Taxonomy for the masses

The pornographic allure of looking at things organised neatly.

A book arrived in the office last week which seemed to have been inspired by a current fashion on the internet. Things Come Apart, by the Canadian photographer Todd McLellan, is a showcase of objects, old and new, disassembled and laid out on clean surfaces like anatomical diagrams. It is divided into small, medium, large and extra large objects: from pens, clocks and electronic gadgets to a large metal snow blower, an upright piano and an aluminium two-seater light aircraft.

There are interesting juxtapositions. A second generation iPod is placed beside a Sony Walkman, the latter boasting 370 individual components, by comparison with the iPod’s slick 80. A mark of progressive design? Elsewhere the trend is reversed. An Asahi Pentax SLR camera from the 1970s - which I was delighted to see, having inherited the same model from a friend’s father after he died - appears next to a 2012 Sony Digital SLR, which has retained roughly the same number of parts (580 to the Asahi's 576), despite having made the transition from film to digital.

Digital SLR Camera, 2012, Sony. Component count: 580. All images copyright: Todd McLellan 2013

For McLellan, there exists a danger in our “locked out” culture. We have become alienated from the objects in our homes. In his introductory essay, “We all have ADHD these days...”, McLellan expresses dissatisfaction with the “exasperating” waste and expense of having to replace everything we buy after a few years' use. It was not always thus, he writes:

It fascinates me that older objects were so well built, and were most likely put together by hand. These items were repaired when broken, not discarded like our devices today.

There is no mention of the word “neat” anywhere in the book. I find this strange because the most arresting thing about the images is the way they impose order upon a large number of connected yet disparate parts. The inner elements of everyday items are grouped and arranged with almost fanatical, geometrical precision. Yet McLellan does not make mention of the aesthetic impact of looking at a piano with all its hammers, pegs, pedals and keys lined up - or a typewriter, its cipher-tipped metal arms and levers arranged to create diametric patterns that leap off the page like a William Morris print.

The effect is both satisfying and superficial. Similar images have appeared online over the last five years, particularly on blogs such as FFFFound! and Things Organized Neatly (perhaps another reason to avoid the word “neat”, though I have no idea who precipitated the movement). At university, I became addicted to scrolling through these sites, feeding my obsessive compulsiveness by forcing an industrial degree of orderliness upon what would otherwise have been an unrecognisable mess. I spent hours clicking from one post to the next in search of the most grand - or minute - or unlikely - disassembly. Technology, matches, motorbikes - even families. The desire to seek out form and meaning in the world is a primary human urge, and the maximalist stratification of deconstructed household objects provides an instant hit that pleases intensely for a second, but is soon forgotten.

Things Come Apart - a slightly clunky adaptation of Yeats’s line in “The Second Coming” - claims to be working against the finished, holistic and pristine. If you look at enough of these kind of images online, their contrivance begins to feel restrictive. Unlike those images of calculated destruction which circulate fairly rapidly following the release of a new must-have gadget, there is no anarchy here. Rather we are witnessing the curatorial effort and surgical design that put the finished product on the shelves to begin with - and they are always products: buyable items. One issue I have with Things Organised Neatly is that its materialism can get to be a little much. The things take over. The most common submission seems to be a sort of Brooklynite starter-kit of leather shoes, stationary, clothes from Urban Outfitters, Apple devices and some kind of weighty SLR camera. It starts to be less art and more “look at all the things that I own”.

A recent post from Things Organized Neatly

Perhaps Wes Anderson is to blame. The miniaturisation and artificiality fundamental to his films makes them at once symbolic and materialistic. He has created doll’s house replicas of mansions, tenements, tents, trains and perhaps most memorably, the research vessel Belafonte in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2009). The American novelist Michael Chabon has noted the uncanny effect of seeing recognisable human events play out amid the palpable fakeness of Anderson’s toybox universe:

That is the paradoxical power of the scale model; a child holding a globe has a more direct, more intuitive grasp of the earth’s scope and variety, of its local vastness and its cosmic tininess, than a man who spends a year in circumnavigation ... When he opens the box, you see something dark and glittering, an orderly mess of shards, refuse, bits of junk and feather and butterly wing, tokens and totems of memory, maps of exile, documentation of loss.

The research vessel Belafonte from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Image: Touchstone Pictures

Anderson mirrors common experiences in an undeniably contrived way, yet somehow manages to move beyond the artifice and point to something true. But as with TON, there is no denying that aspiration plays an important role in creating the effect. His characters tend to belong to the 1 per cent. They have the money to buy nice things and pursue their eccentricities. The beautiful boxes inside which Anderson frames people and places free us from the ugliness that is the norm. The mess remains off-screen.

Like Todd McLellan, Anderson utilises grids and boundaries in order to make us realise something profound: in presenting order we are confronted by its absense. It becomes a kind of boasting - one which has infected social media. People tend not to post pictures of a half-eaten plate of food or the damp behind the bed on Instagram. It's a version of reality, and in that way a little shallow. A bit like overexposure to pornography: if you keep clicking through it, sooner or later you become aware of the absence of real, fleshy people. Porn is not like people, it is a presentation. Life is not neat. Nor will we ever stop arranging it.

Things Come Apart is published on 3 June by Thames & Hudson (£19.95)

Like a hipster Art Attack: an image from the blog "Things Organized Neatly".

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood