The lines between engineering and sculpture are blurred in Belfast’s PS2 gallery this month at Tobias Sternberg’s Art Repair Shop. Open until Thursday, June 21, this event sees the Swedish-born artist taking up residence in the studio space, with the general public invited to bring along any broken objects they might want ‘repaired’.
Stylised instructions in the vein of an in-flight safety manual describe the process which, at its most stripped back, sounds simple: 'Hand in a broken object. Tell us what is wrong with it. We turn it into an artwork.'
Of course a great deal of planning and technical work goes into each piece. While Sternberg (dressed appropriately in a white lab coat) sees himself primarily as a sculptor, he also prides himself on his storytelling abilities, with each broken piece turned objet d’art having a narrative of its own.
These works adorn the shelves of the PS2 studio, a cross between a school technology classroom and a mad scientist’s laboratory. Continuing this analogy to its conclusion, Sternberg is a veritable Dr Frankenstein (albeit a jovial one), breathing life into these inanimate objects through a heady mixture of imagination, technical prowess and humour.
Objects that have already been brought into the Art Repair Shop include a broken VHS tape (the inside of which has been turned into a woven iPhone carry-case) and a pair of burned out light bulbs (converted into a beautiful yet functional hourglass timer).
Although the light-bulb hourglass currently times two minute segments, this will decrease with repeated use, a humorous if morbid reminder that the older we get, the more time appears to speed up.
Questions of mortality are raised again with 'Memory in a Bottle', object 18, albeit in a much less subtle and more serious manner. Constructed out of an empty Buckfast container, this piece now takes the form of a message in a bottle, the label sealed inside and bearing the Epicurean epitaph ‘non fui, fui, non sum, non curo’.
Translating as ‘I was not, I was, I am not, I do not care’, this phrase (commonly inscribed on the graves of Roman soldiers) refers in this instance to a friend of the original owner who recently met a violent death. Sternberg is quick to point out that this particular piece of appropriated art is not a direct response to the young man’s memory, more a response to his friend’s feelings about his passing.
Perhaps the most eye-catching piece in the exhibition comes in the form of 'Celtic Apple'. Here Sternberg turns a broken iPhone USB cable into an allegory for Ireland’s IT bubble and the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger. Presented in a simple jewellery box/frame, the cable has become a necklace sporting an intricately woven Tree of Life Celtic knot – a perfect blend of functionality, beauty and artistic statement.
Art Repair Shop is as an almost perfect example of interactive art as this reviewer has seen in Belfast, simple in theory yet extremely complex in practice with a satisfying tactile payoff. It is a living, breathing installation, and Sternberg is the antithesis of those pretentious, dull artists who rely on overly verbose accompanying pamphlets to explain their intentions.
On the final day of the exhibition, the public are invited to collect their re-appropriated artworks. In doing so, they will become owners of sculptures that cost nothing more than time and commitment. In the Age of Austerity, this type of recycling raises important questions about price and value in the art world as in society at large, and leaves one thinking about where to go from here.
Art Repair Shop runs in PS2 until June 21.