The Things We Carry: Artists Confront Compulsive Hoarding

Right now, in the Museum of Modern Art's second-floor atrium, there is a pile of junk: empty toothpaste tubes, bottle caps without bottles, used Styrofoam containers, slivers of soap. Thousands of items—piles of clothes, pots, pans, toys, books—overwhelm the 3,000-square foot display space. Collectively, these items are a new installation, called "Waste Not," by Chinese artist Song Dong. But before these items were art, they were all the contents of the house of his mother, Zhao Xiangyuan. Zhao grew up during the Chinese Revolution, a time when the government ran massive campaigns emphasizing the values of frugality and thrift. She took the maxims to the extreme, wasting nothing, even a tattered pair of work boots that her son tried to throw away. As her children grew, she saved their tiny shoes and jackets. She saved used tea leaves and shopping bags, soda bottles and toothbrushes. Over fifty years, their small house outside Beijing came to resemble "a landslide with a path through it," says the installation's co-curator, Sarah Suzuki. So Song, a conceptual artist, made a suggestion to his mother: turn the contents of her home into an art exhibition, a way to explore his mother's life and the larger cultural forces that shaped it.

It's a pile of junk, but it's not. Take a step back and Song's installation is a complete life on display, no longer a landslide, but categorized and clean. It's an exploration of what happens when frugality goes extreme. And it's fascinating. On a recent Sunday afternoon, few would wander by the installation without stopping. Onlookers pointed out various items, constantly commenting the sheer volume of the installation. "Do you think you have this much stuff?" one teenager asked another. One woman videotaped the entire exhibit, with her own running commentary: "Here are the pots and pans. And here are all the shoes the family owned."

"I think a lot of people are fascinated and horrified by the level of stuff," says Suzuki. "It's just the sheer volume."

Compulsive hoarding is usually a private matter. Individuals shut their doors and keep the public away from the mounds of stuff they've collected. But over the past few years, some artists, all children of apparent hoarders, are taking a public look at the little-understood psychological condition. They're using documentary, paintings and large-scale installations like Song's to explore our relationship to stuff, and why we can't let it go. "The whole point was to not hide this," says Holly Fisher, an Austin, Texas, artist who makes paintings of her mother's hoarding. They're among her most popular pieces of art; since 2001, she's sold 15 of them. "I really just wanted to get this off my chest. I never thought people would be interested in them." Which raises the question: why are we interested? What is it about a seemingly quotidian, perhaps even repulsive, collection of someone else's things that draws us in? And what does it mean for the artist to put his or her very private life on public display?

Research into compulsive hoarding is still relatively limited. Psychologists know the basic characteristics that define a hoarder: they acquire too much, discard too little, and end up in a situation where the clutter is unmanageable, "They have excessive concerns about waste and beliefs about the nature of opportunity," says Randy Frost, co-author of Compulsive Hoarding and Acquiring (Oxford University Press, 2006) and a psychologist at Smith College. "Beliefs in attachment aren't unusual, but they're more intense in hoarders and apply to many more things." Hoarding has a genetic component, children of hoarders being more likely to hoard themselves, and is crosscultural, seen in most societies that researchers have examined. It's more common in certain segments of the population, like the elderly, and sometimes triggered by a trauma, some kind of loss. Still, not much is known about the environmental influences, what might cause one person with a genetic predisposition to hoard, but not another. Hoarding "turns out to be a very complex set of behaviors," says Frost. "It's not a simple thing to describe. When you talk about causes, a number of different things lead us in some different directions."

So artists are using different mediums to find answers, to sort out why exactly their parents saved so many things. Song became more concerned about his mother's collecting after the sudden death of his father in 2002. "She not only held on to everything, but also left these things scattered everywhere," Dong wrote in a 2005 article about "Waste Not." Frugality, he says, became a way to mourn, to fill such a vast, empty space. "I understand her need to fill the space with those daily-life objects more as a need to fill the emptiness after my father's death," says.

Filmmaker Cynthia Lester used her trade to make a documentary about her mother's hoarding. Lester ran away from home when she was 13, driven out by her mother's compulsive hoarding. When she returned for the documentary, her mother's house was so packed that the floor was no longer visible. She could only enter through the window and the bathroom had become unusable; neighbors has signed a petition to evict her. The documentary follows Lester and her siblings as they clean out her mother's house, an emotional and tense experience of fighting, yelling, crying and screaming.

"When you live in this environment it's so chaotic and you're trying to make sense of it," she says. "I think creating art out if it is a way for us to do that." The film, My Mother's Garden, was an official selection at the 2008 Slamdance Film Festival. It also aired on MSNBC in April.

Sorting through these massive collections of objects is not only physically challenging, but also an emotional struggle. There's the nervousness about putting a private family member into a public display. Fisher, the painter, knew her mother was generally guarded about her hoarding. "In the beginning it was terrifying," says Fisher. "I thought my mother would have a nervous breakdown if she knew." Lester still grapples with what it meant to make her documentary, which, in a way, validated her mother's hoarding. In doing so, she wondered, was she only encouraging a mental illness, supporting the notion that every saved object has a purpose? "It's complicated," she admits. "In a way, its enforcing the fact that hoarding is okay, by turning it into a beautiful thing."

Some hoarders worry that these explorations may rely too heavily on the artists' post hoc explanations of hoarding behavior and not enough on the established, scientific literature. Song's attribution of his mother's collecting to cultural mores, for example, didn't sit well with Paula Kotakis, a former hoarder who runs a support group in California. "My reaction was how he could miss the diagnosis, the mental health issue," she says. "The stuff she saved was textbook hoarding. This wasn't just a cultural thing." She cites a study from 1993, which failed to find any connection between material deprivation early in life and hoarding. Elizabeth Perry, who directs the Harvard-Yenching Institute and specializes in contemporary Chinese history, confirms that this level of hoarding was more "idiosyncratic than common." "In my own experience, the reaction to [Cultural Revolution] over time was not to save every scrap of property," she says.

But Song describes his experience as therapeutic for the entire family, a way for his mother to both cope with the devastation of her husband's death and confront the massive amount of stuff she'd accumulated. Initially, she was hesitant about putting her personal objects into the public sphere. She thought it might negatively impact her son's reputation. But Song assured his mother it would only be a positive experience for the entire family. So Song and his mother categorized the objects and planned their placement, his sister took care of the storage and shipment. "In this work, I hoped I could help release my mother's pain from my father's sudden death through art making," Song, now in China, wrote in an e-mail. "Art would allow her to obtain a new way of life." Together, they installed the exhibit in Beijing and then across Europe. "This new life gives her new meanings and values, it made her enjoys her life very much," Song writes. Song's mother died in January, shortly before they began to install the exhibit in New York. But the sign that he's hung at every exhibition, in Chinese characters, still seems fitting. Its bright neon blue lights read: "Dad, don't worry, Mum and we are fine."