Vince Hannemann showed me a black and white photograph of his 16-year-old self in his backyard in Santa Fe, N.M. It was then, in 1979, that the sculpture artist started building installation work out of found objects. Ten years later, he moved to Austin, Texas, where he’s been erecting his massive Cathedral of Junk ever since. This project has evolved into a three-story tower of eclectic doodads and nifty gadgets. A unique engineering and artistic marvel, he calls it a “poster child” for the “Keep Austin Weird” saying.
The structure is like a Dada performance of the avant-garde period—a passionate convergence of art, anti-art, politics, and local culture. An overwhelming display of organized chaos: a zen TV garden, beer signs, cables, bottles, bicycle parts, lawnmower wheels—you name it, you’ll find it within the wiring. The Cathedral appeals to quirky sensibilities while offending traditional aesthetics. Perhaps most importantly, the structure reenacts scenes from childhood, exhibiting a space for memory to replay itself.
“One of the things that happen here is that people go down memory lane,” Hannemann says. “They see something, and it brings up these memories—usually pretty good memories like, ‘Grandma used to have an iron like that!’” As I walk through the sculptural marvel, it’s like embracing one bizarre dream after another. The surroundings feel familiar yet novel at every twist and turn, nook and cranny. The naked Barbie dolls that greet me in the large room below remind me of all the times I used to dress and undress my own dolls during childhood play. Walking the mosaic, cement-filled tires upward, a sort of spiral staircase, I feel a gentle breeze hum through the vegetation that grows in and around the massive frame. I have a hard time telling whether or not I’m moving within fantasy or reality.
“When I come out here, I disappear into my own world. This is my secret fort,” he says. It’s a place for the imagination to run wild. There are no rules, no boundaries. A popular destination for parents who want to take their kids somewhere they can roam free, it’s a spectacular place for endless adventure and discovery. The kids who come here and run around and play are, in a sense, participating in a sacred act. For Hannemann, “Playing is like praying.” It shows the ultimate reverence for life. And so does Hannemann’s reason for architecting the structure: “I just did it because I liked it.” Hannemann, who works from home creating sculptural art for sale, has always lived life on his own terms.
In March of 2010, however, his world began to crumble. Several neighbors had been filing complaints about the structure, and he was told by local officials that he was in violation and needed a building permit for the auxiliary structure. “In order to do that, I had to tear down everything and have an engineer sign off on it,” he says. Tearing stuff down was a traumatic and visceral experience for him, like a physical amputation. “There’s this phantom limb pain I still experience from what is gone here,” he says. No one was allowed in for a period. The whole first part of the cathedral was gone and 60 tons of junk disappeared. During that time, a couple hundred or so locals came through and helped him out. At the end of that process, he finally got an engineer to sign off on the newly improved structure, so the city could issue him a building permit. “It was very motivating to have the public support,” Hannemann acknowledges. “The Cathedral is really a cathedral. It has a congregation, it has a life, and it serves a public purpose. It’s owned by all these other people, not just me.”
My journey through the Cathedral ended where it began—in the little shed out front. On one wall were the old black and white photographs of Hannemann’s own artistic journey. On the opposite wall were countless signatures from visitors all over the world: Uruguay, Switzerland, Germany, Australia, Vermont, Georgia, Finland, Japan, Morocco. The wall speaks of the Cathedral’s true spirit for public ownership and access.
“What’s your favorite part of the structure?” I ask.
“The donation box,” he replies, in total seriousness.
That simple answer makes a lot of sense to me. How is art supposed to maintain its value and vitality, anyway? Through the ongoing support of the people.
“Keep Austin Beautiful.”
Information for Visiting
Address: 4422 Lareina Dr., Austin, Texas
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