Hoarding – as anybody who’s ever filed away old receipts or napkins with scribbles on will know, is an addictive tendency. Once you’ve started documenting, scrapbooking and filing away, who’s to say where you should stop? For Canadian artist Sara Cwynar, the desire to hoard, a compulsion with collection, lies at the root of her work as an artist. For the installation Everything in the Studio (Destroyed), showing as part of the Young Talent programme at Foam Gallery, Cwynar took all the objects out of her studio at one given point, documenting each one and reconstituting it so it would fit in one corner of the room. The resulting exhibition is a colourful candy-coloured collection of lost objects, where traditional vanitas imagery mixes with the sheen of shiny plastic, a rotting piece of fruit, a plastic skull. But the memories are also bittersweet, and make me think of Don Draper’s comment in Mad Men, when pitching a Kodak Carousel: “Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek nostalgia literally means “the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards… it takes us to a place where we ache to go again”.
Draper’s description of nostalgia fits well with Cwynar’s archiving tendencies. It charts a wish to go back in time, and find something that was lost. Cwynar builds her own personal record through objects gleaned from flea markets, images and photos picked out from encyclopaedias and objects snuck out from skips. Through the process of accumulation, she explores its function in constituting personal memories, and the way in which these images move around, circulating through different hands, in different ways. She explains her interest as a desire to explore “the ways in which we understand the world through images: how we view ourselves and our history through a shared image-based archive built from cultural fantasies and photographic tropes”. Is she a compulsive hoarder, then? “Collecting, taking and re-composing images in my art practice is both a means of satisfying a constant impulse I have to hoard and save things, and a means of breaking into the constant image landscape that surrounds me, grabbing a small piece of the world and reconstituting it under my own terms”. Once the first installation of Everything in the Studio (Destroyed) was completed, Cwynar forced herself to destroy it, and come to terms with her compulsive hoarding tendencies. That’s definitely one way to do it.
Internet culture, and the way in which you can comically juxtapose the ordinary with the extraordinary, is another influence at play in her work. The internet creates (or maybe recreates) a new image-world. Cwynar observes that, “consumer culture and the internet have helped to create an image-world that exists on top of the real world and has in many ways subsumed it – and the possibility of finding ways out of this system by appropriating and messing with many of its tropes, using vernacular, throwaway materials and outdated imagery, to question the consensus of what is worth taking a picture of, and the glossy surface of so much that we see”.
Andy Warhol’s dislike of nostalgia (he put everything in labelled boxes and stored it away in New Jersey, eventually chucking it all out) is a critical reference point in the exhibition. Yet while professing a discomfort with the concept, Cwynar’s work still carries a particularly nostalgic aura, seemingly harking back to 1970s photographic techniques. I asked if this was intentional, and Cwynar replied: “Yes, my photos and the colour values and modes of production are definitely consciously nostalgic. In my work I am working through my nostalgia both by constantly documenting everything with a camera and constantly collecting materials and objects – it satisfies a need to grab onto a bit of the world that will last, making an external record of experience. Warhol says he hates nostalgia but by acknowledging this he is saying that he actually is very nostalgic, he just can’t help it and wishes he wasn’t. This is how I feel too”. Nostalgia reminds us of the pain of past memories, encouraging us to hold on to the past. Thankfully, Cwynar’s also looking to the future.
Text by Sophia Satchell-Baeza
‘Everything in the Studio (Destroyed)’ is on until 16th May 2013 at Foam Gallery, Amsterdam