An absurd hygienic operation

Notes on Oblivion by Sarah Vanhee

Sarma Jun 2016English

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Contextual note
This text was commissioned by Sarah Vanhee and written with the support of the Kunstenfestivaldesarts. Initially written and published in Dutch in June 2016, it was translated into English by Jeroen Peeters in July 2019.


During one year Sarah Vanhee kept everything she would normally get rid of – from household waste to unused ideas. Those things from her home and studio ended up in an archive of 46 (52 weeks minus 6) numbered and dated cardboard boxes, as an ordered archive. Or at least part of it – after all, where does it begin or end, this collecting without sorting, without the spontaneous, everyday assigning of the valuation ‘useful/waste’?

            Vanhee collected all her waste – which was rinsed before ending up in a box – and organic waste – which she photographed in order to keep out undesirable smells and bacteria. Sometimes something escaped her attention – glass bottles, for instance, which she started to keep only after a few months. With other things the matter was slightly more complicated: what about excretion and body fluids? What about ideas and memories, or things we forget carelessly? What about the enormous heap of digital trash, the masses of information flooding us via the Internet? So Vanhee also kept an excretion journal, began to look into the waste basket on her computer, made lists of Internet references and inspirational sources.

In the performance Oblivion Vanhee unpacks the 46 boxes, one by one, slowly and carefully, until two and a half hours later the entire stage is filled with objects. In between Vanhee talks about her dealing with this clutter during that one year, about the evolution of her creative process and about the economy behind the work. Or more precisely: she evokes that background via heterogeneous fragments, stories and quotes she give voice to in an unrelenting stream of words. The objects and snippets of text function like a diary of sorts of the creative process and activate a trajectory of remembrance and processing in the theatre. By safeguarding all this from amnesia, Oblivion confronts us with our usual action patterns and calls up the question whether there  is an alternative approach possible with the overload that characterizes our current society of consumption and information.



“A different order establishes itself.” While Sarah Vanhee unpacks the boxes, she tells a fable of a family that lives together in a curious way with a goat and all manner of refuse, and whose behaviour and language are foreign to us – scenes from a film that plays in a possible future in which migration and globalisation lead to a fucked up world that is hard to imagine. Yet before this image can crystallize, new ‘narrative threads’ emerge, about refugees, about body fluids and purification, about professional cleaning services and bacteria, about property and rules, about funerary rituals – until all this strands for a while in a litany of Vanhee reciting in a mechanical voice advertisement texts, celebrity news and other spam. Sometimes this stream mingles with pre-recorded sound snippets and spoken word passages from films and lectures. Vanhee seems like a vessel brimming with fragments and quotes – the words, ideas and opinions are thus treated like things, merge with the continuous stream without distinction, so they seem to lose part of their discursive or narrative potential and literally become strange.

            Throughout  the performance Vanhee opens up many language registers that resonate with her waste or ‘restituted  waste’ – not so much the literary variation but the regimes of speech in which they operate, are central. About refuse there is an entire vocabulary, from gross to euphemistic, that indicates how much liminal phenomena challenge us to an unrelenting negotiation with our norms and values. Words do play a role in the ways in which we actively create a culture of oblivion around waste and consumption. At the same time this production of invisibility took on excessive and disastrous proportions throughout the twentieth century. Under the impulse of capitalism, the industry has gradually developed and promoted a culture of consumption and disposability, resulting in the known social and ecological catastrophes.

            In Oblivion all this slumbers and simmers in the heterogeneous current of text and sound, discursive hints that make clear how each object is embedded in a wider network of relations that go way beyond the perspective of object, individual and place. And yet Vanhee doesn’t make any moral statements in her performance, rather she takes up the position of an anthropologist engaged in the singular experiment of mapping out the entire bandwidth of human behaviour and discourse – including the knowing and the forgetting.

            Collecting and not sorting thus emanated in an insistent reflection upon that very process, or better on our ways of sorting, classifying, valuing, giving attention, naming, describing, explaining – and inevitably also on the assigning of new distinctions between useful/waste, clean/dirty, inside/outside, etc. Somewhere Vanhee cites Roland Barthes who wonders at what point we experience something as ‘dirty’. The question of cultural mechanisms of valuation regularly surfaces in Oblivion.

            How can we deal today with overload? What are the possible alternatives for our unbridled deeds of consumption? In the invitation of Oblivion, Sarah Vanhee writes: “Imagine a place where you would find yourself reconnected to everything you had discarded, deleted or thrown away. Objects, thoughts, relations, you had already cut yourself loose from and forgotten about, now they all re-appear. They are yours; you care about them. You reverse, re-value, reinvest. Every thing is worth something.”



