Sarah Hobbs makes an inspired choice in setting Repository, her latest series of installations, at a depressingly stark and corporate storage facility next to a freeway exit ramp in Midtown, a mere objet d’art’s throw from the High Museum. Hobbs, whose work riffs on contemporary anxieties — the sort that are metaphorically stowed out of sight for social convenience — is interested in both the public and hidden aspects of identity, and how this split might relate to, and manifest itself in, the physical objects we accumulate.
In other words, she’s curious about our stuff, all of it. Although her work here occasionally covers familiar ground, she remains an inventive, darkly humorous conceptual artist, and one to watch. The exhibition is on view at 14th Street Self Storage through February 22.
From the moment you enter the facility, the bleak, mazelike white hallways with their endlessly repeating roll-top storage room doors create a powerful sense of dislocation. The facility’s designers have named the indistinguishable corridors after the more familiar streets just outside. Throughout the building, there are signs reading “You are on Peachtree Street” and “You are on 17th Street.” If you didn’t feel displaced, isolated and disoriented before, you certainly will: the signs help.
Each of Hobbs’ four units, deep inside the building, is about the size of a horse’s stall. Two are adjacent to each other, and two others are located separately on corridors nearby. Arrows on the floor help with navigation, and the numbering and arrangement of the units suggest a sequential order in which to encounter them.
In the first unit, boxes and filing cabinets have been stacked and neatly organized, marked not with labels indicative of what their specific contents might be, but suggestive of an event or era that someone would understandably want to stow away if at all possible: Car Wreck, Freshman Year, Fat, Bad Choices, High School, Operations. In the second unit immediately adjacent, arranged on bookshelves are hundreds of little personal objects — sunglasses, cigarette lighters, headphones, seashells, nail polish bottles — each in a ziplock baggie labeled with a common name like Marc or Anna or Claire.
Are these memorials, an attempt to make insubstantial memories permanent through the classification and preservation of objects? Is it a kleptomaniac’s secret stash? We have only the things and the names, along with a suggested narrative about the type of person who may have paired them together and stored them.
The third unit is set up as a place for secret confession rather than storage. Hanging on the walls are hundreds of small cardboard placards, each bearing a short confessional statement written in ball point pen: “I got too attached”; “I act like I have more money than I really do”; “I don’t think anything I do is good enough”; and “I cheated and it was such a stupid game.”
The last unit is empty except for black curtains covering the walls and door. The visitor is momentarily engulfed in the total darkness and silence of literal “self storage.”
Hobbs works in an almost literary or theatrical mode, so close is her flirtation with narrative. She recently created work in a series of hotel rooms at the W Hotel, each installation based on a particular traveler’s phobia. The work here is as clever, but ultimately, the anxieties depicted at the storage facility seem too familiar; it’s well-trodden territory in contemporary art. They’re the little concerns, impulses, transgressions, vanities and regrets that accumulate in our everyday lives, a realm that’s been mapped out by artists like Jenny Holzer, Tracey Emin, Barbara Kruger and many others.
Moreover, the boxes, filing cabinets and cardboard confessions lack aesthetic interest as objects, and the little items — the decks of cards, sunglasses, stash boxes and headphones — don’t seem idiosyncratic or personal enough: they still look like objects an artist collected specifically to serve a purpose in a piece. Overall, we become too conscious of the artist’s role in creation to make the challenging conceptual leap that’s asked of us, to imagine a fictitious person who has stored these things.The work utilizes literary fiction’s specificity alongside conceptual art’s breadth and openness, but Hobbs hasn’t quite found a sweet spot in balancing these two essentially very different modes.
Still, there’s sly humor and admirable inventiveness in the work. Hobbs is sympathetic to our unseen anxieties, hidden oddities and little transgressions, but she’s also eager to shine a light on the way we obfuscate them. Clearly, she isn’t going to let us get away with storing our secret selves so easily.