas, referring to various and opposing moments in time and senses of real-ness. It is more than itself, it points beyond itself.



In Or however many it’s been through, the object is witnessed through the projection of a found — that is, second-hand — image. The vase is impacted by the process of its photographing: its colours alter in the LED camera flash, its form flattens, and a trace appears in the background as a warm shadow. It is not a particularly ‘good’ image, not carefully composed or particularly high quality, but it fulfils the job of reproducing the vase, and I find it charming nonetheless.

As Sontag states in On Photography, the photographer is “engaged in the enterprise of antiquing reality” (1979, pp. 79-80) — that is, an image is a view into the past, and so subject to the same distortions as antiques. Finding this image out of context, rather than taking it myself, allows me to indulge my imagination of it in time. The temporality of these images is imbued in their materiality, evidenced through colour expression, physical or digital form, and quality loss (Russell 2018). The past of Or however many it’s been through‘s image is not too distant, surely within the last fifteen years, but its composition draws up particular associations: the flash and overexposure hint at a naïve photographer, and the arrangement fits the archetypical eBay listing. Maybe to me this recalls my own utopic memory, of my mother’s 2011 eBay-Lava binge, her showing me a listing and exclaiming “it’s SO ugly!” — a golden age of shelves filled to the brim with Modernist ceramics.

Why is this imagined golden age brought on? Returning to the concept of the Urgeschichte can elucidate this. The technological reproduction of history is an attempt at its redemption. As de Leeuw states, the past so often feels abstract, prehistoric, a myth or story rather than something so solid as the experience of the present. It is something loose, blurry, far away. This applies to the future as well — a hope but not a reality. The redeeming image holds all these temporalities in one place, creating what Benjamin refers to as the ‘now of cognizability’, where our temporal reality can truly be recognised (de Leeuw 2021, Weigel 1996). Sontag talks of the reaffirming force of the photographic object: that holding an image in your hands is a haptic experience of the past really having taken place, proving that this present will be absorbed into history as time passes into the future (1979).

Benjamin’s consideration of reproduced images was often hinged on their phenomenological effects: the way time and perceptions are altered in the thing’s real presence. This might be complicated by the form of Or however many it’s been through‘s central image — being digital, it is not something to be held except through the mediator of the phone screen. It is untethered, abstract, an image as in the imagined — formed through code within the mind of this strange glowing object.

In The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, Benjamin discusses an artwork’s genuineness in much the same way as we conceptualise the antique: “[it is] the quintessence of everything about it since its creation that can be handed down, from its material duration to the historical witness that it bears” (1936, p. 7). The basis of an object’s aura is the limitations set around experiencing it, as in, you must seek out the original (with all that it contains), and it won’t be available to you for very long. The reproduced image complicates this (Benjamin 1999), even more so does the digital. It has no history, no mythology embedded in the fabric of its being, for it doesn’t have a fabric. It is infinitely replicable, transmissible to any number of people for any period. As German filmmaker Hito Steyerl proposes, the digital image’s passage through various hands-on-computers is a kind of mythmaking in and of itself, materially evidenced through the image’s resulting alteration, distortion, and decay (2009). The original and its aura do still matter in our digital and mass-producing age, but as contemporary anthropologist Konstantinos Vassilious argues, we should aim to consider the aura with more flexibility, so as not to fall prey the “cult of authenticity” (2010, p. 164).



This leads onto my own method of re-envisioning of the aura, where if the antique’s aura might have been obliterated in its digital reproduction, the ideas held within the vessel were not — their testimony now comes through in the form of the image. The third translation returns it to the hold of a unique object, while embedding the digital image’s new implications. The painting reinstates the aura, heightening the contradictions between each form as every antecedent is essential to the formation of the final work.

To Benjamin, a translation is an afterlife, a rebirth. It should not aim to replace its predecessor, or sit in the same strata as the original, but for a higher echelon, to represent without subsuming (1968). This is my goal in Or however many it’s been through — to elevate the original form in its life as a digital image to an afterlife in paint. Of course, this is not the first rebirth involved — that would be the flash of the camera, the translation from object to image. But this ‘rebirth’ does not necessitate a death, as the predecessor does not become obsolete. A real translation is transparent” (Benjamin 1968, p. 79), it is an “alienating gesture that unveils what is not visible in waking life” (de Leeuw 2021, p. 36). We see the image anew, second-hand as in a progression.

When translating, the ultimate goal is to morph the second into the language of the first, rather than mutilating the first to fit the language of the second (Benjamin 1968). The painting is not an attempt to override the original, but to make an entirely new thing. During the first transplant of vase into image, something got lost. Moving from clay to pixels retained the vase’s historical and material information but lost its temporal and authentic quality — thus the loss of its aura. So, the reborn image had to start afresh, containing its own historical and material existence as well as its predecessors, and attempt a new form of temporality and authenticity, however stunted by its digitality. To rectify the auratic loss, another transplant needs to occur: a return to the material world, through its projection into a real-space, and subsequent solidification in paint.