Before Sarah Vanhee starts to speak she’s already unpacking while we’re hearing various sound clips – songs, new age sounds, jingles, advertisements – that symbolize the immaterial refuse. Is it then the dialogue with the objects that first demands our attention? As a spectator you find yourself initially in the role of a voyeur looking at someone unpacking her waste, so, in a sense, also exposing herself to the audience. There is remarkably little waste paper, but an endless amount of yoghurt containers, and then there are those ecological laundry products and packaging of organically grown food – did Vanhee perhaps adjust her purchases and thus her production of waste during that year? Does she actively manipulate her portrait before our eyes, or does she submit herself to a strict form of auto-ethnography? After all, we do find ourselves in a theatre, where reality and fiction can mingle in all manner of ways.

            This play with voyeurism, fiction and relating to different contexts is a constant in Sarah Vanhee’s work, which steadily commutes between conceptual art, literature and performance. In Untitled (2012) she invited visitors into people’s homes, where they spoke about the art objects in their everyday environment, so about their opinions of what is art and what isn’t. There, the spectator’s experience was never ‘pure’ because the personal stories and the everyday context are sticky, so Untitled always contained traces that don’t let themselves be regarded as just a subtle form of institutional critique. In an interview Vanhee says about this: “Yes, there is something clandestine about the encounter and where it takes place, which somehow applies to all of my work.” Also Lecture for Every One (2013) intervenes time and again in an unannounced and hence unexpected way in diverse contexts – and mostly not theatres – where people gather; it is a lecture that addresses ‘every one’ without distinction, but also gives people something they haven’t asked for. In Turning Turning (a choreography of thoughts) (2011) Vanhee attempts to speak all her thoughts at once, in real time, at a breakneck pace and without self-censorship, as if she turns her head inside out without inhibition or composition, right there in front of us in the theatre.

Without presupposed assumptions about art, without distinction, without self-censorship, without sorting: it is time and again these artistic strategies of (auto-)ethnography, border traffic and their fictionalizing that leave room for the unexpected and the unasked for. Also in Oblivion such “clandestine encounters” with the spectator come into being, yet they have after all little to do with the portrait or voyeurism. Vanhee’s dialogue with the objects extends itself into a network of relations that includes other objects, people and places. Her auto-ethnography is fundamentally heteronomous, evoking a complex economy in which manipulation and control no longer have an unequivocal place.



The unpacking happens slowly and carefully, with Vanhee briefly giving attention to each individual object. At the same time these objects also demand attention themselves. In a post-performance talk Vanhee said about this: “Objects are wonderful performers; that’s what they’re designed for. In a sense, they are a document of our highly visual times.” More than merely things they are indeed products carried by an entire economy and ideology, all the way from their inception into the disposal phase. Next to plastic packaging, milk bottles, trinkets and nondescript stuff, there are objects that appear to be rather charged with meaning: empty Coca Cola bottles, cardboard cups, medication boxes, washing products, candy wrappers, a trash bag of the city of Brussels, a cell phone, a hard disk and a plastic bag of Media Markt, a light bulb, etc. Still, the moment of attention granted by Vanhee to each of these things, doesn’t inscribe them yet in an alternative value system. And in the spectator’s experience, this possibility of a relationship with individual objects is time and again challenged by the sight of a generic pile of trash and a sense of overload. “I would have liked to give everyone an object upon entering the performance,” says Vanhee somewhere near the end of Oblivion in an enumeration of non-realized ideas.

Could all these things also as such, that is without their usual overtones, be collected or described? Is there, beyond this bracketing, perhaps something like the ‘call of things themselves’, which is probably unknowable yet still indicates the limits of our agency and thus challenges our criteria of valuation?

“If I would have been consequent, the performance should have lasted a whole year.” The action of giving attention to each individual object refers to a practice developed by Vanhee during one year, a practice in which managing and revaluing all these objects required a lot of time and attention. “The knowing of the throwing has to precede the keeping.” Looking back upon that year, Vanhee says in an interview: “I really miss this moment of consciously keeping something: that you don’t have to choose what has value and what not, that you give all things a chance just like they are. (…) Now it feels as if I’m each time throwing away entire relationships.” Of the practice unfolded by Vanhee throughout that year, we only get a glimpse, but even then its stakes are not immediately obvious. Is it the poetry of these relations with objects that drives her? Or the making of a world? The sheer endless repetition of unpacking and dedicating attention, is a gesture of insistence on this one question: what mechanisms of valuation are meaningful today?

