Holding onto and letting go
This interview took place in Simon Wald-Lasowski's studio in Amsterdam, on the 14th of April 2022 and is part of a research initiated in 2021 by KIOSK with Myrna D’Ambrosio on artists’ collections.
Myrna D’Ambrosio: I'd love to know how the assemblage of all these various objects displayed in your studio began.
Simon Wald-Lasowski: I started with the seriality of meaningless or valueless objects that when multiplied generate fascination. I'm not a collector in the traditional sense anymore; when you're a true collector you always think about what’s missing. As soon as you find one object, you're already starting to think about the next. You're never in the moment, you're always in the past or in the future. I used to have that kind of restlessness, an obsessiveness about acquiring. It's always about making the collection grow; it creates stress and you can never really appreciate one singular item.
MD: Was there one kind of object in particular that drove this behaviour?
SWL: I think there’s a general type of personality that is maybe prone to addiction or obsession. I started collecting multiple things at the same time. My grandfather was also a collector. Recently I started to reflect on why that may have been the case: he was a Polish Jew, lost all his family in the Second World War. When he finally found a place to settle, he started accumulating things as a way to have control over his environment, to hold onto memories, you know, after losing everything.
He was a very charismatic person, every time he ate out he would talk to the owner of the restaurant and ask them to sign the menus; or he would add a note about what he had eaten there. He also collected cigar papers that he smoked, or whiskey bottle labels: common collectibles, like stamps or coins. But I was always fascinated by these menus which preserved memories for him and revealed more about his story. I also like them because of the tactility of the types of paper, the colour, the fonts, the different photos of the food.
MD: I’ve never heard of a menu collection! Perhaps your grandfather didn’t even consciously conceive of this as a collection per se, especially given how not everyone positively connotes the status of collector
SWL: I'm not personally offended by the word collection, I embrace it in many ways, I can identify and relate to it. But for example, you could also say that mine is ‘a museum’. In that sense the collector holds a responsibility of care and attention towards their objects.
MD: Are all of the objects that you gather somehow reused in your work? The composition of barber brushes in your home for example feels more like an art piece in itself. How do you separate the two?
SWL: I do separate objects which are for my personal enjoyment and objects as material.
Matisse described his collection as a “bibliothèque de travail” or “working library”. He returned to the same objects again and again with new ideas about colour, form, and technique.
Louis Aragon was a French poet. He was one of the leading voices of the surrealist movement. While reacting to the importance of objects in the oeuvre of Henri Matisse, Aragon coined the term “Palette d’objets”. This is a term that I can relate to.
Therefore, you could call my collections a collection, or you could call it a library, or a palette. An ‘art collection’ is also called a collection. There are people who go to flea markets and collect knickknacks; and there are others who spend millions on art: they are both referred to as collectors, which is also kind of funny.
MD: This opens up the question about value. In your practice, you sometimes manipulate cheap, readymade objects which will automatically gain worth in the process
SWL: I am interested in the perception of spiritual versus economic value of ordinary goods. Plastic Chinese manufactured items for example are often easily discarded.
Yet, as a form of mild political activism I try to give back a certain dignity and respect to these disdained products by showing them in a new poetical and subversive light. By imbuing chosen objects with a unique aura, they differentiate themselves from their mass produced identical counterparts. With this approach, I aim to activate an understanding in the onlooker’s eyes that beauty and value can potentially be found anywhere.
But this approach can not always find an echo in the profit logic of the art market.
For example, during one of my shows in Antwerp a few years ago, someone told the gallerist: “oh, this is great. But unless he makes it out of bronze, it’s never going to sell”. Even people of my generation will ask: “oh did you make this?”, as if a handmade object should automatically have more value than a found object. Since the ready-made has existed for so long, I wouldn't have thought this would be such a relevant question anymore.
MD: Certainly a more engaging question would be to ask what are you trying to convey or communicate through the objects. Reviews on that specific exhibition imply that you were commenting on issues of mass production
SWL: I don't have the pretence to think that my work can influence global issues of mass production, waste or pollution. Mostly I just try to deal with personal and intimate narratives. However I don’t mind that critics will interpret my work based on their own perception of what I’m tackling and trying to express. For example for a different show, my work was centred around heartbreak and the experience of embracing a certain queerness; it addressed very personal experiences of gender and sexuality. But someone read the exhibition as a comment on the toxicity of capitalism. That’s the beauty of art, it doesn’t carry one single narrative. In that sense I’m generally not interested in works that have a singular didactic agenda, since goal-oriented projects can lack poetry and deny the viewer the chance to expand their own imagination.
