The bleak future offered by the economic crisis has many tightening their belts. The canned soup once beloved of Andy Warhol has a new set of admirers as people search for ways to save money. Until very recently those dented cans were new gold for the recycling industry but the economic crisis has taken the glint off household rubbish. In this climate Lena Obergfell’s work, brought together for her show Habseligkeiten at Sydney gallery Horus & Deloris, is more than fitting. Obergfell collects items left on the street or in garbage dumps, incorporating them into sculpture, video and photo works. In these uncertain economic times this impulse to recycle, reuse and recreate using the rejected elements of outdated consumer culture is a handy reminder for audiences of the art of making-do whilst making art.
Influenced by her experience as a German living in what she describes as ‘self-imposed exile’, Obergfell offers viewers an alternative perspective on their own lives and habits. Germany, for instance, has such a well regulated recycling and waste management system that there is rarely any opportunity to pick through the neighbours discarded bits of ‘hard rubbish’ as is common practice on council collection days in Australian cities. This unusual, local habit has been revelatory for the artist’s practice and work. Obergfell aims to find new value in the debris. Found objects—suitcases, chairs, vacuum cleaners—are precious. In the case of her sculpture Hoover (2008), literally so: the Hoover in question is an 1960s vacuum cleaner that the artist recovered from the street corner and then ‘recovered’ a second time by encrusting it with gold leaf. With this transformation, trash is turned to gold. The labour saving devices of the past become the (static) status symbols of our future. There’s an essential humour at work, the Hoover provokes the possibility of an Antiques Roadshow for the kinds of objects we normally ignore and devalue. To put a vacuum cleaner on a pedestal is to joke about the value of such objects in everyday life, but also asks us to question our investment in commodity objects—it seems significant, for instance that the bright red Hoover logo remains intact and identifiable even as Obergfell reclassifies the object from trash to treasure.
The title of the show, Habseligkeiten, refers to the measly possessions of the impoverished. The show documents just the kinds of items which, when there’s very little else left, take on an altogether new significance. Obergfell’s digital photographs capture the haunting aura that surrounds personal possessions and daily life. A black crow sits almost inconspicuous on a telephone pole surrounded by spindly wires reaching out of the frame. A stainless steel garbage bin takes on a haunted aspect when photographed with sunlight reflecting from its surface. A cockroach lies, belly up, at the bottom of an aluminium can. A rusting gas hotplate casts uneven shadows across the stark white of the cook top. These images capture another side to domestic life; a paltry side, moth-eaten, dog-eared—a place where coins are closely counted, where there is no spare change. These shots are juxtaposed with images of wide, open spaces in central NSW: red dust, blue skies, dry green bush. The suggestion is that both locations hold secrets that can’t be fathomed.
In this respect, Obergfell recalls, in mood if not subject matter, the work of David Lynch. Things are strangely off-kilter; the built and natural environments are juxtaposed with the domestic; moments of surrealism surprise the viewer but seem, in many respects, attuned to the moment. This is especially true of the video works included in the show. All three feature the artist in open, deserted space. In the first, SchwimmwestenLaufen (Life Vest Walking), (2007), Obergfell wanders among the rocks and red dirt of Broken Hill, wearing a bright yellow life preserver. A ghostly figure, she fades from view at certain points and reappears. A tourist gone astray in an alien landscape, too far inland for the yellow vest to be of any use—and yet the notion of the ‘life preserver’ resonates in a desert landscape where signs of life are few. The footage is presented with a sound recording of the locals at the Broken Hill pub. Amid the bar room banter of broad Australian accents we hear a voice interrogating the artist: ‘Do you talk English?’ In combination, the video and its soundtrack suggest a Mad Max-esque Australian future: rough, tough men and women sustained by desert dirt and drink.
In another piece Obergfell runs in scattershot directions across a garbage dump dressed in a plastic yellow raincoat. The effect combines urgency, perhaps even panic, with a strange certainty of purpose. The only sound is the artist’s footfall, rushing towards and away from us. Like the pub at closing time, or the Broken Hill landscape, the garbage dump is another of these mysterious, half-magic locations. On one level, all seems perfectly normal, on another, completely alien. There is something familiar and reassuring about the habits and routines of the rubbish and recycling centre (glass in one corner, plastics in another) which points to the security of control and the inevitable productivity of the human race; and yet, surrounded by piles of waste it’s overwhelming to contemplate the origins. Obergfell embodies these contradictions, dressed in a prophylactic raincoat with bare legs vulnerable to whatever lurks between the nooks and crannies of the garbage piles over which she scuttles. It appears that the artist here attempts to overcome the alienated relationship between consumers and the stuff that constitute their lives; getting back in touch with (man-made) nature. Knowing Obergfell’s interest in recycling and collecting rubbish left on the side of the city streets, it’s hard to escape the notion that she rushes wildly in all directions with the excitement that busy shoppers might otherwise apply to the stocktake sales.
Lena Obergfell’s Habseligkeiten was held at Horus & Deloris, Sydney from 15 to 29 April, 2009.
Originally published in Runway, Issue 14, Futures, Winter 2009, pp 78 -79.
Caroline Hamilton is a regular commentator on books, arts and popular culture in Australia and overseas. She has a PhD in literary studies from the...