Neil Roberts

Roberts, Neil,

The Grand and Bowery, catalogue essay, Canberra: Canberra Contemporary Art Space, 13 June – 1 July 1989.

Neil Roberts

In 1982, I came to New York for a month to live in a loft at the corner of Grand Street and The Bowery (the junction of Little Italy and Chinatown). The work from that time, called the Third Rail Series marked the emergence of my concerns about men and ‘maleness’. The installation from the series, exhibited in the 1983 Staff Show at the Canberra School of Art, was titles The Act and The Distance, and it addressed aspects of violence and fear. I wrote at the time:

“There is an edge of fear that runs through the metropolis. Like the third rail of the subway tracks, it is both the driving force and the destroyer. We stalk the edge with our acts, distance ourselves with our inaction.”

Returning to New York this year, to occupy the Visual Arts and Crafts Board’s studio in Greene Street, Soho for three months, I wanted to continue looking at myself and other men, but from another vantage point. My time at Grand and Bowery had become an almost fictionalised memory to me, played out in the storytelling, the narration that the separation of distance compels. As a narrative it had both gained and lost. Other narratives, separated from memory by the distance of time, have become compelling to me.

What happens between men, between fathers and sons, to so codify and shroud our relationships, with ourselves, with women and with each other? I can recall the pain and mystery of my own father’s code of loving being set between us, and the acts of chance and will that gradually broke that code.

I have been obsessed with the Slain Boy headline, the way it resonates a pathetic and ritualised separation played out in the most brutal of metaphors, murder. I brought it with me to New York as the key player in a mystery I wanted to unravel, (it seemed only reasonable to fake a drama in this city that is a living, dying theatre). I’d expected to construct a narrative, a story with at least some degree of beginning, middle and end, but the linearity, the conclusiveness became obscured by murkier waters that I could fathom. The evidence is there, and some degree of crime and punishment, of cause and effect, but clear intentions have been deflected by other concerns. The profound homelessness; the man begging in the rain on Broadway distinguished by other beggars only by the devout and abject act of kneeling, monk-like on the busy fottpath; an attack in Central Park, a “senseless and brutal rape and battering” (as though such acts could ever be deemed sensible) which has occupied the media for weeks, for complex reasons, visibly pierced the armour of indifference that this crime-laden nation induces, no, demands.

These things have entered my working, my images grabbed from the streets echo these noises too, and not just the distant voices of past mysteries that I had hoped to amplify.

Neil Roberts. June 1989.