Thinking with... Sarah Vanhee's Oblivion

Updated: Sep 27, 2020

'At times I felt very rich because there were so many things. At other times I felt like I was drowning in things.’ -Sarah Vanhee, 2015

Sarah Vanhee in Oblivion. Photo Credit: Phile Deprez.

This is the first of many blogs that are going to involve some heavy thinking - so prepare yourself! In this particular blog, we're going to be exploring Sarah Vanhee's Oblivion, as it has been such an inspiration and help throughout my time making Call Us Angels. Before we start to look at who Vanhee is, what her piece Oblivion is about and how this particular artwork has informed a lot of my thinking in Call Us Angels, why don't you check out Vanhee's website? Click here to get a little bit of a background to her and her work, and then we can get started!

Sarah Vanhee is a Belgian performance artist whose 'interdisciplinary work travels in between civil space and institutional art fields' (Vanhee, N.D.). Previous work includes I screamed and I screamed and I screamed (I screamed), in which Vanhee invited prisoners held at the Mechelen prison (Belgium) to collectively scream from their prison cells at the same time. The aim was to challenge the 'silent body' forced upon these prisoners by the system (Vanhee, 2013). As previously mentioned, not all of her work takes place in public settings like prisons. For example Oblivion, the work we shall be exploring, is not a socially engaged or applied artwork like I screamed. Instead, this is a touring performance piece that has taken place in many European art institutions and festivals like Kunsten­festival­des­arts, celebrating 'things unhidden' (Vanhee, N.D.). Although using trash within this piece, Vanhee doesn't specifically explore the ecological impact said trash has on our environment, instead questioning the relationship between trash and the bodies that produce it. These two contrasting examples show that Vanhee's artistic practice is varied, each project delicately picking at a variety of nuanced issues - some relatable to society, others more personal.


During 2014-2015, Vanhee started to collect her waste that she would usually throw away. This not only included waste that she physically produced, like food wrappers or hygiene products, but also included virtual and bodily waste too - from junk emails to descriptions of her excrement. Oblivion was one of the outcomes that occurred from collecting said waste. This piece of performance involved Vanhee using her waste to re-tell the story of her year. Over the space of two hours, Vanhee slowly and methodically removed her waste from cardboard boxes, placing it on the floor of a studio space for the audience to see. She projected pictures of junk emails and other virtual waste onto walls surrounding the studio space. These pictures, and the trash placed on the floor, were combined with monologues, spoken by Vanhee, including snippets of descriptions of her excrement, as well as the many different 'bad ideas' that weren't included in the final performance of Oblivion. These monologues weaved themselves through the piece, providing further insight into the amount and type of waste Vanhee collected over a period of a year. In essence, the rubbish became the storyteller of Vanhee's life during 2014-2015.


Whilst collecting, Vanhee found that 'I slowly started to understand I would need to take a different ethical stance towards "my refuse", that my waste and me are interconnected and part of the interconnectedness of the world, and that I would have to listen to what all these things were telling me and what they were calling for rather than imposing any kind of rational order on them.' (Vanhee, 2015). I like this quotation from Vanhee as it gives us insight into her thought processes whilst collecting trash. The more trash she collected, the more she understood the changes she needed to make in her relationship to trash, but also the power of the trash itself. By emphasising that she could not impose 'any kind of rational order' on the trash she had collected, we can start to contemplate and question the relationship between Vanhee and her trash. Does Vanhee have power here, or is it the trash that is forming her work Oblivion? It seems to be the latter option here, although throughout the rest of this blog we will be questioning the power of trash more.

The stage with all of Vanhee's trash. Photo Credit: ysarca.

Immediately, we can start to see how Call Us Angels connects with Vanhee's Oblivion as both works involved collecting rubbish over a period of a year, and set about re-using this collected trash within a piece of art. Despite the fact Oblivion does not use trash to explore the ecological crisis, something that did occur during Call Us Angels, her work provided me with an avenue of support when overwhelmed by the amount of trash I was collecting. Furthermore, Vanhee's Oblivion provided me with ways to critically think through the questions: what is my relationship to my trash?; do I own this trash?; and when does said trash become something else entirely? Let's try to work our way through these questions.

