by Kaitlin Pomerantz
Maria Möller’s project, One Last Time, paired discarded objects found at “the dump” with six individuals who are now or have been – due to age or illness – especially close to their own mortality. The process began with a conversation between the artist and each participant. Maria then searched through the waste stream for an object that would resonate with the participant, and the object was then taken back out into the world to do something that would give it joy “one last time.” This activation was created collaboratively with the participant and documented in a photo shoot. After the shoot, the participant returned the object to the waste stream. Each partnership between object and participant resulted in a three part series of images: a “portrait” of the object (taken at the dump), the “one last time” photo, and photos and video of the return of the object to Revolution Recovery. These images, accompanied by the stories behind them, are intended for exhibition.
Kaitlin Pomerantz: The idea not only to enliven the lives of discarded objects, but to connect them to people whose life circumstances leave them with a heightened awareness of mortality, is extremely layered and unique. How did you arrive at this idea?
Maria Möller: It had a lot to do with my father passing away about five years ago, and thinking about some of the things we did with him. He had dementia for 15 years and so there was a period of time in which we were doing a lot of things knowing that this would be the last time he would do them, and enjoy them. At the same time, I was doing a project with objects called Value Content, where an artist in Colombia and I imported and exported small personal objects of value between people in Medellín and Philadelphia. And so I was thinking about people’s personal objects and the weight attached to them.
KP: How did the project change after the proposal, and while at RAIR?
MM: The core of the project remained the same. The final piece of what was sort of a four part process changed. At first it seemed like the project was going to culminate with every person coming together at the dump, but that shifted into each person individually coming to the dump, so that each person was able to have have something happen that was more personal and intimate. And I think some of that changed based on different articles that I was reading about people who were choosing assisted suicide to end their lives after long illnesses, and sort of how people structure those final days and hours of their lives.
KP: How did you choose the project participants?
MM: That was an interesting process. There were definitely people who I knew I wanted to ask to participate. My friend Gret was one of the inspirations for the project starting out. I had a conversation with her the summer before I wrote the proposal. She is battling cancer, and she brought up the idea of, “Is this the last time?” My mother and my Aunt Natalie are both in their 90s, and I wanted to ask them. I also knew that I didn’t just want this to be about people who were older. All were people who I knew to varying degrees, and all people who I wanted to have a conversation with.
KP: How did the participants in your project react to the project idea? How did they respond to RAIR, and to spending time at the waste management facility?
MM: The project was structured so that I would invite them to participate via email or a phone call. If they said yes, then I sat down with them and had a conversation. Then I would go and source the object at the dump, bring it out of the dump, and collaborate with the participant on the activation of the object and its documentation. Then we all go back to the dump, to return the object. Half of the participants haven’t been there yet, as we are still working on that portion of the project.
KP: How does the return of the object work?
MM: For the return, we’ve gone on Saturday so it’s not the active dump. It feels like it’s been a pretty intense and interesting for people, so far, just in the power that that Revolution Recovery has, the geography of it, and the opportunity to talk and think about it the object within that environment.
While the participants are returning the objects, I am just shooting. So, each one is different because they are different physical objects. With Greg I actually did a video, because he had this Mummer’s chariot, the Chariot of Neptune, so it was a video of him pushing this chariot back into the yard. We really did all parts of this shoot as a performance, we made a costume for him. With Mickey, we just continued to have a conversation as she was tossing the Trivial Pursuit cards into the dump. And with Frank, Frank just kind of did what he wanted to do, and I took pictures.
KP: What was your interaction with RAIR/Revolution Recovery during the residency?
MM: I had the “Biggie Shorty” residency, which is still not over! Since it was the Biggie Shorty, I didn’t have a studio, though I was able to use one when I needed to. First of all, it was absolutely amazing to find a residency that wasn’t studio based, where I didn’t feel that I’d have to be making things in a studio because I don’t make things in a studio! So the pressure was off. And to be able to have the schedule be as long and as flexible as it’s been has been really great. It is so good to have that breadth of opportunities, and to let things unfold as they need to unfold. The staff at RAIR are so all-in and so supportive.
KP: You were looking for specific objects? Were you always able to find what you were looking for?
MM: I had been to the dump before and I had an idea of what objects I might encounter. It was really amazing to be there and feel like the dump was providing. Sometimes the dump did not provide, and then sometimes it really did.
