The Art of Hoarding

Garrett Tiedemann’s piece “Cleaning House,” reflected on how difficult it is to get rid of books in order to make space for the new.

Books are fabulous. I choose book over Nook any day, but books do take up space. Books are rectangular chunks of space-taking; receptacles of language whose pages preserve traces of thumb-throughs and margin-notes. If you want to get really serious about it, like I will and Garrett did, each object we possess in turn possesses a part of ourselves. The stuff around us is an extension of our personality. What someone has on their walls, their bookshelf, and in their kitchen, offers us a map of who they are. The place in which we live is like a portrait without people. So all that stuff is good because it helps to create a well-rounded picture of who we are.

This must be why people flock to yard sales and thrift stores. Not only is the stuff awesomely cheap, but it’s stuff that was discarded in one life, and hoping to be picked up and worn and appreciated in a new life. Now imagine a hoarder’s view of the situation. All the things in the store are equally pleasing. All the coffee mugs in the shelf in the back are like a line of adorable children, and they all need a home. Hoarders have a wonderfully generous view of all things. All things are precious, and equally so. Things that are busted? OK! Stuff that’s cracked or wonky? No problem! This stuff needs a home! They can surround me in my house and watch me while I go about my business like old friends, they think. They can provide me with comfort and insulation from the real world, they think. Don’t we all sort of feel bad for this little lamp in the advertisement? We’re not crazy, that’s a sad little lamp! Let’s face it we’ve all got a little hoarder in us.

But wait a second, what happens when we freeze our cat because we can’t bear to bury it in the ground? And then we freeze another, so that we can’t fit stuff in the freezer and have to store stuff in other parts of the house? What happens when our habit of accumulation grows horns and becomes a freak and things get out of hand? (Queue horror movie music and camera pans of kitchens filled with trash.)

cans anobium

Hoarding, always a point of fascination, is the subject of a popular A&E TV show. Watching Hoarders is like watching a bloody accident; you just can’t look away. These poor people on reality TV try to hang on to their stuff while it gets unceremoniously shoveled into dumpsters. In one episode a woman named Jan watches while her house get gutted. “Bye really crappy water cooler. Bye stupid back chair. Bye rake,” she says, identifying each item like a bad friend. A less sensationalized depiction of someone who has a lot of stuff can be found in this article about a man in the Bronx who has his apartment cleared out, save for “a cotton candy machine, a toy trumpet, a near-life-size horse doll and a toilet seat decorated with seashells.” Professors Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee respectfully peek into the psychological logistics of the disorder in their book, Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things. In one study, they gave a woman a postcard to throw away. She was able to do so, but only after writing everything she could about the postcard and keeping her notes.

These are not her notes, this is a passage from the world’s longest diary:

longest diary anobium

Here’s another way to approach hoarding: Robert Shields, though not a physical hoarder, holds the record for the world’s longest diary. He chronicled his life in five minute increments for over 20 years, holding nothing back. He writes things like: “9.35-9.40: I cleaned the cerumen from both my ears and from both hearing aids.” And this: “12:20 to 12:25: I stripped to my thermals. I always do that. 12:25 to 12:30: I discharged urine.” He is a hoarder but of something that is not physical. He is a hoarder of time and of experience. No action is left undocumented. But unlike people who carve tunnels in their houses, Shield’s hoarding behavior is charmingly peculiar, rather than looking at a train wreck.

Maybe hoarders are the only people who see the true potential in every object. They bury themselves in a sort of living chronicle of their lives, a haphazard archive of stuff. Maybe they are the only ones devoted to keeping track of their possessive histories. Maybe they are just waiting for each object to reach its full potential and while they wait, the objects disappear underneath other candidates. Maybe our own fascination with these people’s homes is our own search for familiar artifacts that we have betrayed by abandonment.

It’s not a coincidence that these themes fuel all sorts of art. Found objects, up-cycled objects, and paper coffee cups, for example. Artist Charles Ledray creates miniatures. Here’s a picture of his hand-made thrift store clothing displays:

He goes so far as to even fabricate the dust on top of the light fixture. He reuses stuff to build smaller versions of stuff that is ordinary, but mesmerizing in its scale. We go into one of his exhibits and say, like Jan, “Hello tiny tie. Hello tiny Hawaiian t-shirt. Hello dust.” It’s like seeing old friends.

There’s something wonderful in seeing clutter that is created on purpose. It gives real clutter a kind of artistic uniqueness and dignity that encourages us to take a second look at places we originally wrote off as messy. The hand-made blazers on the clothing rack in the photo above are symbolic of Ledray’s obsessive ability to create miniature blazer after miniature blazer; a quality that mirrors hoarders who are unable to just “let it go.” Maybe hoarders’ build-up is like a sort of giant sculpture. A time capsule or sediment sample for a generation. Maybe they are the only true chroniclers of our American identity. Maybe there is an art in the act of hoarding.

[Feature image from TrialX]

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One Comment on “The Art of Hoarding”

  1. Jessica Accardi
    February 28 2012 at 10:38 am #

    Oh don’t we just wish it were true.
    Barring psychological maladies, hoarding is merely indecision mixed with delusions of ourselves as interesting creatures through our piles of crap. Delusions of art. Books were the last things I learned to do without. Finally overwhelmed by the mass, I gave nearly all of them to the library. They can house them for me, and I can look at them whenever I like.

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