Cathedral of Junk draws tourists, inspires visitors


Pu Ying Huang

Vince Hannemann is the artist behind Cathedral of Junk, a towering structure that peaks above his rooftop in his south Austin backyard. The Cathedral features 3 levels and an assortment of passages and rooms where visitors can freely roam and observe all the street signs, barbies,  phones, toilet seats and who knows what.

Hannah Smothers

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If there is such a place as heaven for inanimate objects, it could very well be Vince Hannemann’s backyard.

Hannemann reigns as king of the pile of assorted objects and discarded memories he built in his Lareina Drive backyard in 1989. Smokey the dog stands guard at the painted gate that denotes the entrance into a world where the old has been made new and things that once filled attics now form walls.

The Cathedral of Junk, as Hannemann’s mother so dubbed the sculpture, is a twisting house built of concrete and things that one might usually find in a city dump. It is composed of several rooms and has a staircase built from old tires that leads up to a second floor.

“I don’t really need to say anything, honestly,” Hannemann said. “The cathedral speaks for itself. If I were to be out of here, you would all freaking get it.”

Fueled by a steady stream of Lone Star beer, Hannemann stands at the opening of the cathedral all day and invites visitors to explore the sculpture, but does not personally dictate the experience for them.

“People get it on different levels,” Hannemann said. “Kids run around here and play hide and seek, adults walk down memory lane. I’ve got my own fantasies, but that’s private. I’ve gotta have something private.”

Privacy is a crucial concept for somebody like Hannemann, who has strangers traipsing through his backyard on a daily basis. People travel from all over the world to come see the house that Hannemann built.

“I’m from El Paso,” cathedral visitor Mike Ahumada said. “But my New Yorker friend over there, he told us to come see it.”

Ahumada is one of several in attendance at the cathedral. Ahumada motioned to two other visitors in his group and said they were from the Philippines. Two others exploring the structure were from Mexico.

“I’m just here for a visit,” Martin Restituyo, Ahumada’s New Yorker friend, said. “We came to Austin to see this.”

Hannemann said groups of people from all over the world enter his backyard everyday, all because he sculpted a cathedral out of old junk.

Hannemann said he does not believe the Cathedral of Junk should be that big of a deal. According to him, the constant barrage of visitors and reporters only feeds his self-ascribed vanity.

“I don’t know. You know, I’ve always been full of myself and very, very confident in my artistic ability,” Hannemann said. “I’ve never had artistic block or anything like that. It just feeds my megalomania.”

That is not to say building the cathedral, an ongoing project, has been an easy process for Hannemann. What serves as the backdrop for a Bank of America commercial is also a manifestation of Hannemann’s trials and tribulations.

“It’s a faith journey. It’s having faith in whatever it is that’s calling you, and going down that path, and it has not been easy,” Hannemann said. “It’s been hard as shit. Both of my wives divorced me and didn’t want to have anything to do with this. This is pain and suffering to the left and right.”

Hannemann and his two dogs, Smokey and Gina, now live alone in the famed house on Lareina Drive, but the three are hardly ever alone.

“Obviously, I’m a fucking asshole,” Hannemann said. “And it’s kind of ironic, really, because I’m really not that great with people, that I should end up in a situation where I have to deal with people all day long, all the damn time.”

Despite his apparent distaste for human interaction, Hannemann does enjoy seeing people interact with his creation.

“All this energy that I’ve put into this is a way of reproducing,” Hannemann said. “You can pass on your genetic information in so many different ways. When I see children come over here and see their little brains click up to a higher level, I can see it. This is a reproductive strategy for me.”

Hannemann’s Cathedral of Junk has played various roles in many visitors’ lives, and for that, he is thankful.

“People come over here, they feed me with their responses. What if that guy goes over there and proposes to her?” Hannemann said, and motioned to a man with his girlfriend. “And that’s happened before, and that’s so crazy. The feeling that I can get from something like that is beyond words. It’s so fucking special.”

According to Hannemann, one of the most valuable aspects of the cathedral is how it inspires people and gives them permission to go and build their own piles of junk, or do whatever they enjoy doing.

“It might give you a little bit of hope to go ahead and do whatever it is. It might give you permission,” Hannemann said. “To think ‘That crazy dude did that, so maybe I could do something.’”

Printed on Monday, Dec. 3, 2012 as: Junk transforms from trash to art