The Art of Hoarding

Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert Make Art that Questions Value, Need, and Hierarchy

For many, hoarding represents a kind of other-ness from which we seek to immediately distance ourselves. Hoarders are compulsively driven to save and accumulate all kinds of materials, seeing as treasure objects that are conventionally considered garbage. Because the hyperbolic nature of extreme hoarding is so alienating, it is a condition easily dismissed as madness—or even misconstrued as laziness or dirtiness by people with less sensitivity to the nuances of hoarding as a legitimate mental illness—but in reality, lower-stakes hoarding behavior is commonplace and presents along a kind of continuum. Most people have a drawer filled with unresolved objects, otherwise known as a “junk drawer.” The junk drawer is a kind of small-scale hoard, filled with objects for which we sense a purpose, but whose use remains ambiguous enough that they cannot be properly placed. Some people may have a junk car, or a junk closet, or a whole junk office, attic, or basement.

Artists are also people who may sense potential in materials that might otherwise be dismissed or discarded. In Detroit, where large studio spaces can be maintained over long periods of time at minimal cost, there are a large number of artists who cultivate creative hoards in varying stages of usefulness and disorder. There is also a decades-long tradition of artists who take things a step further, using abandoned homes as source materials for their art. Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert—a married art duo known jointly as Design99—are among the most contemporary generation in a longstanding interventionist tradition of Detroit “house art,” which stretches back into the 1960s and includes characters like Tyree Guyton and Olayami Dabls. Just west of Conant, where Detroit and Hamtramck converge in the “Banglatown” neighborhood, Reichert and Cope have been converting houses in their neighborhood into interactive works, collectively know as Power House Productions. In addition to the works that have evolved out of abandoned properties, Reichert and Cope have salvaged the remains of two houses that were completely hoarded by neighbors, resulting in extremely powerful fine artworks that raise questions about the life of objects and our ongoing relationships with them.

“The mystery for me is being attracted to objects, and not knowing why,” says Cope, in an interview that took place in the backyard of one of the couple’s Hamtramck properties—a former corner store converted into a living space. “And that’s the hoarder impulse—you’re attracted to keeping something, partly because there’s a use for it later, but that’s only part of it. It’s a beautiful object, it’s compelling, and it’s not mine. There’s a mysterious story that’s attached to it, and I’m trying to fill in the puzzle.”

“Sometimes I’m compelled to pick things off the curb,” puts in Reichert, “and when I do that, I’m like, ‘Who would throw this out?’ But then, when we were going through the houses, I feel like I was most attracted to stuff that I couldn’t figure out why they would keep it. It was such a mystery.”  

The most recent body of work, Organizational Strategies for the Afterlife, made its debut in February of 2017 at David Klein Gallery’s new location in downtown Detroit. With a series of paintings, found-object sculptures, and videos, the pair documents their intervention in the hoarded house of their neighbor, Larry, following his passing. Cope and Reichert took on the project of removing the contents of the house and began transforming what they found into artworks as a means of processing the loss of their neighbor—or perhaps, really getting to know them for the first time.

“I think, especially with the stuff that we’ve been pulling out of houses, that’s very personal,” said Reichert, “Even though we’re obviously dealing with objects and stuff, it really is more about the life that’s not there anymore, or what it meant, in terms of the house, or the family, or the neighborhood. Part of it became trying to get to know Larry better.”

Object-oriented ontology is currently a popular school of thought in the art world. The philosophy, broadly speaking, suggests that objects have a life and system of meaning that extends beyond the confines of their use relationships with humans (the secret life of objects, if you will). Cope and Reichert’s work, by contrast, suggests a kind of hyper-human connection to objects, positing that we may access people’s stories—and perhaps even some of their energy—through the objects they’ve left behind. Just as hoards may offer a hyper physicalized version of madness, allowing you to literally stand in the midst of someone’s mental illness, they may also offer a near-complete archival record of a life—prone as hoarders are to save everything, even things as banal as every piece of plastic cutlery they’ve used.

Though hoarders have surely existed throughout human history, it seems to be a type of affliction that has gained momentum within our materialistic and advertising-driven culture. Cope and Reichert’s work, which seeks to resolve these objects left behind, ultimately raises some of the most fundamental questions facing humanity, as we struggle with the havoc that our material excess wreaks on our planet. Artists are often ones to reject systems of value that other people take for granted, asking why we approach life in the way we do, and if there are different solutions. If, as a society, we cannot find answers, begin to separate what we truly need from what needs to be let go, one fears that we may find the world has become a hoard unto itself.

Cope and Reichert recently received part of a $2M Kresge Foundation grant, to expand on their work with the Ride It Sculpture Park, bordering Detroit’s Davison Freeway.