The Architecture of Collection

21 Jan

‘The interior is not just the universe of the private person; it is also his etui’, wrote Walter Benjamin in The Arcades Project.1 But what if we lose control of this Benjaminian universe in which objects may be free from the obligation of usefulness? In the documentary Possessed, Martin Hampton shows four hoarders whose lives have been dominated by objects and the hunt for new ‘collectable items.’ One of them says: ‘everything you want […] to buy is almost like a dream… you’ve got to have it.’ A woman who stockpiles literally everything – empty boxes, hair and cotton wool pads to name but a few – is worried what will happen when her house is completely full. She has a dream in which she sees an empty house, a bedroom with only a bed in it… she wakes up and is terrified by the rubbish around her. Her collection is the most peculiar and the most attractive in visual terms. All the items in her house are meticulously arranged; cotton wool pads form amazing organic structures. She’d earlier had an accident and could not walk, which then caused a nervous breakdown; that was when she started hoarding. The man whose story comes last in the film lives all alone, he began to hoard after his mother died. There is a note on the wall: ‘You was always there. I love you mum!’

The way syllogomaniacs arrange the space around them is extraordinarily interesting and complex. Objects began to fill up their apartments until a peculiar architecture materializes – a landscape of accumulated things, useless for the most part. Inevitably, this situation reaches its culmination when there is no room for the owner any more. Space that should be a comfortable, secure and well-organized shelter, suddenly gets out of control and its function becomes distorted. However, the processes that unfold before the eyes of the constructor are not instantaneous; they result from systematic work, as in the case of Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau.

Leszek Kołakowski wrote a story called Looking for Lailonia about two brothers trying to rediscover a lost country. They buy all the maps and globes they can find and these gradually take over their flat. Eventually the brothers have to radically reorganize the space in which they live: ‘our apartment was so full of various atlases, maps and globes that it became impossible to move about in it. […] we began throwing out the furniture; […] We did this until the apartment was quite bare of everything except maps and globes, and among these my brother and I squeezed our way with the greatest difficulty. We also took medicine of various kinds to make us thinner so that we would take up less space in the apartment and thus make room for more maps. We both grew very thin and began to eat less and less, partly because we had to have room for the maps and partly because we could no longer afford to buy food, as all our money was being spent on atlases, globes and maps. It was very hard work indeed and it took us several years, during which we did nothing else at all.’2 

For Benjamin, the need to hoard is one of the symptoms precipitating death.3 There is a hypothesis that compulsive hoarding develops from traumatic experiences, from the fear of losing one’s possessions. It is a reaction to a system, war or another event. It turns out that the architecture of accumulation’ itself may be lethal. Photographs taken in the house of the Collyer brothers, obsessive hoarders in New York, are a perfect example of an overwhelmingly dysfunctional space. The chaotic buildup of rubbish eventually killed the brothers; it crushed Langley Collyer to death. While his body was being eaten by rats, his paralyzed and blind brother Homer was starving.4

As time goes by, the logics behind the collection, and the urge to add to it, grow obscure to everyone except its owner. The structure formed by collected items and the collection per se seem septic, vulnerable to the passing of time and unwanted destruction. Afflicted by endless transfigurations, they are invaded by maggots and rats. It is not easy to control the multiplying layers of the burrow where all that remains to be done is the hollowing out of communication passages. The house takes on the appearance of an organic and bodily structure. On the one hand, the place is ‘cosy’; a psychoanalytic perspective would liken it to the secure female womb. On the other hand, its Sartrerian viscosity (le visqueux) evokes repulsion. For the constructor, the place is like a gold mine, each element is important in the context of the collection as well as the onstruction.

The analogy between a burrow or a hollow, and interiors inhabited by syllogomaniacs, is also justified within the context of Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau. Structures raised by Schwitters in his successive houses had ‘grottoes’ where he hid all sorts of objects, scraps and leftovers. It is indeed scraps and leftovers that are considered distinctly abject because of their incompleteness; they are associated with dirt and impurity.

In his film Zezziminnegesang, John Bock suggests a direct connection between behaviours evoking aversion and compulsive hoarding. The camera moves through an apartment riddled with curious collections, observing the strange and ‘perverse’ rituals of its owner. Bock smears an egg on his abdomen, opens tin cans with the most unusual tools, and finally pukes in the toilet and scratches the sticky skin of the skeleton which he finds in his bed. Kristeva writes: ‘It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order.’5 

Bock’s grotesque rituals are abhorrent but they also induce laughter, a method of placing or displacing aversion. Kristeva claims: ‘For the space that engrosses the deject, the excluded, is never one, nor homogeneous, nor totalizable, but essentially divisible, foldable, and catastrophic.’6

Kristeva’s description of an exile who asks ‘Where am I?’ rather than ‘Who am I?’ perfectly illustrates the situation of syllogomaniacs. Bock’s protagonist leaves the house in the end, carrying the skeleton in his arms. He escapes into nature. The protagonist in Jordi Colomer’s film, a dwarf woman, is also missing from her flat, obstructed by shoe boxes and jam jars. May a work terrify its creator? It might be that there comes a moment in the life of the architect when the only solution is to escape from what he they have created.


1 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin MacLaughlin, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1999, p. 20.

2 Leszek Kołakowski, Tales from the Kingdom of Lailonia and the Key to Heaven, translated by Agnieszka Kołakowska and Salvator Attanasio, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1989, pp. 3-4.

3 Walter Benjamin, op.cit., p. 897.

4, date of access: 9 June 2010.

5 Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror. An Essay on Abjection, translated by Leon S. Roudiez, Columbia UP, New York 1982, p. 3.

6 Ibid., p. 5.

From: More is More catalogue

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