Tom Sutcliffe: We are owned by the things that we own

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The Independent Online

How many of us, I wonder, felt a twinge of envy when reading that the artist Jasper Joffe plans to sell absolutely everything he possesses and start again from scratch? True, we might not envy the circumstance that has lead to this decision – which was the unexpected ending (involuntary on his part) of a five-year relationship – but the idea of total divestment has a deep and seductive allure, at least for those lucky enough not to have to dread the prospect that it might actually happen, through flood or war.

"A blank slate" was the cliché Joffe drew on in describing it, but there are any number of other metaphors that capture the longing to rewind and start over. I found myself thinking of the issue of new exercise books at the start of term: that delicious moment when the errors and inadequacies of the past were temporarily banished and you could dream (self-deludingly, in most cases) that this time round there would be no blots and no falling short.

I suppose Joffe should get points for boldness when it comes to strategies for moving on. But he cannot really claim any credit for originality. His strategy (if it is for real) appears to be an aesthetically tricked out homage to Ian Usher, who put his entire life on eBay in 2008 after being left by his wife Laura. Usher included his house in Perth, car, job and parachuting gear into a package that ultimately cleared him £192,000, considerably more than Joffe aims to raise by dividing all of his possessions into 33 lots all priced at £3,333 each.

Joffe is also triumphantly overshadowed when it comes to resolution by the artist Michael Landy, who in 2001 commandeered the ground floor of the soon-to-be-demolished C&A store in Oxford Street and turned it into a kind of reverse factory, an industrial installation dedicated to shredding and pulverising every single thing he owned. Joffe is converting his stuff into money and keeping his clothes. But for the artwork Landy called "Break Down Landy", he destroyed even his passport and ended up owning just a single boilersuit. Fortunately, his relationship with his girlfriend survived, so he was able to borrow her knickers until he acquired new underwear of his own.

This dream of total dispossession has other expressions too. In his short story The Clothes They Stood Up In, Alan Bennett tells of a middle-aged couple who return from the opera one night to find that everything they own, down to the fitted carpets and the lavatory paper, has been clinically removed from their flat: an experience which is initially shocking but then, in various ways, turns out to bring liberation in its wake.

What they discover (and what we all know at heart when we read such stories) is that the grammar of ownership is palindromic. We casually assert that we possess things but understand that, at the same time, things possess us, and the stronger the sense of title in one direction the more inescapable the tie in the other. In all cases (except for that of Landy, which is where its real originality lay) it is a dream of liquidity, of somehow reversing the process by which effort and time and work and cash have congealed into solid objects around us, accumulating like plaque on an artery wall.

Instead of their belongings – solid and inescapable evidence of an unsatisfactory past – Bennett's couple get a large insurance cheque, which seems to be a key to a new future entirely. Why envy then, when a similar fire sale of our lives is, in theory at least, open to all of us? Because there isn't one in a million of us free enough or confident enough to do it I guess. We know we're owned by the things we own.

Tourist attractions that have their heads in the clouds

I once visited Paris with a distinguished historian who claimed to be so susceptible to vertigo that he couldn't even bear to look at the Eiffel Tower from ground level. It seemed a little far-fetched to me, but it was certainly true that he averted his eyes whenever we were near it, and he once moaned when the tower unexpectedly ambushed him from a gap between two buildings. I thought of him when I saw pictures of the latest attraction at the Sears Tower in Chicago. "The Ledge" is a glass cube that juts out from the 103rd floor of the building, allowing more intrepid visitors to stand 1,353ft above the street with, apparently, nothing beneath their feet but thin air.

This isn't exactly a unique attraction. Blackpool Tower, I recall, has a square of plate glass for visitors to stroll across, as does Portsmouth's the Spinnaker Tower. But neither is nearly as high as the Sears Tower and neither delivers the peculiarly stomach-roiling feature of the diminishing perspective of a skyscraper's grid. The true delight of such attractions, though, is never the view downwards but the looks on the faces of those who can't quite hack it.

Actors in glass houses shouldn't throw stones

At least Dominic West recognised it was a bit rich for him to complain about overseas actors taking archetypally British roles. But given that he has just finished playing an Australian scientific hero in a BBC drama about the discovery of penicillin, after making his name by depriving a number of anguished Baltimorean actors of the role of Detective Jimmy McNulty in The Wire, he probably should have looked at the crystalline walls around him and decided it might not be politic to heave a brick through Russell Crowe's window (Crowe got Robin Hood) or scatter shards of glass on Renee Zellweger's lawn (she got Bridget Jones and Beatrix Potter). Perhaps West had his tongue in his cheek but, if he didn't, surely he should have thought more carefully about the implications of what he was saying.

If British actors have a privileged title to British roles, where exactly does identity premium stop? Would white actors begin to carp when black actors took roles that were historically white. Trade protection doesn't work in this realm any more.