A Roma wants to get rid of an old suit. He could throw it in the garbage,
give it away to a friend or even put it in one of those charity boxes for
used clothing. Instead, the man brings the suit to a tailor, asks for
alterations and never returns to pick it up.
Sofia Hultén tends to take a similarly novel approach to discarding things.
In Getting Rid of Stuff, 2001, the artist tackled the odds and ends that had
accumulated over the years in the storage room of Berlin’s Rampe 003, just
before the temporary exhibition space closed its doors for good. Instead of
hauling everything to the dump, Hultén hid these remains of countless
exhibitions in the folds of the urban fabric: a sheet of plywood found a new
home behind a billboard; drinking straws disappeared down a hole in a metal
street barrier; envelopes became paper airplanes gliding from a rooftop;
left-over plaster mix resettled on a pile of dirt at a construction site.
For the on-going project Making It Better, 1998-, the artist collects broken,
discarded things from the city’s streets, makes emergency repairs on the
decrepit objects and restores them to their original resting place. Grey
Area, 2001, does away with the artist herself in the guise of an office
worker. Decked out in a serious grey suit, Hultén vanished by deploying the
office and its equipment – boxes, shelving, cupboards, carpeting – as both
camouflage and hideout.
Presented in video and photography, Hultén’s works reflect the strange realm
of objects that lie somewhere between the commodity and the trash can,
sometime after use and yet before complete extinction. Thus the stuff in
Getting Rid of Stuff was not strictly garbage, nor exactly in use. Destined
to serve art, these aesthetic handmaidens may have gone on display, but they
never quite attained the status of art works. Plywood for a pedestal, straws
for the drinks at openings, envelopes for invitations, plaster to fill up
the holes from bygone installations – all constitute the visual rubbish of a
contemporary art exhibition: necessary and unique like the art works
themselves, yet superfluous, interchangeable and, ultimately, forgettable.
By starring in Hultén’s performances, the exhibition leftovers finally
become art works in their own right, only to disappear as vagrants in the
city. While condemning the objects to another form of invisibility, Hultén
redeems their value by transforming them into memory.
Hultén’s interventions, far from being ecologically-oriented, belong to an
economy of excess where commodities are unlimited and superfluous. Like
Georges Bataille, Hultén addresses the expenditure of wealth instead of its
production. While the thriftily repaired objects in Making It Better suggest
the recycling of limited means, the objects are not fixed for re-use but
simply returned to the streets to continue decaying. In a unique way,
Hultén’s project reflects the Marxist desire to recover the narratives of
labour behind production – albeit in the realm of idleness, superfluity,
excess, degradation, destruction. Instead of showing how things are made,
Hultén’s handwork shows how they have fallen apart. Her makeshift repairs
render the narratives of waste visible without restoring utility: the tape
on a discarded flower box reveals where the cracks first appeared;
toothpicks illuminate the missing teeth in an abandoned comb; bicycle tape
indicates how a lone pink balloon was once grounded. By recovering this
recent past, Hultén demonstrates that discarding things is not a mute, nor
unintelligible act; squandering involves meaning, labour, stories. Indeed,
in our consumer society, we are increasingly defined, not by what we produce,
but by what we use up or simply leave hanging around.
Analysis of the contents of my kitchen drawer, 2002 offers a case in point.
Hultén took the miscellaneous objects loitering in her kitchen drawer to a
criminal psychologist who then unwittingly produced a five-page character
profile of the artist herself. Where Analysis yields a self-portrait through
idle objects, the video performance Fuck It Up and Start Again (One Guitar
Smashed and Mended Seven Times), 2001, honours the labour of expenditure in
a world where nothing is lost. Hultén smashes an acoustic guitar, glues the
pieces together off-screen and energetically attacks the wreckage again in
front of the camera. Over the course of seven demolitions, Hultén’s task
becomes much easier; her labour, more efficient. In the last sequence, the
artist can toss the guitar just once in the air and watch it shatter in bits
and pieces on the floor. This high level of efficiency proves to be utterly
futile: the guitar, however fragile, re-emerges relatively intact and
finally reappears as a relic beside the video monitor. Hultén’s closed
economy realises the dream of both the miser and the millionaire: to keep
everything and to spend it.
Hultén’s world – a world devoid of loss and filled with futility –
underscores the absurdity of our daily activities, with or without objects.
"There are things you do because you are powerless to do anything about the
real problems,” says the artist. "You do small things with the full
knowledge that they won’t make the least bit of difference.” In Grey Area,
it seems inevitable that the disappearing secretary will be discovered, no
matter how ingeniously she picks her hiding spaces within the office.
Nevertheless, she discovers a safe haven, precisely by avoiding the problem.
Text: Jennifer Allen 2003
1 The anecdote is from Isabel Fonseca, Bury Me Standing. The Gypsies and
Their Journey, New York: Vintage, 1996.
2 For a reflection on the status of such objects, see Michael Thompson,
Rubbish Theory. The Creation and Destruction of Value, Oxford: OUP, 1979.
3 See Georges Bataille, La part maudite, Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1967.