Micah Lexier and the Art of Collecting Objects
There is a sense in which the objects with which we choose to surround ourselves are like little mirrors. Gathered ornaments, trinkets and tchotchkes reflect something of the interests, desires and values of their collector. As sociologist Jean Baudrillard stated in in his 1968 book The System of Objects: "For what you really collect is always yourself".
Toronto-based artist Micah Lexier is a prolific maker of curious and clever objects. Lexier is also an ardent collector of objects. He displays them regularly on his Instagram account – both the items of his creation, as well as the ones he has found. This March, he posted about a favourite piece in his holdings. It is a coin, which he has described "as close to a perfect object as I’ve ever seen.” So much of Lexier’s large œuvre has investigated objecthood – whether formally, conceptually, or materially – and the prospect of his “perfect object” feels like a key. We began a conversation by email to discuss the coin, and what it might tell us about him and about his art.
NGC Magazine/Chris Hampton: You made an Instagram post not long ago about a coin that is among your favourite things you have collected. What makes this one so special to you?
Micah Lexier: It is an old, slightly worn coin that has the text “2 CENTIMETRES” minted on one side and “2 GRAMMES” minted on the other. It is, in fact, 2 cm in diameter, but I haven’t weighed it to confirm the weight because I don’t want to remove it from its original packaging. I bought it in the late 1990s, when I used to go to exonumia (non-currency coin) conventions in the midwestern USA. The conventions would be filled with table after table of dealers, and each of them had a “mavericks” tin or binder filled with all the weird/strange/unclassifiable tokens. I've found hundreds of amazing coins this way, but when I saw this token, I was beside myself. I had never seen one before, and I have never seen one since.
I consider it a very special object, as it has so many of the qualities I love in art and in objects. It is small, so one can hold it easily in one's hand, and it is made of metal, so it will last a long time. It's minted on two sides, so there is a built-in dichotomy, something that is a big part of my gallery practice. And it’s the perfect “multiple” – I can have this amazing object, but so, too, can others. What really intrigues me about this coin, however, is the mystery. Clearly it is a size and weight coin, but for what purpose? I kind of like not knowing. It keeps it alive for me.
You like the mystery rather than knowing an object's purpose? If you knew what it was used for, then it would become an object with a fixed history and use? You prefer this formally interesting anomaly.
Exactly. I like not knowing. It allows me to see it more as an object than as a piece of information.
There is a strong connection in the type of formal play the coin represents and your art practice. Has the 2 cm/g coin influenced any of your work? Or does any of your work do something similar?
It's not so much that this coin influenced a specific work, as that it reminded me that others share my interests. It was a message from the past, received in the present. In a way, it was a validation of my interests. I have made a number of works about measurement, specifically increments of time, and I just loved the way this object resonated with my practice. The one thing this coin did was to remind me to keep things simple, super-simple in fact. And that is the bigger influence this object had on my practice: to remind me that one can say a lot with something very simple.
The coin, to me, shares a sensibility with a work of yours that actually lives in the National Gallery of Canada. All Numbers Are Equal (Perpetua) consists of a set of the numerals 1-9, quite large, cut from aluminum and finished in black enamel. Each number has a very different shape, but you have manipulated the sizes so they all have the same surface area. Do you see some similarities?
Definitely. That is a great observation, and one I did not make myself. For a long time I was making work that dealt with the dichotomy of equality and difference, and that is where All Numbers Are Equal (Perpetua) fits in. When you started the question, I just presumed that you were going to mention I Am the Coin, which was shown alongside All Numbers Are Equal (Perpetua). With its 20,000 custom-minted coins, it would be the obvious reference, but I much prefer the connection you made with All Numbers Are Equal (Perpetua).
I did also think of I Am the Coin, as well as A work of Art in the Form of a Quantity of Coins Equal to the Number of Months of the Statistical Life Expectancy of a Child Born January 6, 1995, in which 906 copper coins are moved one each month from the orderly rows of one box, where they began, and deposited loosely in another for the duration of the artwork. In fact, I also thought of A Coin in the Corner, where you placed 100 specially-minted coins (inscribed with the image of a coin placed in the corner of a room) in corners throughout MASS MoCA. You've made a lot of work with coins. Why do they interest you as objects? What about as a symbol?
I'm less interested in them as a symbol as I am in them as a material. I consider myself a sculptor, and coins are, by nature, perfectly fabricated objects. They can hold fine details, they feel good in the hand, there is something about them that is both precious and not precious and, depending on the alloy used, they can last a very long time. I've always been fascinated by images of hoards of coins, spilling out of wooden chests or found in shipwrecks. There is something about coins being survivors that attracts me to them.
Coins are generally these utility objects, made durable enough to circulate between thousands of people, and in some cases, survive thousands of years, and they even bear some element of art in their design. They are maybe the hardiest little canvas or sculpture one could imagine.
They are indeed. But I want to point out that I almost never make a coin as a stand-alone artwork. It is always part of something larger, whether that is a context – the corner of a room where it is installed – or as a pile or a grid or a box of the same coins.
They aggregate. This is one of the qualities that give coins value. You called the 2 cm/g coin the "perfect multiple." Multiples are also a big part of your art-making practice. Why is that?
For a couple of reasons. The first is the democratizing aspect of multiples, both in a financial and a distribution sense. But the second is that multiples are generally produced utilizing some sort of manufacturing process – and I'm drawn to the “sheen” of a manufactured object. Additionally, I have brought the notion of the multiple into a number of my public art projects, where I have made massive artworks out of a large number of smaller, repeated elements. These include the 1,000 stainless-steel names that constitute The Hall of Names, the 17,000 tiles in my subway station project Ampersand, the 29,064 metal x’s that make up A Portrait of My Grandfather, and, more recently, the 1.6 million handmade ceramic elements of Two Circles. There's a practical aspect to creating something larger out of smaller elements, but I also like how the making of the artwork mirrors our reality: we are individuals, but at the same time we are part of a larger community. This play between the individual and the collective forms the core of many of my public pieces.
Does your practice as a collector of objects influence your practice as a maker of objects? Or perhaps vice-versa? Do you collect and make things for similar reasons?
Yes, being an artist and being a collector is very intertwined at this point. I collect different things for different reasons. There are objects I collect because they remind me of things I have already made. There are objects I collect because they have certain qualities I want my work to possess, so I keep them around as inspiration. And then there are objects and images that I collect to be used in, and as, my artwork. I have gone through different phases/preoccupations during my career, but it is safe to say I am deep in my artist-as-collector phase right now.
The artist as collector – you not only bring objects into the world, you also magnify objects from the world.
Locate, select, magnify, arrange, contextualize. Magnify is a great word because it refers to looking at something under a magnifying glass. And one of the ways I present these collected objects is by placing them in a vitrine … which is basically a large magnifying glass. Not literally, but certainly figuratively. It's almost a cheat to do this, but there is something magical that happens when you place objects in a vitrine.
And what's that magical thing that happens?
I use the word "magical" when something is more than the sum of its parts. Magical is when an artwork works. Magical is Lana Turner being discovered at a soda-fountain counter. Magical is finding a coin that has “2 CENTIMETRES” minted on one side and “2 GRAMMES” on the other.
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