Cathy Byrd speaks on Skype with photographer Sarah Hobbs on a night when Sarah is testing materials she collected for Overpacked, a set of site-specific installations to be on view in Atlanta for four days next week. Sarah’s interest in human obsessions has led her to depict a range of neuroses and human foibles. Known for immersing her viewers in large scale photographs staged in familiar domestic interiors, this time, Sarah invites us into an experiential space: three hotel rooms that appear to be occupied by individuals trying very hard to make themselves feel at home.
Sound Editor and Episode Sound Designer: Eric Schwartz
Photos: Sarah Hobbs
CATHY BYRD: Tonight, I’m speaking with artist Sarah Hobbs. Her staged photographs of domestic spaces represent a range of psychological states. There is an immersive theater quality in the installations she creates. Her work has been featured in solo and group exhibitions across the U.S., and last year, Charta Books Milan published her first monograph, Small Problems in Living. The typical experience of Sarah’s concepts is through her photographs. But at the moment, she’s preparing for Overpacked, a sculptural installation project that she will be presenting in three rooms at the W Hotel Midtown in Atlanta for four days this December. Sarah, when did you first become interested in staging your photographs?
SARAH HOBBS: When I was in graduate school, I was very interested in interior spaces and the idea that interior spaces can carry psychological weight. So I photographed interiors as I would find them, but that ran out of steam pretty quickly. Then I thought, what if I added things and created a space? I was moving from one rental house to another and always had to paint the rooms back to white, so I started drawing on the walls. And I thought, what if I use the space itself to create an idea? That’s how it started. I began dealing with concepts and figuring out what materials might illustrate those concepts and how I might arrange them to create a feeling of a psychological space.
CB: I think you create that space for the viewer by the scale in which you print your photographs, because the experience of your photographs in a gallery is immersive.
SH: It is. They are 4 × 5 feet and I am very much interested in the viewer being implicated as the person in the image. A lot of the images have a chair or something that implies a person. The viewer is asked to put themselves in the space.
CB: I love the photograph called Untitled (Sensitivity), where the floor is covered with eggs.
SH: I went early one morning down to the Georgia Farmer’s Market and picked up 300 dozen eggs. I rarely work with an assistant, but on this occasion I needed to have someone help me, because it took quite a while. As you can imagine, you have to be very careful with the eggs. I was hoping to not break many of them, so it was a very slow process. We worked with them very gingerly. It took probably three or four hours to get them all out onto the floor. And then, I photographed it pretty quickly because I don’t want to break down an installation until I know that I have a good piece of film—and I still am using film. I took the film to the lab as quickly as I could to get it processed, because I didn’t want the eggs to go bad while I was waiting, and I couldn’t shoot it the next day. It was pretty hairy, but I was very happy with the installation.
CB: In this photograph [with all the eggs], the viewer that’s implied is a chair.
SH: There are two ways that the viewer could be implied. The chair is in the center of the eggs, so there is no way to get to the implied person without breaking some eggs, which represent emotions and feelings. The viewer could either be the person sitting in the chair or the person who would like to communicate with the person in the chair. No matter which one you decide you are, you feel isolated from the other person because there’s this sea of breakable objects or breakable feelings that are between the two people.
CB: I’m curious why you’re so fascinated by our mental health and our obsessive behaviors.
SH: I think it’s a great leveler. We all have one issue or another. There’s no one who doesn’t have some issue. Not on a clinical level, but just an everyday level, something that makes living your life that day just a little bit more difficult, or makes it more difficult for people to live with you. Or your outlook on the world is more difficult because it’s seen through some neurosis or other. I think it’s a fascinating aspect of human nature.
CB: What neuroses have you explored in your photographs?
SH: Sublimation is putting something in your life to replace something or to compensate for something that’s missing in your life. So you put something else in your life, and that can become an obsession.
CB: You represented our sublimation with a bonsai?
SH: Yes. Bonsai trees are very finicky and they take a lot of care, almost on a constant basis. You have to get really close to them and look at them with great detail and use the tools in a certain way, and you have to water them a certain way and put them in a certain light — it’s very time-consuming. I used about 30 of them to exacerbate the idea of using up a lot of one’s time to compensate for something else that’s missing.
CB: How did you select the themes for the three rooms you’re staging at the hotel right now?
SH: Whenever we go on a trip, we don’t leave our neuroses at home, so I was trying to think of ones that would be exacerbated by being away. Germaphobe worked, and alarmist seemed to work really well. And the other one is homesick, and well, that’s perfect.
CB: You have been working on this concept for two years, and have left the domestic space for a hotel room. Even though you’re saying that it’s perfect for these three ideas, how did that change in setting affect your creative process?
SH: It is quite different, because now I’m working with 360 degrees. In the photographs I choose part of a room, a corner or a wall. I choose one object, maybe wadded up paper or wine corks, and then I use as many of them as I can cram into that space. One piece of material is repeated over and over. And that’s the whole of the experience. Here, the whole of the experience is walking into the room and seeing how this person deals—tries—to make it their own. I’ve had to use more than one type of material — for germaphobe I’ve got white gloves, I’ve got plastic covering things. I’ve got this mask that you put over your face. There are so many different types of objects that I have to think about it in a bigger picture sense in order to make all these different elements come together as one, the way that they did in the photographs.
CB: What will be the media for the room having to do with emergency preparedness?
SH: For that, I have a weather radio, and caution tape—one wall of the room is entirely a window, so I want to block that off as if the person wants to be sure to not go near the window. I have cardio-pulmonary resuscitator masks. I’ve got a travel carbon monoxide detector and a travel fire detector. I have the emergency sticks that light up after you break them open, I’m going to use those to make a path from the bed to the door. I have emergency blankets, emergency ponchos, I have electrical tape and duct tape and emergency kits, survival kits. All of this, as much as I can find, is yellow.
CB: So the germaphobe’s palette is white. The person prepared for an emergency is yellow. What is the palette of the person who might be homesick?
SH: Homesick is blues and greens. The window I’m covering with a giant photograph of a backyard.
CB: You spoke to me earlier about genderizing the homesick room.
SH: I was thinking about the fact that the person who is homesick is going to want to bring personal items from home to make this hotel room feel more like home. And
when you think about that, bringing personal items, it’s hard to not have that genderized. If someone brings a scarf to put over a lamp, then that’s likely going to be a woman. So I needed to make a decision about that one, and I decided that it would be a male because I wanted to be a little more unexpected. I’m trying to re-create their home in this space.
CB: Have you figured out how you’re going to do that?
SH: I will do installation shots, but I’m going to make photographs of them that will be large. I’m going to rearrange and compactify everything into a smaller area to create one photograph that conveys the idea of each room.
CB: Your work is influenced by Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space. What poetics are you hoping to evoke with Overpacked, Sarah?
SH: It’s not exactly a beautiful poem. It’s not beautiful poetics. It’s just the poetics of being away from home and what that means to us, given our particular difficulties with life.
CB: Which of these three rooms is the most autobiographical?
SH: I love to travel, so it can’t be homesick. And I’m not really a germaphobe. So I would have to say it must be alarmist, because I do worry about things happening and I do try to prevent things from happening.
CB: So this room represents a philosophy of prepare for the worst, hope for the best?
SH: Yes, I think so; or maybe this person prepares so much for the worst that they forget to hope for the best.