Neil Roberts

Boyd, Adam and Roberts, Neil,

3D, catalogue essay, Melbourne: 200 Gertrude Street, 1992.

Adam Boyd and Neil Roberts

In the mid ‘60s, Lucy Lippard coined a curious term to describe a group of artists that had moved from painting into sculpture, and who to her mind, were the most interesting artists at work in the U.S.A. at the time. The eccentric abstractionists, as she called the, “undermined sculptural tradition and provided alternatives to the apparent dead end of conventional sculpture”1. The year was 1966, and she was describing a loosely knit collection of artists who were to become some of the protagonists of Post-minimalism; Eva Hesse, Bruce Nauman and Louise Bourgeois. She was also signalling the beginning of a radical shift in art practice itself; a continuing and almost institutional dismantling of prevalent Modernist tendencies inspired by the desire to formulate new ways of both making and exhibiting art.

Aside from remedying certain formal propositions and supplying a much needed aspirin for a monumental modernist hangover, Post-minimalism ignited a spirit of enfranchisement within art practice itself, normalising concepts of production we now take for granted. Redressing fundamental modernist concerns (such as sculpture’s apparently insurmountable debt to mass and verticality) by suspending works in space, by using flimsy diaphanous materials like fabric and latex, and by considering the space itself above the object’s placement within it, they laid foundations for a three dimensional art practice in which the primary concerns were not longer exclusively centred around the formation and manufacturing of particular objects, but which were the very processes of making and exhibiting.

In the context of this exhibition though, the years between 1965 and 1975 are significant because these early attempts to re-evaluate the status of the object (and its means of production) were also the first steps towards their institutionalisation. Dada and Surrealism may have ignited the match earlier in the century, but it was Post-minimalism that fanned the flames in the ‘60s. In the 90’s the fire is well and truly ablaze. The range of possibilities for three dimensional art practice today is perhaps more extensive than at any other time in history, yet the methodologies first established almost 30 years ago still prevail.

Similar concepts of production are central to the working processes of the three artists in this exhibition, Hany Armanious, Fiona Gunn and Neil Roberts. Each tends to resist specific, didactic approaches to both production and presentation, with the final manifestation of the works seeming to rely upon accidental, unpredictable and arbitrary outcomes as much as upon more traditional, formularised approaches. However, it would be wrong to overemphasise the connections between these works and those of 30 years ago. Within the continuum of art history each artist is free to draw from an ever expanding wealth of source material.

Hany Armanious wades through this material frontally, presenting it intact, assembled as ‘formal visual items’2 divorced from physical interaction, personal preference, or choice. His works are pure, matter-of-fact representations of nothing more than themselves. At a critical point, however, they become powerfully engendered with a reflective, expressive potential. As if peering through a grimy mirror, we see ourselves on the other side, misshapen and grotesque but beautiful.

In ‘Tomb’, we confront an inventory of objects for the afterlife, secret, select, artifactual, lifeless objects, frozen in time, raw, honest and ‘infused with the premonition of enteral life’.3 The death-like sentiments the pieces evoke describe the history of our world, our own private worlds, locked into a perpetual cycle of decay and renewal. His Blu-Tack pieces are a ‘coded blu print for perfect architectural form and structure’,4 finally dispensing with formal tectonic precepts related to angularity and gravity in a perfect amalgam of nature and structure, ‘ossified in ecstatic agitation’.5

Fiona Gunn sustains a similar belief in the unmeasurable sciences. She examines those special, innate qualities of materials and objects that blur our understanding of the distinctions between living and non-living things. Initiating a very different experiential encounter, Gunn awakes the latent descriptive power of things in order to apply meaningful and durable definitions to an essentially chaotic cosmos.

This seemingly impossible task of drawing meaning from the incomprehensible is often formally demonstrated in the work’s own impossibility: the frailty of her gravity glued shelves, the cupboards within cupboards within cupboards, her infinite mirrored spaces, all points of high tension and fine balance. With them she sets up dialogue aimed at investigating the symbiotic relationship that exists between the human condition and the human environment. In any such environment, it is our machines and mechanical inventions that clearly mark the territory that is human and that which is not. Her slowly rotating machines that mark time, also count down the disintegration of some of our more valued notions about the human experience of matter.

Where Gunn’s work is a carefully negotiated analysis of both formal and esoteric propositions, Neil Roberts’ is descriptive, lyrical, at times even prosaic. His is an ongoing narrative, describing both the common and remarkable characteristics of our species, our weaknesses and strengths, and the mystery of the fundamentally creative nature of the universe.

For Roberts, the big (unanswerable) questions continually re-emerge, as good questions will. Indeed, what will survive us? If a lifetime of love and care can vanish without a trace remaining, then what of his work in this exhibition? Who can ignore the presence of a profound emotional investment lying dormant in his poignant assembled pieces? His carefully considered relics of other people’s loves and lives resonate with a value not completely past, but not completely present. Time washes over us and we languish in its wake, oblivious to its gradual effects. We in turn, wash over the stuff of our lives: our implements, our effects and our cultural inventions, etching our experiences deep into their surfaces.

His is a practice free of superficiality and cynicism, a barely self-conscious expression of important humanistic concerns. Taking pure and simple delight in ruminating over history’s debris, he allows us to step outside our mortal coil and see the frailty and foibles of the human condition, and the very tenuous hold we have over our place in the ether.

1 Lucy Lippard, Art International, November 1966

2 Hany Armanious, Public Address for Perspecta, AGNSW, Sept 1991

3 Notes from the artist to the author, March 1992

4 ibid

5 ibid


artist's statement

‘What will survive us is love.’ This is the cautiously approached conclusion of Phillip Larkin’s poem ‘An Arundel Tomb’. The line surprises us for much of the poets work was a squeezed flannel of disenchantment. We are ready to be cheered; but we should first give a prosey scowl and ask of this poetic flourish, Is it true? Is love what will survive of us? It would be nice to think so. It would be comforting if lover were an energy source which continued to glow after our deaths. Early television sets, when you turned them off, used to leave a blob of light in the middle of the screen, which slowly diminished from the size of a florin to an expiring speck. As a boy I would watch this process each evening, vaguely wanting to hold it back, (and seeing it with adolescent melancholy, as the pin point of human existence fading inexorably into a black universe). Is love meant to glow on like this for a while after the set has been turned off? When the survivor of a loving couple dies, love dies too. If anything survives of us it will probably be something else. What will survive of Larkin is not his love but his poetry: that’s obvious.

And whenever I read ‘An Arundel Tomb’ I’m reminded of William Huskisson. He was a politician and financier, well-known in his time, but we remember him today because on the 15th of September, 1830, at the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, he became the first person to be run down and killed by a train (that’s what he became, was turned into). And did William Huskisson love? And did his love last? We don’t know. All that has survived of him is his moment of final care-lessness; death froze him in an instructive cameo about the nature of progress.

Julian Barnes, A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters

Picador, London, 1989