It occurred to me today that no one ever has a suitcase in their hand unless something significant is about to happen. Overseas adventures, interstate getaways, annual holidays, family stays (rarely are those last two combined successfully), hospital visits, boarding school, the first steps of an independent young life, travelling salesmen, a scandalised daughter sent away for nine months, a relationship coming to an end, Mormons at your door on a Sunday, absent parents coming back from business trips with presents for the children, the aftermath of death when the closets need to be emptied. A suitcase always means something.
When we travel they hold our requirements, our necessities, the things we need to be comfortable when outside our regular spaces. One of my favourite ways to pass the time at an airport is imagining what people have packed in their suitcases – there’s always one who I’m sure has a bag full of bondage gear or smuggled reptiles. My years as a travel agent showed me time and again how proud frequent travellers were of the state of their luggage. Once retired from service, they become the universal symbol for a life well lived, with their knocks and scratches holding just as many stories as the luggage tags and airline stickers we keep to remind us of the places we’ve been.
No wonder beaten up old cases are always such hot items in the antique trade. I’m constantly amazed by how much people are willing to spend on a trunk that looks like it survived both the Titanic and Cyclone Tracy, before being dropped off a truck and run over by a bus. But spend they do. People love buying a bit of imagined history; I see it all the time in the antique stores I trawl through. Imagining a history for an object allows a collector to put their own twist on something that’s already had many lives, before taking it home and making another use out of it entirely. Photographers love them as props, cats love them as beds, hipster DJs love big ones used as tables for their decks.
Museums frequently make use of the strong emotions evoked by suitcases in their exhibits. Holocaust museums worldwide display the suitcases of Jews who packed not knowing what lay ahead; Immigration Museums do something similar though generally with less horrific outcomes; and New York State Museum holds in their collection the abandoned suitcases at the Willard Mental Asylum, still full of personal items of the patients who died there.
A much lighter use for luggage is found in Transport Museums, where vintage suitcases help create the charm of a rail platform or dockyard at the turn of the century. In my current research looking into Reminiscence Therapy for dementia patients, participants and their families work with museums to fill small cases with items of significance as personal memory boxes that can be used to stimulate conversation when the disease takes away a person’s ability to recall their lives.
Outside of the historical context, both real and imagined, contemporary artists make use of the suitcase motif as an immediate emotional hook for their work. Lately I’ve been stuck on the little suitcase hotels of Swedish artist Bo Christian Larsson, whose work is part dollhouse fantasy, part commentary on the lost potential in discarded items. Making use of existing tags and stamps, the cases and trunks are returned to the position of journeyman’s assistant in their new role as miniature accommodation houses.
Though known primarily for her larger figurative works in bone and found objects, Sydney-based sculptor Linde Ivimey’s recent collections have included tiny suitcase dioramas – each opening up to reveal a stage mid performance, leaving us as the viewer feeling like we’ve just snuck in to a show without a ticket. Focused and intimate, the works exclude the world beyond the confines of theirs locks and clasps.
In 2008, Pakistani artist Huma Mulji created a work for Art Dubai that caused more controversy than a backpack full of heroine at Changi Airport when she debuted her taxidermied camel stuffed into a suitcase. Highly offensive to the locals, for whom camels are a national symbol of pride, the piece was removed from the fair after just two days (but not before Charles Saatchi had snapped it up for an exhibition of his own). At the time Mulji maintained the work, named Arabian Delight, was a response to international animal smuggling, but has since admitted to it’s inspiration lying more in the ‘Arabisation’ of her homeland.
Less politically charged, though still controversial, was a large scale installation at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis by interdisciplinary design studio Diller, Scofidio & Renfro called Tourisms: suitCase Studies. Comprised of 50 suspended suitcases representing the mainland states of the USA, each case critically analysed specific tourist attractions across the country. Sounds straightforward (read mundane) enough, but by selecting only famous bedrooms and battlefields to be included, the work became an intense commentary on the voyeuristic nature of scandal sites and disaster tourism, though the fact that Samsonite supplied all the cases would seem to indicate they weren’t too concerned about the impact it would have on traveller numbers.
Perhaps the best example of what I’ve been pondering today is from a 2012 exhibition called Now Dig This: Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980, where a small suitcase unwittingly became the star of the show. Found by curators in the archives of a gallery in New York City, it was believed to have been loaned by Charles White, credited with birthing the African American ‘art as activism’ movement in Los Angeles, to fellow artist Dan Concholar who filled it full of his own junk then promptly forgot about it. This history was entirely speculative, yet it became the piece everyone spoke about, even described by one reviewer as the “microcosm for the whole show.” Just the possibility that these seminal figures may have touched it was enough to stop a visitor in their tracks. Is it art, or artefact? Doesn’t matter much I suppose.
To live out of a suitcase is not a lifestyle most of us covet in the long term. Who wants to be a human Paddington Bear, forever lugging a trunk around in the hope someone will take us in? Yet there is something undeniably appealing about them that no degree of technology has managed to remove. Your bag might have cost four times that of the guy standing next to you at the luggage carousel, but price has no bearing on the memories held within their compartments.
In any case (wait…that was an accidental pun and quite a bad one), it’s kinda nice to know that even when the tedious job of unpacking is done, there remains a little of our journey locked safely inside.