The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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John White

For Professor Christine Ho's fall 2018 seminar "Import/Export Material Culture of Early Modern East Asia," I wrote my final paper on two "sea sculptures." The strange objects, now in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, contain 18th century Chinese porcelain fragments that fused together during a fire onboard a trade ship, as well as coral and shell growths that accumulated on the objects during the roughly 250 years that they then spent at the bottom of the ocean between the shipwreck and their discovery by Vietnamese fishermen in the 1990s. My paper looked at the lengthy lives of the objects and asked what it means for the porcelain, which originally was intended for trade, to have recirculated in contemporary networks and institutions as reconstituted objects with new meanings and associations. The paper has now taken on a life of its own beyond the course. I will present an updated version of the paper at the 36th Annual Boston University graduate symposium, "Environment: Awareness, Exchange and Impact," on March 28, 2020. The project now looks at the sea sculptures through the lenses of eco-criticism and new materialism, in particular through the work of Jane Bennett, whose book Vibrant Matter forms my primary methodological reference point. I argue that the sea sculptures, which were created by accident and nature, subvert the Victoria & Albert Museum's emphasis on design as a human enterprise and that they thereby invite us to consider the act of creation as part of a more widely-distributed process in which humans are not the only actors. The paper was my writing sample for my applications to PhD programs, and I now am working towards publishing it.

I am grateful both to Professor Christine Ho and also to Professor Gülru Çakmak, whose spring 2019 methods course introduced me to Vibrant Matter.