The Cathedral of Junk in Austin, Texas, is exactly what one might expect to find in Austin. Something different, decidedly odd; certainly disturbing. It is what its name implies: A cathedral entirely made from bits and pieces of junk.
I asked the artist about his vision for the cathedral. His response was snarky. “Would you ask Van Gogh what his vision was?” And then he pointed to a side room where newspaper clips and photographs described his journey from his childhood in Santa Fe where he started collecting crap, to his home in suburban Austin, where he has created this, well, the newspapers didn’t speak about a vision, but let’s call it his “Starry Night,” his insane obsession.
The Cathedral of Junk brought to mind a story related to me by a good friend. Like all good folk tales and urban myths, my friend had read the story written by someone who had heard the story from a friend, who had heard the story from someone, who had heard the story from William Butler Yeats himself. Yeats had apparently spent a day with an old woman, Mrs. Connolly was her name, who knew all the old Irish folk tales and was kind enough to share them with him. Dipesh Chakrabarty wrote about the encounter in his book called Provincializing Europe.
One day, in the period of his extensive researches on Irish folklore in rural Connemara, William Butler Yeats discovered a treasure. The treasure was a certain Mrs. Connolly who had the most magniﬁcent repertoire of fairy stories that W.B. had ever come across. He sat with her in her little cottage from morning to dusk, listening and recording her stories, her proverbs and her lore. As twilight drew on, he had to leave and he stood up, still dazed by all that he had heard. Mrs. Connolly stood at the door as he left, and just as he reached the gate he turned back to her and said quietly, “One more question Mrs. Connolly, if I may. Do you believe in the fairies?” Mrs. Connolly threw her head back and laughed. “Oh, not at all Mr. Yeats, not at all.” W.B. paused, turned away and slouched off down the lane. Then he heard Mrs. Connolly’s voice coming after him down the lane: “But they’re there, Mr. Yeats, they’re there.”
Truth be told, I did feel a mystical presence in the Cathedral of Junk. It was not unlike the itchy unworthiness I always feel amidst the incense-dusted air and the leaded coffin prompt of the organ keys in the grand cathedrals of Europe. Here in this homage to the outgrown, the unwanted, and the unloved, the washing line of crucified smurfs hanging in the doorframe holds the promise of malevolent volition, or even soul snatching, come nightfall. A toilet bowl filled with dirty-yellow rubber ducks, a chalice of the forgotten and outcast. The soft tread upon the rubber tire steps up into the belfry creates an oddly spectral feeling of floating into stark revelation. Inside the upper room, a canopy of re-purposed wire and throwaways juxtaposed against sky and cloud, claims you into circle of the rejected, the unforgivable. Like Mrs. Connolly, you know they’re there, the wicked creatures—every mistake, the dark and ugly and broken within and without.