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Dirty Hoarder

March 11, 2009


There’s a man in an old suit. It smells a little musty and also like something we won’t talk about, and he’s sitting in a chair, rusty spring peeking through cat-scratched upholstery. The cat died a few years ago, nothing fancy, it was just impossibly ancient and hated the man more than he hated himself, poor kitty. The man is asleep, a newspaper on his leg – not today’s – the financial pages having slipped onto the floor, and a cigarette balances in the ceramic ashtray, all that’s left a stubborn ashen cylinder and hissing embers that should cause concern. He’s fallen asleep, as always, his grubby beard nestled on a yellowish shirt, shoes planted firmly on painted floorboards. Oh god, what’s that sticky thing?

Or maybe not. I made that up, which is the great thing about salvaged objects. This hideous thing is in an icebox of a studio on Dublin’s north side, and it was like this when he bought it: un-cleanable, and genuinely icky – like, recoil-in-horror icky. There’s a sort of elf-gnome-fairy creature perched on a porcelain mushroom, as melancholy as the gunge in the dish and I don’t like it one bit, which is precisely why I covet it. It’s totally and unashamedly gross, and it reminds me of something almost as creepy that I once bought for a quid just to freak myself out. “There’s something sad about that ashtray,” he says. He doesn’t know much about it, except that it might be German, but we imagine its story, cigarettes left burning, a scorchmark on its buttholder. “I think of somebody alone in a room.” Definitely. Stephen collects. Junk, whatever. From second-hand shops, car boot sales, and he never passes a skip. He thinks it’s because he comes from a generation when they didn’t have much. “When I go into these shops, sometimes I see people from my generation. I think there’s a certain longing for one’s past – looking for childhood memories.” He’s drawn to stuff, maybe because there’s barely a gap between a contemporary artist and an archaeologist, giving meaning to the material world. Only that archaeologists think they’re telling a truth, while artists play with its limits and don’t pretend we can project intention onto the past.  When I arrive, he says his studio is a bit like Francis Bacon’s, which is fine, because I like messy people. You’d never know it from his art, which is more clinical, definitely cleaner – maybe an outlet for some inner visual austerity. He’s definitely not clinical about stuff: there’s no theme beyond his own interest in oddities all kinds. Two – two! — lamps in the shape of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Laurel and Hardy salt and pepper shakers, a junky 1950s mug with two nudie girls, a strangely gory styrofoam pomegranate he found on the street outside, a plastic sign from a pub on the North Circular Road. “There’s a sense of disappointment in buying from a shop. This, you buy it, you bring it to one guy who can’t fix it, and he tells you about another guy who can fix it, then you meet another guy and he fixes it and then it’s up on your wall and it has a whole story there. Plus, there’s the story that was there before as well.”

“I bought this clock recently, an old school clock. I found this Indian man called Mr Singh who works in an arcade off Meath St – there are all these people that branch out, that fix things.” I’m getting the sense that it’s not just nostalgia, it’s empathy, an unwillingness to let things pass into obsolescence just because they’re a bit grotty. There’s an instant sentimental attachment. I’ll never understand how people throw stuff out – I’ve even found myself getting a bit attached to bus tickets. I like to think that for every label whore and gadget junkie, there’s someone like Stephen who will adopt my old stuff. He’s got some crap crap, too, although I disagree with the declaration of crapness about the thing that is a bespectacled monkey made out of coconuts. “That’s crap! Even I know that’s crap!” He turns it over and reads the label. “’Handmade in the Philippines, 1970′ and look how much I paid for it – 3.50 – I was ripped off!”

“The weirdest thing I ever found was a picture of a woman in her underwear in the pocket of a jacket. It was obviously taken by her husband, but I can only imagine what happened when she said ‘What did you do with that jacket?’” I like the innocence he’s assigned it, a husband admiring his wife in her skivvies. He takes a tiny piece of paper out of a book. It’s wrapped in paper, a sketch of a cat. “This thing is really freaky. This I got for a euro. I thought it was a reproduction but it’s real. I brought it up to the National Gallery and they say it’s 18th century. And you can see the mark of someone’s thumb.” I’m too busy congratulating myself for guessing the period correctly to take a good look at the thumbprint. Stephen has a good eye, mostly. Mostly. He once missed two Egg Chairs by Danish designer Arne Jacobsen. “They were covered in this garish print which I took to mean they were destroyed, but they were actually limited edition Pucci print. I didn’t realise it – they were gone the next day.” He’s wrong about the coconut monkey. That thing is class.

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