MD: What specific objects mostly catch your attention?
SWL: What draws me towards certain objects is the fear or discomfort I feel when initially seeing them. Part of my practice is to attempt to understand and deconstruct this fear based on ideas of taste, class and value.
Objects present in my home or that I have an emotional attachment to are linked to personal travels; objects as a representation of a memory of a moment. I'm attracted to cabinets of curiosity, having snippets of the world in my home. But I’m aware of the history of those cabinets, historically created to showcase hunting or colonial trophies. I often wonder whether I’m just perpetuating this ‘cabinet of curiosity ideology’? Is what I collect also exotification?
MD: Where do you predominantly source things from? Do you allocate yourself a budget or a limit on price?
SWL: I found a lot by chance. At some point I thought of establishing a routine of going to a flea market every week and in doing so, maintaining a sense of discovery. But then it would have felt as if I never had enough… So now, if I happen to stumble upon a flea market I will check it out. Sometimes it's online. Sometimes it's when I travel. It's not constant.
I don't own very expensive objects but I am also fascinated by high end auctions. Once in a while I might try to bid on something that is limited which means its value increases. I think that’s part of the thrill for many collectors. At one point I started collecting other people's collections. I became a ‘collector of collections’.
So I am interested in specific objects, but also in their history, and the fact that a lot of love and energy was put into collecting them. There’s this website called Marktplaats which is a little bit like the Dutch eBay; you can find users selling whole collections, which represents years of money and obsession. Maybe the collection became overwhelming and they have to let it go? Or maybe their partners can’t deal with it? It takes up too much space in a house, or maybe somebody passed away and their kids aren’t interested?
Once I came across somebody selling 300 hourglasses, quite a unique type of object compared to common finds like Coca-Cola cans for example. That sparked my interest in the hourglass as a symbol. Many years later when I was dealing with grief and time, the hourglass seemed like something I could focus on again even though it's quite a cliché (which I wasn’t shying away from because I was looking at it from a deeply intimate place). So from a random find, I then started to actively search for different kinds of hour glasses in their material, colours, shapes, to have a broad range – but with the purpose of a specific work in mind. In that sense it gave me a good excuse to fulfil the need of collecting without the guilty conscience of spending money.
MD: How did you establish when the hourglass collection had reached completion? Was it a quantitative or quality decision?
SWL: When I finished the project and it was out of my system, the daily search for hourglasses I had conducted for weeks came to an end and I haven't looked for one since. Even if I wanted to recreate the cabinet as a multiple, I could never find the exact combination of those hourglasses. In that sense it remains a unique piece.
MD: ‘Collecting collections’ suggests that you’re also ensuring objects of a particular seriality don’t become dispersed. And at the same time, it’s a way to preserve someone's legacy.
SWL: Yes, something I only recently realised is that I may have a saviour complex. This influences my relationship towards objects, in the way that it adds meaning and in that way, fulfils a purpose.
I think that going through deep loss and experiencing grief made me realise how collecting is a conduit to deny death, the inevitable. It also enacted a chain of thoughts around who's going to be responsible for these objects when I'm not here, that someone else may have to endure the burden. So I’m now on this new kind of decluttering journey whilst only accumulating new things that are really out of the ordinary or have a very specific purpose for my work.
MD: What does the decluttering process entail?
SWL: Last year I started by leaving things out on the communal table at my studio space. Seeing people take things gave me pleasure, and the reassurance that discarded objects could have a new life and meaning for somebody else rather than passively sitting in a box. When it comes down to it, I still look at everything ten times, scrutinise it before deciding to sell it on. This of course addresses issues around western excess of material goods; around social class and status; the privilege of owning a studio and storage space. There is something absurd about that which I want to acknowledge and be mindful about.
This recent decluttering shift might go full circle and get me to sell things at flea markets, where I hope to find joy in the human experience of exchange. Seeing smiles on people’s faces as they walk away with something that once sparked the same excitement for me.
Simon Wald-Lasowski (b. 1980) collects, studies and mocks images, objects and signs that are so prevalent in contemporary society. Simultaneously, his multiform practice conveys a genuine love for disdained tacky gadgets and obscene curiosities, which he obsessively hoards. Objects of the anthropocene become actors in satirical subversive installations, which confront viewers to absurd issues of the human condition and to the enormous underbelly of our morbid consumerism.
He has held solo exhibitions at W139 Amsterdam, 1646 The Hague, trampoline Anwerp, IFP Beijing and group exhibitions in Garage Rotterdam, HNI Rotterdam. His art in public space commission for Welcome Stranger is currently on view in Amsterdam.