Rathaus: Installation at A Gallery by Kathryn Abarbanel

Posted on June 05, 2013, 1:13 pm
7 mins


The sculpture at “Rathaus” by Kathryn Abarbanel

You can’t take it with you, they say, and yet there have always been those who hoard objects for one reason or another: sometimes a petrifying attachment to the past, sometimes a stagnating fear of loss and change in general. The hoarding phenomenon has even become a source of entertainment with shows devoted to the subject—the outing of the somewhat unfortunate personalities who obsess over their possessions, no matter how homely and useless they may be. Rather than holding a mirror to a consumer society that is all too willing to dispose of everything, these shows are a disingenuous form of “human interest” story. There is little real pathos and no valuable commentary.

Kathryn Abarbanel’s quiet but evocative installation at A Gallery on Main St facing Occidental Square approaches the remains of a hoard with deep pathos and provides a sort of sublimation to the subject and the objects themselves. Abarbanel and her partner Maria Gamboa rehabilitate houses through their design firm, but both are artists and in each project the practical concerns inform them creatively. Not all of the homes they work to restore are as dilapidated and filled as the “Rathaus” was, so this is a particularly potent artistic response for Abarbanel, who was deeply moved by the amount of material left in the property.

The title “Rathaus” was the name that Abarbanel and Gamboa gave to this project. There were, in fact, rats on the property, nesting in boxes of fetid clothing and paper. But rather than calling it a literal “rat house,” they chose the German “Rathaus”—a linguistic false friend meaning a “town hall” or “guildhall” in German. The association with a more public, inviting space was important to them and takes on a new resonance in the Pioneer Square location where the installation can be viewed from the street, across from a square where many of the city’s homeless often congregate—a living discard, often evaluated and identified by the shabbiness of their clothing and appearance.

The temporary sculpture is a spectral vortex of clothing ascending in a cone. At first glance, it is an attractive form—a swirl of colors and textures coming to a crisp point—but when one remembers that it is really a pile of fetid clothing gathered from an infested home, it becomes somewhat uncanny. Clothing is a powerfully intimate thing. Its direct contact with the body makes it comforting when it is our own, shaped by and for us, but it also makes it suspect when it comes from a stranger and particularly abhorrent when it becomes fetid. Left empty, it even suggests the absence of a body, something as ephemeral as it is rotten. Wadded up, it is symbol of collapse and disorder, something accustomed and designed for protection and movement now left to stagnate on the floor. It is also a record of time—clothing bought for special occasions, clothing outgrown by changing bodies, clothing that became a comfort as nightwear, clothing worn to work, a symbol of one’s labor or servitude, of time spent. Abarbanel has chosen a most fitting form for these objects, compressing them so the uncanny sense of the lost body is concealed and the objects merge in an ordered fashion while still showing traces of their unique qualities—a mottled discoloration, a colorful pattern, an intricate bit of embroidery. It acquires a collective sense of movement despite its stillness, a sublimation despite its decay.

There was much more than clothing in the Rathaus, and Abarbanel is also compiling a book of photographed objects. Many of these things are so broken and decayed, it begs the question why they were kept at all, but through Abarbanel’s careful and thoughtful curation, the objects are given a new life in the pages of the book. From the chaos of clutter, Abarbanel has teased out the individual pieces and paired them sympathetically across the margin of the book’s seam—a poignant reconciliation of these objects which have led their own life but cannot tell their stories. The pairings are complementary in at least one of many ways—color, texture, meaning. A pair of black, filthy shoes arranged yin-yang takes on the same visual quality of a broken horse figurine trotting toward it without feet. Both horse and shoes are without feet, both are still, but they seem to complete each other, again suggesting a movement where it cannot possibly occur.

Pages from the prototype of Abarbanel's book, also on view at the gallery during open hours

Pages from the prototype of Abarbanel’s book, also on view at the gallery during open hours

During the whirl of art walk or on some afternoon, take some time to stop by A Gallery. During the day, you may hear the splashing of water from Waterfall Park a block away. You may see men and women in tatterdemalion lounging in the brick courtyard behind you. You will certainly hear the rush traffic from the streets and the viaduct. “Rathaus” is a quiet source of reflection—a memento mori of the kindest sort. (And we don’t know when it is coming down, so check it out sooner than later.)

A Gallery is a pop-up gallery located at 117 Main St S.

T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.