What I was looking for varied by person. But generally, I was looking for specific types of objects. For example, with Natalie, who is 98, and so last year is the first time she had ever really been sick, and last year is the first time she didn’t do Passover at her apartment. So for her, I knew that I wanted to find something having to do with kitchens, that we could shoot in her kitchen, that would show her role as providing for her family and friends… so I knew I was looking for something that had to do with food, and cooking. And in my mind it was like a serving tray or something, and then we found an 8 cup Pyrex measuring cup. That was perfect.
And for others, I would collect things that were interesting and then later assign them to people. And Billy was looking with me, and sometimes he’d find something interesting, and if I liked it I would take it, like the bubble wand for Gret, for example.
KP: How do you see, understand, or characterize the relationship between the discarded objects and the project participants?
MM: I anthropomorphized the objects and see them as partners with the people. It’s like they’re a different person in the process. And sometimes I feel silly when I say it. But like with Frank, I found these two St. Patrick’s Day necklaces and I met Frank at Fergie’s on a Saturday when they have Irish music upstairs, and I had Frank put on the necklaces. And we sat there and drank Guinness and listened to music. So the idea was sort of like, I want these necklaces to have one last time of going out, of being around the neck of one of Philadelphia’s finest Irish Americans, at Fergie’s, listening to the real music. Like with my mom, we had a disposable camera and we were going down to Cape May and took the camera. We went down to Sunset Beach, and she took photos of the sunset, with me taking photos of her. So that’s also like the camera would like to be on vacation at the beach, being used by a mom to take pictures of her daughter… something that is meaningful in that way.
KP: Do you feel like the mediated nature of this project– through objects, images– helped to make space for difficult discussions? What are some of the difficult discussions that took place?
MM: I think some discussions took place that might not have taken place otherwise, like time was made and an opportunity was created to have some conversations. Some of them were more difficult than others. And they didn’t necessarily happen in conjunction with the objects, they happened more before that process, generally. So it was more of me saying, this is my project, and as part of my describing my project, the question of mortality came up.
KP: So the objects played a role in the project, and there was also all this documentation, so if you had to maybe choose a medium for the project… would it be stories or discussion? Can it be reduced in that way?
MM: I think in some ways that the medium of the project was performance. That’s my background, and for most of my artistic life I was working in theater. I am also a photographer, so for me taking pictures is also really important. The process for me was something that was performative. We’re gonna have this discussion about the script, basically, and then we’re gonna go out and stage it, and document it.
KP: How has this project enhanced your own understanding of mortality– whether with regards to humans or matter? Were there any surprises?
MM: Thinking about the project in the context of RAIR, or the waste stream, there’s this aspect to it that… everything’s going to have to be recycled. There’s a kind of dark whimsy to it. It’s kind of hoping that when we pass away, looking at how we are recycled… like the afterlife. The dump is not the end, it’s the bardo. And then you’re going on to something else, but you don’t know where that is or what that is.
For me, it’s about creating joy in the midst of this difficult thing that we all are going to experience one day. And it was a powerful reminder of people’s strengths, and served as an affirmation and encouragement that we can talk about these things. We don’t have to talk about them to death… no pun intended. But we can talk and acknowledge.
Maria Möller is a Philadelphia-based socially engaged artist who seeks to distill narrative from fact and interpret how story and place can reflect our innermost longings and collective hopes. Rooted in a background in theatre and photography, her work includes site-specific installations, participatory interventions, and community-based events. Recent projects include Value Content/Valor Contenido, an exchange of small objects of value between residents of Philadelphia and Medellín, Colombia, and CBD (Chinese Business District), an installation and photography project that inserted visual memory into the built environment of what was once New Orleans’ Chinatown. Her work has been shown in the Philadelphia area at galleries such as the Painted Bride, Street Road Artists Space, Little Berlin, and the Esther Klein Gallery – but she has more often exhibited her work in alternative spaces such as street corners, empty lots, markets, libraries, and motels. Maria received an MFA in Acting from Temple University.
Kaitlin Pomerantz is an artist and educator in Philadelphia. Her interdisciplinary work in sculpture, site-specific installation, photography, and painting explores transitional landscape, land use, and the relationship between humans and nature. Pomerantz has most recently shown work at Sierra Nevada College, Nevada; Texas Tech Museum, Lubbock, Texas; Fjord Gallery and Little Berlin, Philadelphia, and through Monument Lab, Philadelphia. Pomerantz is co-facilitator of the botanical arts project, WE THE WEEDS and an editor at Title Magazine. She received her BA in art history from University of Chicago, a post-baccalaureate certificate in painting from Pafa, and her MFA in interdisciplinary visual art from University of Pennsylvania. She was a RAIR resident in 2014.