Essays

Culture Hoarders

by Olympia Lambert on November 29, 2012

Aldon James’s apartment at the National Arts Club (Image via DNAinfo)

Looking back on my firsthand experience with The National Arts Club, the concept of it being a bastion of a hoarding ground zero (as it became, depicted in the picture above, under the tenure of President O. Aldon James) wouldn’t have really rung true for me unless you were referencing a clown car of fuddy-duddies from back in the day, seemingly replicating like rabbits with each tick of the dusty grandfather clock.

Even the crudite at their receptions seemed to grow cobwebs, and though I regularly would eat the flaccid carrot souffle alongside the gallerist I worked for, I primarily noticed I was the only person in the room with natural hair pigment. Perhaps my last visit in 2009 would be a harbinger of things to come, as I watched Mr. Cremaster himself, artist Matthew Barney, sheepishly accept a club honorary award as gallerist Barbara Gladstone stood aside with cocktail, joyfully heckling her protégé.

For here was the courting of the new generation of art’s elite staking their claim to the venerated institution which had fallen on hard times — an increasingly declining membership due to natural selection, a wrongful termination suit of staff rumored to racial discrimination, and, unbeknownst to me at that point, an ousting of a president who would had become persona-non-grata to a club he had championed for more than a quarter of a century.

O. Aldon James, in brighter days (Image via Your Free Press)

Earlier this month marked a close to the latest chapter of a long legal battle in the court system between Club Hierarchy, and its former President, O. Aldon James, a much-publicized “eccentric” who had been evicted from several units he and his twin brother had occupied due to chronic disrepair and hoarding. Photos were leaked to the press showing numerous objects-de-art intermingled with newspapers piled to the ceiling, mouse and cockroach droppings, water damage, and refuse thrown about the apartments until no walkways remained. To say this must have been a shock to the venerated membership would be an understatement. Did they have another Grey Gardens on their hands?

In 2012, hoarding is a great equalizer that crosses economic and lines of social standing. From Honey Boo Boo’s mother, Coupon Queen June, to former teen queen Amanda Bynes’s refuse-strewn BMW, class has no standing when it comes to the accumulation of stuff. Hoarding has been said to be a psychological phenomenon of the post-industrial age, made more prominent after World War II. Many point to a commonality amongst its sufferers of overconsumption — a capitalist society spinning out of control. But truthfully, that’s only one part of hoarding — a collector must obtain more, and is therefore unable to throw anything away.

Much less attention is paid to the fact that hoarding’s sufferers place integral connections of memory, and more importantly intimacy, to objects. It’s not that a hoarder thinks a shoe from 25 years ago with a hole in it is worth wearing again — it’s the memory attached to it that gives it purpose. In some ways, I feel for James, because even though he housed many of his collectibles in the refuse-strewn apartments, what really brought the hammer down was the fact that the property value of a Gramercy Park institution was being eroded by his actions.

And here’s where the story turns, as well as my own opinion. As a child of a hoarder myself, you are not only plagued with the heavy burden of losing a physical “home,” but more so with finding an outlet for getting your loved one help. The soap opera-worthy saga underway here in Manhattan has shown the drawn-out legal battles that surround forcing a hoarder to comply by societal standards. Barring temporary institutionalization, which rarely work except as a temporary fix, the best people on the outside can do is focus on our own world.

In our current reality TV-obsessed society, hoarders are shown in front of the camera lens, deer in the headlights, media spotlights bouncing off their piles of “junk.” We create a “quick fix” with a pop psychologist who comes in, and everything is back to normal in the broadcast’s final five minutes. But this is not the case. The “before” and “after” photos of James’ residence, which is now to go under a full gut renovation, have already been prominently shown on numerous real-estate and news blogs. Cultural assimilation is what is being consumed. To the viewer, this person is out of the norm, and therefore we must change them.

Still from “My Mother’s Garden” (Image courtesy MSNBC)

In 2008, I got to know an amazing filmmaker named Cynthia Lester. Cynthia and I shared a lot in common — both being in New York pursuing our love of the arts, and fellow children of single-mother hoarders. Cynthia filmed a firsthand account of her mother’s plight in her documentary “My Mother’s Garden.” The film showcased the struggle of a mandatory cleanup after city government had started legal action to evict her from her condemned property. Gut-wrenching scenes showed Cynthia’s mother just wanting to be left alone — appreciating the beauty of sleeping outside the home in her garden, since there was no longer space inside. In this case, the burden was placed on the family in order to save the sufferer’s life — again focusing on the choices that must be made to straddle the line between personal freedom and public safety.

