Lost and Found

The symmetry of the vast oak doors is subtly disrupted by two golden knockers. To the left, the upside-down heart shape of an Arabic number five deliberately evokes female genitalia while the right hand panel supports its phallic counterpart. Open, wrought femininity produces a polite sound, quite distinct to listeners behind the door, from the heavy rap of the gilded member. In this way, at the end of a long journey, visitors identify themselves.

Beyond the door lies not so much a room as a void, with no roof and no edges, no boundaries to limit its near-infinite contents. Out of necessity, a system was imposed on the random scrap yard of old, with items being grouped logically together. Paper-based detritus has been meticulously organised into plan chests; a label picked at random reads ‘bus tickets’. Next to this, a large iron box, one of hundreds arranged as far as the eye can see, bears the cardboard tag ‘photographs’. The aqueous section reconvenes every article meeting a watery end, from the flotsam of ocean liners to spectacles mistakenly deposited in rockpools and watches accidentally slipping from wrists to float downstream. Clothing forms an entire department and a huge chest of drawers has a ladder resting against it, allowing visitors to scale its boundless surface. The individual drawers are marked with spidery hand writing on self-adhesive white labels. Administrators of this curious collection have not always been entirely literate. At ground level, just visible above ‘socks,’ one bears the legend ‘T-shurts’.

A whole region is dedicated to items taken by force. Technically, these were stolen, but are included here by virtue of having been lost to their rightful owners. In the general movement of goods through a multitude of hands, these are widely considered to have value as commodities and collectively function as an archive of consumption, standing in direct contrast to the adjacent objects of sentimental worth. From the shells collected on a blustery day and later forgotten to the glass jewels given by a grandmother, a vague simulacrum of her own, worthless except in the eyes of the little girl who lost them. This is inorganic nirvana, with lost lives, of course, being dealt with elsewhere.

The entire repository is exposed to the elements and visitors may be doused with rain or bleached in the sun as the climate dictates. Whatever the weather, the gravel continues to crunch underfoot as visitors orientate themselves in an attempt to retrieve their lost possessions. Signposts for the general sectors – such as paper, aqueous, stolen, sentimental – have been carved into the trunks of trees that line the route and the paths are occasionally punctuated with water fountains to provide some respite for weary travellers.

People have even been known to build rudimentary shelters from the unretrieved objects to protect themselves from the elements or settle down for an overnight stay. There is no shortage of waterproof material that can be borrowed and stretched over a plethora of readily available walking sticks. The diligent can find proper camping equipment, previously blown away in a high wind, and their only challenge is to anchor it into the stony earth. Plenty of blankets and sleeping bags have been mislaid during night-time activities that can be temporarily appropriated for a comfortable sleep.

After several days of walking, a threshold is reached, marked with a warning sign: YOU ARE NOW PASSING FROM OBJECTS TO FEELINGS. Rather than the metaphysical experience this may suggest, what lies beyond is no longer tangible, but altogether more disturbing. Visitors are actively discouraged from entering this territory, without a very specific purpose, by guards performing regular checks at the border. A constant fog envelopes this domain, descending like melancholia and seeping through even the thickest clothing. Those exposed to its influence are imbued with a deep sadness that is impossible to shake. In a way, this acts as mental preparation for what follows.

Carried on waves of the fog are disembodied sounds that compound its already foreboding air. Due to its sinister nature, no accurate mapping of this area has yet been undertaken. The topography that is dimly visible through the gloom would seem to be comprised of caves that extend underground in a series of tunnels. Grottoes create small, autonomous areas with a claustrophobic feel. In some of them, moving collages of brightly coloured images flicker merrily on the uneven walls, like animated cave drawings illuminated by fire.

The initial choices visitors make, from the knocker they used to gain entry, will guide them on a preordained path through this labyrinth. The section for lost virginity, for example, will carry very specific resonances, varying from a sense of youthful exuberance to a deluge of blood, skin, shame and pain. Further on, the despair intensifies as voices become a cacophony. Unintelligible and screaming, housed within a room of total darkness, this is the sound of lost minds.

A primitive church façade has been constructed, hewn into the rock face, to restore faith to lapsed believers. In front of a simple altar, a concave stone font holds a swirling elixir that is said to supplant the scepticism of even the most confirmed atheists. As an annexe of this is perhaps the most chilling space of all. It is a huge and empty cavern, whose thick, silent air is occasionally punctuated with the tiny sound of a child crying in the distance. Devoid of content, stripped of dreams, this is the zone of lost hope. But, all is not lost; you can come here to retrieve some. Row upon row of shelves accommodate glass jars containing an ethereal, phosphorescent substance that could be gaseous. There is a glimmer of metaphorical light at the end of this tunnel and it will be worth the journey to leave here with renewed optimism, confident and breathless with anticipation. Just take a number and join the back of the queue.

Commissioned by Vienna Secession for the Monica Bonvicini/Sam Durant Break It/Fix It Exhibition, 2003.