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Modern life is rubbish – the stories abandoned objects tell

Julie Shiels has been repurposing streetside detritus to artistic ends since 2005. Julie Shiels

It all began with a muselet – the wire cage that holds a champagne cork in place.

Flattened on the footpath, its complex pattern caught my eye. I began noticing others, and realised that every squashed muselet was different, and that behind every one was a different story, a different event, a different celebration.

This prompted me to explore how detritus, and other marks and traces left anonymously on the pavement tell us stories about urban spaces – diverse stories that are nevertheless specific to a particular place and time. I began collecting and photographing the minutiae of the street. Then, nine years ago, I started adding traces of my own.

I have continued doing so ever since. An exhibition of my photographs of reworked detritus opens this week at St Kilda Town Hall, in Melbourne.

Gleaning the nature strip

I inscribe dumped mattresses, couches and chairs with text – quotes and truisms that I also source from the public domain. The stencilled furniture becomes a temporary public artwork and stays on the street until somebody takes it away.

It may be there for several hours or several weeks. Often it is scooped up by council workers, mashed up in a garbage compactor and taken to the tip. Occasionally an opportunistic collector rescues one of these ephemeral art works to give it a second life.

Sometimes a stencilled chair disappears for a while, only to reappear later in a different location.

Julie Shiels

Initially, my interest was in gentrification. I wanted to rework the detritus to reveal the tensions that occur as a suburb becomes simultaneously more desirable and more homogeneous, as socio-economic uniformity, investment and renovation create a particular stylistic overlay.

Over time my intention became less political and more poetic, evolving into a reflection on impermanence and the passing of time. The found objects that catch my attention are anonymous. The history of these pieces of furniture remains obscure. Yet each item previously occupied an intimate place in someone’s life.

Traces of this intimacy remain in marks left behind by the human body – indentations, wear and tear, sweat stains.

Found objects revalued

After stencilling a piece of furniture, I take a photograph and post the image online – originally at I love St Kilda and now at Writing in public space. On these visual blogs I also record casual conversations that I have in the street while making and photographing the work.

Julie Shiels

Friends and acquaintances have become involved in my project by alerting me to interesting looking junk, to lovely fabric on mattresses, or to well-positioned lounge suites. They have suggested texts for stencilling and commented on my blog posts.

Over the past nine years there has been little discernible change in the type and variety of objects abandoned on the streets. Yet my response to them has shifted and in selecting and organising photographs for my book, I have grouped the photographs into four series of work that roughly correspond to distinct (but overlapping) time periods.

Text on the street

The first series – The things people told me (2005) – is concerned with the fragility of life and its circumstances. The texts were based on stories told to me by homeless people and others at the margins of society.

Julie Shiels

The second series – The things people said (2005–11) – generally appropriates other people’s quotes: poets, politicians, writers, thinkers and artists (though some of my own thoughts are also included). The quote are selected in response to the materiality of the particular object – its scale, condition, colour etc. – and its location on the street.

For One thing leads to another (2011–13), the third series, I used vinyl lettering instead of spray-painted stencils, and applied the quotes to abandoned TVs. The text was often sourced from obsolete websites and blogs. In other words, I was working from screen to screen: redundant words, digital detritus cluttering up forgotten corners of cyberspace, is re-animated by applying it to an obsolete analogue technology that is cluttering up the street.

An images from the One thing leads to another series. Julie Shiels

The final series, The Call of Things (2007–13), appears to anthropomorphise abandoned items of furniture as if they are speaking on their own behalf.

Since starting this last series I have begun to understand what I do through the lens of vital materialism, as developed by political philosopher Jane Bennett in her book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Of particular interest to me is Bennett’s question about how we can recast our understanding of the objects around us and see them as having a greater degree of agency.

This challenges an anthropocentric view – the idea, as American philosopher Graham Harman puts it, that humans have “a special box seat in the world”. Bennett’s conception of vibrant matter is based on the idea that relations between things exist, independent of us and that we need to reframe our understanding of these interactions.

In her essay for my book, “Animate objects, articulate things. What next?”, British artist, researcher and curator Gillian Whiteley places my work in this context:

Besides becoming articulate, these evocative objects go beyond evocation and might be said to have “active life presences”. There is a sense in which these inanimate objects have become animate. The boundary between the two states is precarious. Another threshold is breached.

Photographing the ephemeral

An additional threshold breached in this project is the division between ephemeral artwork and photographic documentation. What started as a series of opportunistic interventions on the street – the revaluing of abandoned furniture to give this urban waste a second life – had evolved into a photographic project.

Originally the photos were intended only as documentation, but over time I realised that they were becoming a body of work in their own right – the result of a set of repeated processes. I always stencil the furniture where I find it – I don’t move it to get a better location or image – and I always take the photograph immediately after applying the text.

Consequently the photos consistently reproduce the prevailing light and weather conditions, factors beyond my control. It is here I recognised the role of chance as a consistent component of my practice: chance determines what gets dumped and where, how it congregates, how it interacts with the landscape around it, but also when I encounter it.

Julie Shiels

Consequently the images draw upon, but sit uncomfortably within, the conventions of the staged photograph and the documentation of an event. In the later photographs I have purposely exploited that tension. The end result is that the photos reflect the banality and uncertainty of everyday life, just like the texts and the pieces of furniture on which they have been applied.

Creating a book from these nine years of work has been a catalyst to track the participatory twists and turns of this project and to compile the outcomes in a way that gives it a narrative arc, while not diminishing its complexity.

The project is ongoing and will continue to examine the nature of impermanence. I also hope it reveals how the value of what is discarded can be re-assigned through temporary intervention and through photography.

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Julie Shiels’ exhibition book As long as it lasts is published by M.33 and the accompanying exhibition As long as it lasts is showing at The Gallery at St Kilda Town Hall, Melbourne, until May 21. See more of her images here.

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