In the case of Chinese artist Song Dong, his 2009 Museum of Modern Art exhibition was shocking to many attendees. Installed in the museum’s second-floor atrium was his mother’s collection of everything she accumulated in her home and could not throw away. Every item of plastic food packaging — soda bottles, cans, or home decor purchase — was on the floor organized into cohesive and tidy segments for everyone to see. This is one person’s accumulation over 12 years. For Song Dong, the work was truly an arduous labor of love and outreach showing his mother’s plight, as well as a representation of how the brain of a non-sufferer can organize in a much more disciplined fashion than that of a hoarder. Perhaps many viewers took away from the exhibit that the sufferer had issues with consumption and not being able to stop, rather than focus on her possible emotional pain attached to her husband’s forced labor and other family members being jailed for being found guilty of “spying,” painful details of Song’s mother’s biography.

Song Dong’s “Projects 90″ installation at MoMA (Photo via boxvox.net)

As a child of a hoarder myself, I see its victims more as being paralyzed by inaction due to fear rather than by a culture of consumption. Much has been said that hoarding is a cultural phenomenon of the modern age, that capitalism itself has had such a vice-hold on our psyches, that we are now experiencing an epidemic of individuals who cannot bear to part with their purchases. But to a hoarder, it is much more. At some point in the disorder sufferers’ lives, the object has replaced all reason. A lost loved one’s sweater is their last connection — the discarding of the object would mean a severing of their relationship. Much in the way an addict’s brain needs a fix, a hoarder must find the next addition to their collection. Even though the eyes can see the ever-growing piles around them, the brain is still telling them that they must have more.

Part of my introduction to Cynthia Lester’s world was me helping her move out of her Park Slope apartment. The irony was not lost on us. Immediately we bonded over moving her furniture down the staircase (perhaps little pieces of ourselves and our shared family intertwined as chairs and dining room tables). As we lifted random objects, I realized something — here were two children coming face to face with nearly identical circumstances, but for one: She had made the break of being able to make the announcement of her story. I still hid in the shame as I looked down at her beautiful polished dining table. Though moving can never be an unstressful period, her positive outlook made me realize she had broken free of the prison of object versus objectivity.

The very nature of contemporary art can be a reflection of a more structured version of hoarding — a market placing value on objects. The word “collecting” sounds so much nicer. Thousands of sculptures, paintings, and photographs lay in museum archives or the back storage rooms of galleries under bubble wrap, never to see the light of day. Yet the owner knows it’s there for “future use.”

Dash Snow and Dan Colen’s “Nest” (Image courtesy of Deitch Projects)

As well as the gathering of objects, the artificiality that entails a contemporary artistic recreation of a hoarder’s setting can take away from the pieces themselves. There’s a sort of disingenuous nature, masquerading, not unlike wealthy hipsters trying to look poor. Legendary exhibits such as Dash Snow and Dan Colen’s Nest at Deitch Projects, in which the drug-aided artists shredded phone books to make a pile suitable for a giant hamster, come immediately to mind. Volunteers spent hours shredding and leaving refuse until the artists came along one night and literally pissed on the work. In many ways, this showed their own take on what they found to be a statement on their work’s value, and perhaps more importantly, their own values.

In the press Mr. James has made numerous statements to defend himself, but he mostly comes across as a perturbed and petulant octogenarian forced to clean his room by meanie parents. I wonder upon looking at the man — an avid connoisseur of exotic finches, some who apparently met untimely deaths on the sidewalk, freed from their cages in his Gramercy Park cocoon. Perhaps his collection of birds as pets was also his way of connecting to something, anything, alive. His own freedoms abandoned, James’s winged avian friends take on the meaning of a vital means out, a shedding of outer layers to the soft underbelly beneath.

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  • http://www.heathermccaw.com/ Heather McCaw

    I would contrast the contemporary take on hoarding in the suburbs and in urban environments with the kind of hoarding that makes a show like American Pickers possible. Somehow, it seems normal for a farmer with several barns to have 80 years worth of lost treasures stashed in a hay loft. Those treasures may have come from good harvests, so how could they bear to part with them, knowing lean years may lay ahead? True, too, that my depression-era grandparents were both frugal and hoarders, saving anything potentially useful in boxes in the basement. Their house was never blocked with piles of debris and useless collections, but they did save things for a rainy day. You never knew when you might need to go shopping amongst your own belongings because you couldn’t afford to buy something in a store. My take-away of the Song Dong exhibit was this was his mother’s custom as well, in contrast to contemporary American hoarders who compulsively buy things they will never use or need, filing their houses with consumerist junk. Our current judgement of hoarding rests on the idea that we will always have enough and there will never be shortages of the things we need to live, so why save anything?

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