Midway through our sprawling conversation about things, and the meaning of things, and how objects’ importance often comes not from their physical form, but rather the personal significance attached to them. I mention to Geoff Sobelle the New York Times-bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, purchased in part thanks to my appreciation of organizer/writer Marie Kondo’s advice about dealing with those guilt-inducing, hard-to-part with items in our lives: "If you're having a hard time getting rid of something, thank the item for the role it has already played in your life," Kondo advises. Then you're free to "let it go."
I haven’t read it, I confess, but a digital copy is sitting on my Kindle, waiting for me.
Sobelle laughs. As you might imagine, as creator of a performance-installation about “our relationship to our everyday objects"—or, more bluntly, "a meditation on the stuff we cling to and the crap we leave behind," Sobelle has his own relationship with the bestselling organization bible.
“You know what? Nobody’s read that book. Everybody owns it, but nobody’s read it. That’s how that book works,” says Sobelle.
In fact, he says, as a joke in the Los Angeles presentation of The Object Lesson, one of the 2,000-plus cardboard boxes comprising its installation was labeled Books I Need to Get Rid Of, ”and it was nine copies of that book, and a few Cliffs Notes versions of that book as well,” says Sobelle. “And let me tell you...the only thing that was consistently stolen from that installation was that book. So I have no copies of that book...and (the stolen copies) are literally cluttering someone’s home.”
If you attend The Object Lesson this weekend at the Wex—and you certainly should (not just because I said so, but in no small parts because it took home a top prize at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, received a prestigious Bessie Award, and earned rave reviews from the likes of the New York Times, NPR, SF Gate, and LA Weekly)—be prepared for a set jumbled with boxes piled ceiling high and marked with labels ranging from the practical (Packing Peanuts + Bubble Wrap, Extra Buttons + Sewing Kits) to the esoteric (Things I Wish I’d Done Better, What-Ifs, Girls I’ve Kissed). You’re invited to explore the boxes and rummage among their contents (photos are OK, taking what you find is not), which include flyers, antique dolls, Star Wars toys, manuals on pickpocketing, and other surprises.
The genesis of The Object Lesson, which opened in 2013, came circa 2009, when Sobelle, who had found past success working collaboratively in creative ensembles, decided to challenge himself with a solo work. And as a performer trained in magic and clowning, two forms that by their very nature have interest in subverting our expectation about how objects work, or investigating some deeper meaning behind physical relationships, “I knew I wanted to make something about stuff. I’ve always been fascinated by and interested in the life of objects,” he says.
For instance, as he was developing the work during a stay in New York, he found himself marveling over the items in Lincoln Center’s prop room. “None of this stuff was built for the theater, it’s real furniture...that ended up in a weird little storage facility. All of these objects, where have they been?” Sobelle asked himself.
Sobelle also found more items with history thanks to a residency with RAIR (Recycled Artist in Residency), a Philadelphia-based organization that works to create awareness about sustainability issues through art and design, and one that he calls “an awesome resource” for creating his work with interesting items diverted from the waste stream.
And while there is indeed plenty of stuff in The Object Lesson, “It’s more about the things you carry around with you that aren’t necessarily objects, that aren’t necessarily tangible,” says Sobelle. “...It’s about shedding light on the things you don’t really think about, like the things you might have in your handbag, that you forgot are in there, but they’re in there and if you actually look at them, they will actually take you to some other place and time—even if it’s a gum wrapper—that’s the thing that inspired me, just the curiosity around this strange kingdom of forgotten objects.”
Here, in the world of The Object Lesson, we experience the familiar—who hasn’t lived through the emotion-laden act of packing for a move, or digging through forgotten items in an attic, or sifting through a deceased relatives’ belongings?—in a setting that subverts the expected. “The idea of going through objects in boxes and looking at their labels is something we’re familiar with, and there is a kind of ritual and that was important to me,” Sobelle says. At the same time, The Object Lesson intentionally breaks out of the traditional theater experience, where the audience sits and observes the action, and the performer performs. Instead, patrons are encouraged to mill around before the action starts, and take a seat on a cardboard box once the performance begins in earnest.
“I had no desire to make something where a group of people would sit in their cushy seats with their programs, waiting for their entertainment to begin,” says Sobelle. “That wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to interrupt that, both in myself and in the audience.”
Doing so, he says, “is just more fun, and it does something to you physiologically. You’re interacting with people and you have to move, and, you know, it’s not that big of a deal, you just do them, but I think it enhances your experience, it becomes more of an experience, and you just don’t take it all for granted, just with those simple gestures.”
Ultimately, the world Sobelle has created in The Object Lesson is one that is kinetic, unexpected, comic, melancholy and surprising, where metaphors take physical form, and real objects take gain new meaning.
‘“The mystery is that a thing is just a thing, but we hang all of this stuff on the thing….A letter, which tends to be just paper and ink, it’s materiality doesn’t say much of anything, but it has a huge sentiment to you. That’s curious to me, like, how can that be, and what is it that it’s carrying?” Sobelle says.
After its run at the Wex (which continues through 8 pm Saturday), Sobelle and crew will take The Object Lesson to the Walker Art Center and then to Bard College.
And then, after The Object Lesson eventually completes its tour, does Sobelle have his eye on an item or two to remember the work by?
“I don’t know,” he says. “That’s a good question. I’m not there yet.”