Vanhee states that, as a result of collecting so much rubbish, she ‘felt very rich’ (Vanhee, 2015). This statement was part of one of the first monologues Vanhee says during Oblivion, introducing the audience to the feelings Vanhee felt during her time collecting rubbish for a year. There is something to be said about her use of the word rich. In order to have produced so much rubbish she would have had to have bought or consumed food and toiletries etc. Perhaps then, in her use of the word rich, Vanhee is understanding and emphasising her own privilege in being able to afford items that are wrapped in plastic, cardboard and wasted packaging, to the audience.


In my own experience of Call Us Angels, having to slowly collect, sort through and dismantle the rubbish collected allowed me a new, richer understanding of these objects too. For instance, by physically cutting myself on the sharpness of hard cut plastic, and deconstructing small metal springs and plastic triggers in soap bottles, I was allowed to really see these usually invisible items: how they were made, how they feel and what they look like on the inside. Perhaps this is what Vanhee also meant when describing feelings of being rich. Not only did she understand her own privilege in being able to produce so much rubbish, but there is also a privilege in being able to have the time and space to slowly collect her rubbish and gain a richer understanding of said trash.


Not only does Vanhee feel ‘rich’ as a result of all the waste she has collected during a year, but within the same starting monologue she goes on to admit that ‘at other times I felt like I was drowning in things.’ (Vanhee, 2015). It was this particular statement from Vanhee that bought me so much relief when I was struggling to deal with the amount of trash I was collecting during Call Us Angels. Throughout my daily vlogs on Instagram, I often described my fight with the litter collected, stating ‘it feels like the trash is invading my personal space and I can't get away from it’ (Discombe, 2020). This fight with my trash, and the feelings that it was taking over my space, felt extremely related to Vanhee’s drowning. This is because, throughout both of our projects, it seems that we felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of trash we had produced and collected, and were also overwhelmed by the power of said trash.


This brings me to the first question Oblivion has helped me think through: what is my relationship to my trash I have collected for Call Us Angels. and do I have power over this trash?


In my own experience with Call Us Angels, there was a part of me that felt like a slave to trash. Whilst wearing my trash wings during 'A Call to Action', my body caved under the weight of the trash wings. The trash I had collected was manipulating the way my body moved and, even as I write this a month later, I can still feel the aches and pains of having to wear my trash on my body for four hours (more information here). American political theorist and philosopher Jane Bennett, explores the power of inanimate things - trash included. In her book Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things, she states that rubbish 'can never really be thrown away, for it continues its activities as a discarded or unwanted commodity’ (Bennett, 2009). Bennett's exploration of rubbish has been extremely useful in understanding the power of my trash over my body that I physically experienced during 'A Call to Action'. By emphasising that trash can never be thrown away, Bennett is highlighting that trash is always present even if we try to get rid of it. This trash will always continue 'its activities', continue to do something, and continue to have an impact on our world and on our bodies.


I worry that by admitting trash has power over my body and our world, I am admitting that we will be defeated in our fight against the ecological crisis that is being impacted by our trash. There is no denying that at the current rate Governments are addressing issues of the ecological crisis that trash will continue to be produced and will continue to impact our natural surroundings. If trash is 'oh so powerful', will we ever be able to control its impact on our world?

'Your waste is not always your own. [Vanhee] wonders when waste becomes yours: when you bought it, when you consumed it, or when you threw it away?' - Annelies Van Assche, 2017

Although I have admitted I felt powerless to my trash in Call Us Angels, and worry what this powerlessness means for solving the ecological crisis, let's revert back to Oblivion and question whether Vanhee is giving her trash power by placing it on a stage, or whether the trash has power itself. In an interview with performance artist Benjamin Efrait, Vanhee states 'I devaluate something so I can forget it or throw it away. Now I'm doing the opposite: I re-invest, I appreciate and care for what I would otherwise throw away. Everything has value when I give value to it.' (Efrati, 2016). It is this last part of this quotation exploring how Vanhee worked with trash leading up to Oblivion that is intriguing. Vanhee is ultimately stating that she is the person who is giving trash its value. It is not her act of placing this trash on stage that is giving these objects value, instead it is the way she cares for these objects and sees them in a new light that does so. Does this mean she is giving her trash power? By giving her trash value, she is showing these objects to be important and useful, giving these objects a different kind of power to the negative power my trash had over me during Call Us Angels. Perhaps then, as seen by Vanhee's re-valuing of trash, we need to see these objects in a new light instead of feeling powerless to them. These are not items that should be hidden away. These are not objects with ultimate power. In order to solve for the impact our trash has within this ecological crisis, we need to re-use these items, care for them and understand where they have come from in order to change our own consumerist habits.