In her lecture ‘Powers of the Hoard’(2011) the philosopher Jane Bennett consults hoarders to find an answer to the question how to take the call of things seriously. Which senses do we need in order to pull things themselves into the foreground? In what language could we express that experience? What does this relation to ‘non-human bodies’ do with our self-image? In her analysis, Bennett situates agency in the complex relations between humans, things and places, that is in their porosity and intercorporeality, which also includes foreign bodies inside ourselves. She coins the term ‘inorganic sympathy’, a form of relationality that is not instrumental, nor subsumes under aesthetic appreciation. Ultimately, Bennett is not interested in a post-human perspective, rather in a form of modesty and a quest for other mechanisms of valuation. Researching complex sites where trash, fetish objects, art works, data and other things act and speak their own language, can perhaps teach us something about the ecologically disastrous society in which we’re living. It is her conviction that “to really understand social practices it is necessary to acknowledge the non-human components that are always at work inside them.”

Possibly ‘inorganic sympathy’ comes close to the attention Vanhee dedicates to the objects – even though suspending the aesthetic is a paradoxical affair in an artistic context. Near the end of the performance Vanhee names the objects she’s unpacking by their ‘name’ literally reading aloud the lettering on packaging, preceded by ‘We are…’. After a prolonged experience of excess and unfiltered passing on, it’s as if Vanhee here embodies the text, makes the identification more explicit and so places herself at the same level as the things surrounding her. Somewhat later follows another non-realized idea that includes the spectator in a similar way: “I would have liked to call everyone present by their first name.”

If Oblivion offers just a sketch of a practice, then not only because a year doesn’t allow itself to be compressed into a few hours, but also because the outcome of such a practice will always remain ambiguous and uncertain. Even before we can speak of revaluation, ‘inorganic sympathy’ requires a suspensive attitude vis-à-vis things. As an artistic and social medium, theatre only reinforces such an attitude: it keeps the possibility of initiating new relations and meanings – and thus the promise of a language and a community to come – in suspense. Precisely at this point in Oblivion can clandestine encounters come into being, with political potential. Is not the performance itself after all an object that temporarily suspends and thus challenges our roles of consumer, spectator or citizen?



In the viewing experience the seduction of allegory surfaces inevitably in our relentless attempts to imbue everything with meaning and pull the abundance of objects and fragments onto familiar terrain. Those expectations and opinions do add themselves to the expanding network of Oblivion – and they get caught more than once by the utterances strung together by Vanhee, such as this quote by Douglas Haddow about the hipster: “If only we carried rocks instead of cameras, we’d look like revolutionaries. But instead we ignore the weapons that lie at our feet – oblivious to our own impending demise. We are a lost generation, desperately clinging to anything that feels real, but too afraid to become it ourselves. We are a defeated generation, resigned to the hypocrisy of those before us, who once sang songs of rebellion and now sell them back to us. We are the last generation, a culmination of all previous things, destroyed by the vapidity that surrounds us. The hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture so detached and disconnected that it has stopped giving birth to anything...”



When Sarah Vanhee has unpacked the last object, after a few hours in which things kept coming and the stack of boxes shrunk rather slowly, she sneaks out of the theatre and leaves us alone with the landscape of waste that now fills up the entire stage as if it were a single object. The many attempts at revaluation sink into nothing compared to this giant heap of clutter, at once impregnated with both too much and too little meaning. There on stage, neatly rinsed, sorted and explained, this taciturn landscape shimmers as an absurd for unmanageable remains of a peculiar hygienic operation. By now this landscape is teeming with a recalcitrant genealogy in which also various paradoxes and excesses of our current times shine through. This ‘contagion’ is a clandestine encounter, for it treats the work of art as an unmanageable object – “The work of art as a thing on its own, incalculable,” like Vanhee says in the performance, a conception of art that “just like the rhinos, penguins and polar bears is threatened with extinction” – and at the same time confronts it with an unmanageable world. That is a powerful and somewhat risky fiction that puts at stake our patterns of expectation, as well as our ways of making sense and value what surrounds us.

And yet, this unmanageability of the world does not coincide with that of the work of art. Oblivion is not just a readymade but the outcome of artistic decisions – and these are mostly heteronomous, like Vanhee suggests in an idiosyncratic enumeration of things without which Oblivion wouldn’t have been possible. And it has a specific, manageable form – a theatre performance, which by its repetition night after night is also already a paradoxical form of reuse and revaluation. For all the attempts to contain or explain this work, it is the many paradoxes that make Oblivion an undecidable object. It doesn’t leave you with grand truths or last words about that unyielding overload, the waning fiction of control, or the sense of possibility slumbering in it. Rather, you’re met with the awareness that this disruption of your own position and view on things emanates from an artistic practice which is itself excessive in its care, precision, humour and idiosyncrasy – yes, it emanates from the absurdity of the artistic gesture.