A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending an art opening at Transformer, one of DC’s more interesting and experimental art galleries. As soon as I walked in, I realized that this was not going to be like any other opening. For one thing, there was no art! The tiny Transformer gallery space had been turned into a charming little repair shop, complete with an L-shaped customer counter, workbenches, and tools on wall boards.
The “piece” I was looking at is called The Temporary Art Repair Shop and is the work of Berlin-based artist Tobias Sternberg. At the opening, and over the course of the repair shop’s residency at Transformer, “customers” can bring in items in their lives that are broken. They turn them over to Sternberg and he turns them into an art object of his choosing.
I found everything about this art installation/performance to be charming. The little repair shop, reminiscent of countless such shoe, appliance, typewriter, and other such shops which have sadly all but disappeared, was perfectly rendered. Even the customer-proprietor counter exchange was pitch-perfect, with official looking repair forms and claim tickets, numbered string tags, official rubber stamps, and all of the other trappings of such a shop. Tobias even wears a lab coat.
I went to the opening with a friend, a DC artist. I was shocked when she pulled out her wedding ring (no longer in service) and approached the counter with it. A few minutes later, another friend brought in a smashed up photo of her and her ex husband and plopped it down on the counter. People definitely had some stuff to work out through this process.
Tobias maintains a blog for The Temporary Art Repair Shop project where he writes about the items he’s repaired. The stories behind some of the pieces are fascinating. He often addresses both the relational nature of the repair process and the more technical aspects of how he accomplished the transformation. I really enjoyed reading through these. Here is the write-up he did for object #14, the wedding ring my friend brought in for repair.
There didn’t seem to be anything much physically wrong with the slender ring in white gold Rania wanted repaired. Neither was it too small for her, nor in her mind, ugly. The problem was with the marriage it had symbolically held together. This had broken. Since she candidly added on the form that it had broken already in 2013, I felt enough time had passed that I could allow myself a little bit of irony in addressing my task, and because my impression of Rania telling me her story, was definitely NOT that she was looking to fix the marriage either, I decided for a conversion of the objects function instead.
Now, gold in itself is very malleable, and easy enough to simply cold-hammer into the shape you want. White gold on the other hand contains a lot of nickel, and this alloy makes things a whole lot trickier. Even if the ring had started out dead-soft, which as an aside I highly doubt, it would harden with every blow of the hammer and every twist of the pliers. In this way, the metal would go from being soft and bendable to becoming more and more stiff and hard as I worked it. The act of flattening it in itself would hardly increase the risk of breaking it, but bending it afterwards would. To avoid just snapping it off when I wanted to shape the bend in the end, I started out by bending it roughly in shape, and then as I proceeded to pound the metal, I carefully avoided hitting the central part which I wanted to preserve soft for the finishing touch of bending it into just the right curve. The point and barb I had to cut and file in the metal, but the final shaping went allright, as long as I stayed alert and kept listening to how and where the ring wanted to bend.
The chain was just a cheap addition from the thrift store, but necessary as one can’t go fishing with only a hook, one also needs a line… and bait of course, but that I cannot supply. That I leave to Rania.
The Temporary Repair Shop has appeared in Edinburgh and Belfast before DC and I hope it ends up in other cities. The current Transformer rendition of the shop runs until Oct 31st. Even though a lot of the broken objects have already been repaired (and are cataloged on Sternberg’s blog), owners cannot pick them up with their claims tickets until Thursday evening (through the end of the month). So, if you go to the show between now and then, you can see the pieces in person and maybe meet the artist. He’s as delightful as you’d imagine any old-school repair shop proprietor to be.