Sofia Hultén - Text

Sofia Hultén

We need to give away, lose or destroy.
Georges Bataille

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.

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