Words are wonderful, aren't they. The way they combine and conspire to make meaning and transport us to other worlds. But objects can also tell a story. I am sitting in my makeshift office at home as I type this. All around me I see mementos and curios that bear great significance. There's the embroidered shawl that my mum used to wrap herself in when she sat down in front of the TV after a hard day's work. There is the stripy, buffalo-shaped candle I trekked five hours to collect from Swazi Candles while on my gap year, shaped through time. And how could I forget the rain-soaked greetings card with Ian Botham on the front, filled with the smudged signatures of sporting giants such as Courtney Walsh and Allan Donald? That charity match in Hove was a washout but what a memorable day nonetheless.
However, objects are more than just milestones or markers. They are portals. When combined in a particular arrangement or sequence they can create their own narrative. Take Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk's Museum of Innocence exhibition at Somerset House, for example – a collection of vitrines, manuscript extracts and filmed strolls around Istanbul at night (through the "disembodied eye" of Grant Gee). The museum and accompanying novel "tell the story of engaged wealthy socialite Kemal Bey’s obsessive love for Füsun, his twice removed cousin and a beautiful shopgirl."
Each of the 13 cabinets (selected from 83 in the original museum in Istanbul) contains everyday personal items owned by the couple and marks a particular point in their relationship or chapter in the novel. Kemel, we are told, visits this makeshift museum for nine years after the end of the relationship, hoarding "the refuse of an affair" as Jason Solomons puts it. You can't help but wonder at the jewel-like cologne bottles, the nibbled at ice cream cone, ornate crockery, keys, cigarette card images of actors and footballers, family photos… An evocative bric-a-brac sourced from flee markets and friends of Pamuk. Each vitrine is like an immaculately conceived movie set. It's fascinating how each suggests a place and time, how inanimate objects instantly give life to our memories. In fact, Pamuk explains that Kemel begins to collect these fragments of Füsun as soon as he realises the relationship is doomed.
There is also a clever video installation showing the hand of chain-smoking Füsun as she repeatedly flicks ash. Smoke is a recurring motif of memory and this grainy black and white loop acts as a companion piece to a glass case containing 4,213 lipstick-smeared butts collected by lovelorn Kemel.
You might be tempted to think that the museum is an installation inspired by Pamuk's novel. In actual fact, they are both part of the same dream, conceived back in the Nineties. “I wrote the book as I collected these objects and made the museum thinking of the novel,” he explained at the opening. “And [I] wrote the novel thinking of the museum.”
This is one of my favourite exhibitions of the past few months because it stirs the imagination so powerfully. It makes you believe. Pamuk is quoted as saying that "real museums are where time is transformed into space." And that's true. But it's the serendipity and chance of the process that offers the most magic. The following quote about his vitrine sketches illustrates that point beautifully:
"After years of collecting objects, of visualising and sketching cabinet layouts as if I were writing theatrical stage directions, we arranged cups of tea, Kutahya porcelain ashtrays and Füsun's hairclips inside the boxes through trail and error. Looking at the photographs we took during that process, I realised I was doing what the landscape painters I so admired did: looking for an accidental beauty in the convergence of trees, electrical cables and pylons, ships, clouds, objects and people. The greatest happiness is where the eye discovers beauty where neither the mind conceived nor the hand intended."