The projected image is a collision of multiple temporalities and realities. It appears as a ghost, moving through objects, altering the room’s atmosphere. This figure from the afterlife is here to bestow a message from the past, to proclaim its own existence, to bring about understanding. This moment of communication between viewer and viewed is the ‘now of cognizability’ mentioned earlier, a moment of recognition in suspended time. This is an effect of the dialectical image, the container of multiple opposing ideas all pushing up against each-other: past and present, myth and reality, object and image. The dialectical image allows the viewer to, if fleetingly, synthesise these concepts into a real insight (de Leeuw 2021, Weigel 1996). In Benjamin’s words, it is “only as an image, which flashes up in the moment of its cognizability, never to appear again, that the past can be apprehended” (Weigel 1996, p. 9). Or however many it’s been through is this moment mid-flash.

In The origin of negative dialectics (1977), Susan Buck-Morss discusses the relationship between aura and mimesis; that a successful representation transmits the aura from the first into the second. This was failed in the translation between the object (first) and the image (second) — my experiment is the translation to the third. By traversing the boundary, creating an object once again, the aura can re-emerge. My painting’s translation is mimesis in that mimicry does not substitute; in moving through my own lens it became distorted. Details of the vase were lost, the floorboards and walls are loose and patchy, angles were straightened in my view for structure. Further, my own physicality was involved — moving the heavy panel up and down on my milk-crate easel, pressing into it for the stability to draw a fine highlight, and mashing the brush at random to form the image’s carpet. Baudrillard recognises that reproductions are authentic in their imperfection, a work’s presence is lost “by adding real to the real with the objective of obtaining a perfect illusion” (1997, p. 9). If Benjamin supposed that a perfect reproduction is where the loss of aura takes place, an imperfect reproduction is where it might be re-established. Steyerl’s ‘Defence of the poor image’ (2009) pertains to this in the realm of the digital — that an auratic image arises as the file is altered, distorted, and reduced. Painting from a photographic reference is a reproduction, but a fallible one, filtered through the mind and body of the painter. If the aura is a phenomenological reaction between the artwork, the mind, and the body, perhaps it comes easier when this relationship is embedded throughout the work’s process.

Adorno considered artworks riddles to be solved, communicating a multitude of ideas but none exactly clearly (Sherratt 1998). The auratic artwork might present a mystery, but it is intriguing rather than flabbergasting. It draws you closer, feeling as though the answer might be in reach — but it never is (Sherratt 1998). To quote Benjamin, aura is “a unique manifestation of remoteness, however close it may be” (1936, p. 9). Despite this, entering its orbit distances you from the material world, revealing an alien perspective of time and reality — the ‘now of cognizability’. These are both points of mutual understanding between viewer and artwork. As we look at it, it looks back. The utterances of the ghostly presence are heard, its language being visual, physical, and phenomenological — “[t]his is how the auratic image returns our gaze” (Sherratt 1998, p. 36). Or however many it’s been through demonstrates this, the vase-image’s sight line is outwards, facing the viewer, fully realised. It floats above the scene, not physically engaging with the room, but inflicting its presence with its ethereal glow. It is paradoxically distant and close, impacting and eluding, on the same plane and on another.

Returning to image-space, the corporeality of an artwork is essential to its recognition. The artwork is not a symbol of its ideas, but an embodiment of them (Weigel 1996). This ‘embodiment’ is felt in the physical relationship of viewer and artwork, the “entering into it” (Buck-Morss, p. 85), the dissolution of the body into the image. Perceptions are lost as you relinquish yourself to the work — you are in its realm and its time-zone, its parallel reality. This distance from the material world grants a stranger’s perspective on it, a coherence of the disparate and tangled ideas that pour out from the text. Here, suspended in the ‘now of cognizability’, the artwork points “beyond its factual givenness”: to the viewer — the receptive gaze — and outside itself — the intimation of ideas larger than it can contain (Adorno 1997, p. 45).

And to where does Or however many it’s been through point? To the past — the utopian Urgeschichte, the age of mechanical reproducibility, post-war Germany’s arts and craft movement, the 2010s Fat Lava eBay renaissance, the digital age or the contemporary era of last year’s painting. It points to our experience of time — all those coexisting pasts, the present moment of viewing, the future that we enter, and the ‘now of cognizability’ itself. It points to authenticity — the unique mass-produced vase, its reproduction into the infinity of a digital image, translation as a representation or a deposition, and to the reinstating of authenticity in a new auratic object. And it points to reality — the genesis and mythology of objects and images, the abstract actuality of different time periods, the real space encoded in the painting, the viewer’s own perspective in witnessing it, and the tangible atmosphere of the aura.

All these disparate ideas are brought together, coexisting and coalescing into the final expression of the painting. Like in the aura, these ideas are simultaneously intimate and remote, tipping between comprehension and mystery. In the space that envelopes viewer and artwork, scattered concepts move around each other, connecting and disconnecting. It is paradoxically blurred and distinct, determinate and indeterminate, it is on the tip of your tongue. But cognisance does not need understanding. Ultimately what it produced is the recognition that some things — history, temporality, originality, reality — might never be fully understood, might always be distant. But the coming-in-close is still worthwhile, still a discovery. The moment of cognisance, of frozen time, of corporeal connection, that is what is important.

As Or however many it’s been through’s unassuming subjects pass through so many hands, their individual meanings meld and distil, becoming equally essential in shaping the paintings final concept.



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Essay – Or However Many It’s Been Through: conceiving time and reality through the second-hand