Call Us Angels vlog talking about the power of trash. Video Credit: Charlotte Discombe.

European performance academic Annelies Van Assche has written a useful article reflecting on Vanhee's Oblivion and has been particularly helpful in thinking about the question when do we own our trash? After watching Oblivion, Van Assche highlights that 'your waste is not always your own. [Vanhee] wonders when waste becomes yours: when you bought it, when you consumed it, or when you threw it away?' (2017). Within this quotation, Van Assche suggests that Vanhee does not give us an answer as to when our trash becomes our own, instead leaving us to contemplate. Unlike Vanhee who solely focused on collecting her own trash, during Call Us Angels a lot of the trash used to make angel wings came from litter picks around my local area. From the outset, this makes this question of 'when do we own our trash?' particularly complicated. In the case of Call Us Angels, did I own the trash when I picked up someone else's trash? Or do I only own the trash that I have personally produced? The more I think about these questions, the more I realise they don't really matter. Taking my thinking beyond Oblivion and Call Us Angels, I feel that we should all own the trash that is contributing to the ecological crisis. Admittedly, those living in the Western world are more responsible for the trash taking up our natural world (Edmond, 2019), but we need to re-value this trash and not think about its ownership. Instead, we should all be responsible for trash's impact on society and the natural world.

The final question, that Vanhee's Oblivion has helped me consider, is when does your trash become something else? Or more specifically, when does trash become art? These particular questions are ones that I have wanted to avoid because I'm not sure I have a solid answer to them. After watching Oblivion, Van Assche seems to think that the trash on stage becomes something else. She states 'these waste elements, or leftovers, have now become performance elements' (Van Assche, 2017). By placing her trash onstage, Van Assche is suggesting that Vanhee is turning these objects into something else - valued performing objects telling the story of her year. This feels very reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp's thoughts on his 'readymade pieces' who stated “an ordinary object [could be] elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist.” (qtd. MoMA Learning, N.D.) This thus assumes that an object, like trash, can be turned into art just by the artist re-valuing said objects and saying it's art. Having never physically seen Vanhee's Oblivion in the flesh, I question whether all audience members would have seen these trash objects as performance objects. In my own experience during Call Us Angels, I felt it was important to remind my audience that my wings were made from trash - hence why I always refer to these wings as my 'trash angel wings'. In a way, I don't really see these trash wings as a sculpture or a piece of art. Does this mean these wings aren't art? Or are they art made of trash? Or trash art? And does that really matter? Whatever the answer, it is important that we do not disillusion ourselves with these questions trying to work out when does trash become art. Instead, we need to critically engage with our relationship with trash, and how we use it in these artworks or performances, in order to solve for its role in the ecological crisis.

There is a lot of 'stuff' that we have explored here. A lot of the questions Oblivion has bought up for me have yet to be solidly answered. What is clear however is that we need to re-value our trash and make sure we do not feel powerless to it. Without doing so, we will never be able to reduce the amount of trash taking over our natural spaces.

If you've been interested in these discussions about the power of trash, I would definitely suggest reading Jane Bennett's book Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things. Here is a link for you to research the book, but I'm afraid there aren't any free copies online. Talk to your library and if they can't help, send me a message and I'll try to help.


If you want to know more about my experience of wearing trash angel wings, check out this blog here.

Work Referenced:


Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things, Durham: Duke UP, 2010.


Discombe, Charlotte. 'Day 13'. Instagram, 2020, https://www.instagram.com/call.us.angels/, (Accessed: 2020).


Edmond, Charlotte. 'This is what the world's waste does to people in poorer countries'. World Economic Forum, 2019, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/05/this-is-what-the-world-s-waste-does-to-people-in-poorer-countries/, (Accessed: 2020).


MoMa Learning. 'Marcel Duchamp'. Dada, N.D., https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/themes/dada/marcel-duchamp-and-the-readymade/, (Accessed: 2020).


Van Assche, Annelies. 'Recycling, Reinvesting and Revaluing: on immateriality in Sarah Vanhee's "Oblivion"'. Performance Research Journal, no.22, vol.8, 2017, pp.22-30.


Vanhee, Sarah. 'Oblivion'. Sarah Vanhee, 2015, http://www.sarahvanhee.com/oblivion, (Accessed: 2020).


'...'. 'Short Bio'. Sarah Vanhee, N.D., http://www.sarahvanhee.com/about, (Accessed: 2020).

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