These “monoliths,” as Gosti calls them, are eight feet tall and close to six feet wide. At a rehearsal last week, they were stacked with every kind of junk you can imagine. On opening night this Thursday, they’ll be heaped even higher. Gosti recently held an open call to friends, family and whoever else was willing to partake in a “Community Ritual Release of Emotionally Entangled Objects,” during which donated items would be stuffed onto the already overloaded monoliths. (More on that ritual later.)
During a rehearsal break last week, Gosti explained that the catalyst for this new show was a New Yorker article that detailed how hoarding came to be viewed as “a mental illness of its own.” Among the examples it gave were Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s relatives “Big Edie” and “Little Edie,” who lived in a decaying and detritus-filled house in Long Island’s exclusive East Hampton neighborhood. They were famously portrayed in the classic 1975 documentary Grey Gardens.
“What really stuck to me was the visuals of a house that is a labyrinth of stuff,” Gosti says. “You could get lost in your own house.”
Her own unusual relationship to possessions was another starting point. Gosti’s mother is an American who moved to Italy where Gosti was raised. She didn’t take much with her, Gosti says. The fact that Gosti’s whole family was “really left-wing” meant that the capitalist pursuit of materialist goods was frowned upon.
“Now I have a storage unit with stuff that I’m told I’m supposed to keep for some reason: taxes and costumes. All sorts of things,” she says.
And the more Gosti researched the connections between people and their possessions, the more she grew aware of how common hoarding was.
“We have a very particular way of relating to objects,” she notes. “They can generate emotion. They can literally transport you to the moment in which you received the object. Or they can tell you the story of your whole family or of your whole culture.”
We also, she says, often see ourselves in our belongings: “Am I what I’m wearing? Are you a Mac person or a PC person? It’s such a vast conversation.”
Gosti isn’t sending any particular message with the show.
“In my projects,” she says, “I’m interested in asking questions more than I’m interested in telling you my opinion. I just get drawn to a topic or an idea or historical record, and then I feel like I want to investigate it.”
Gosti collaborates closely with her dancers, who added their own perspectives to the project. She remembers one of them saying that she’d just inherited all her grandmother’s possessions, including her furniture. “What do I do?” she asked Gosti. “How do I throw it away? I can’t! I don’t want to either.”
That “Community Ritual,” which happened last Sunday, was how Gosti created her “labyrinth of stuff.” The public was invited to donate unwanted but difficult to part with items. To Gosti, this offered audience members an unusual way to connect to the upcoming performances. By seeing their stuff on stage, she thought, they’d be “seeing that it matters in a different way.”
And here we take a turn into participatory journalism.
On Sunday, I turned up at On the Boards with several personal items including a cat-litter box (cleaned up, of course) and a cat’s scratching post. Four performers – Alyza Delpan-Monley, Lorraine Lau, Lauren Linder, Kaitlin McCarthy – ushered me into the theater. As they accepted my contributions, they asked for the stories behind them.
The cat items, I told them, were a memorial for our extraordinarily acrobatic cat, Rico. My husband John and I lost him just after Christmas. He liked to hang upside down from my arm or wrap himself like a scarf around my neck. He also liked to be spun around on the floor. After staggering around dizzily, he would immediately come back for more. I imagined he would enjoy riding around, in spirit, on gigantic luggage racks while observing dancers engaged in odd activities nearby.
The dancers, all dressed in dark boiler suits, listened thoughtfully. Afterward, they revealed their own donations.
“I brought in the backpack that I carried from seventh grade through college,” McCarthy said. It was orange, and her high-school boyfriend – now her husband – said he could always spot her miles away because the backpack was bright as a beacon. “But it’s kind of torn up and ready to go.”
Lau contributed dozens of National Geographics that her mother has collected over years. “I also have these boxes in back of my car that I’ve been carrying around because they wouldn’t fit in my new apartment. And I think I’m actually going to give them up today,” she said with a rueful laugh.
Gosti’s partner Ryan Law contributed his grandfather’s cowboy hat that had been “living in my garage or in my closet for a long time, and then in my storage unit and then back in my closet. It’s something that I have some emotional connection to, but no functional use for.”
Donor Jess Smith, answering Gosti's call, brought a CD storage binder containing dozens of CDs. Although she hadn’t listened to them in years, she’d been reluctant to part with “old nostalgia. It marks so many different parts of an old life and friendships.”
But Gosti’s ritual, she said, made it easier to get rid of the items.
“I felt like the prompt was to choose something that was emotionally entangled or complex," Smith said.
Letting it go this way, she added, was like giving it “new purpose, honoring the fact that it has held significance for me. … That felt better to me than taking it and giving it to Goodwill.”
If you go: “Material Deviance in Contemporary American Culture,” March 29-April 1, On the Boards ($23-$30).