Neil Roberts

Anderson, Nola,

Addressing the Wounds, catalogue essay, Manila, Philippines: ART-LAB, 1991.

Nola Anderson

1: “We should distinguish between the statements of Father Damaso as man, and his statements as priest. …In his statements as man, we must make a sub-distinction: those which he makes ab irato, that is to say, in anger; those which he makes ex ore …that is to say, from the mouth …; and finally those which he makes in corde, from the heart.”

Rizal, J. Noli Me Tangere (Longman Group Edition, 1961)

2: Coming to Manila this time, I was full of uncertainty. I doubted the pessimism of my departure – a personal Pinatubo had erupted in my life almost simultaneously with yours, disrupting the clean memories and still waters of my past – and I questioned the optimism of my arrival – what relevance an aesthetic art povera in the country that spawned Smokey Mountain?

My survival here has not left much room for contemplation, and only in the working have the voices of my disturbance had enough silence to be heard. Yet that working has always had a larger intention, too, a framework half-grasped half a world away, in stories of your country and mine; in scenarios snatched at on another visit and slowly filled in over time spent in more familiar places; in clues gathered to our changing relationships (with each other, with ourselves, with the rest of the world).

So when I look at the work made in these months, I see some evidence of that larger framework, of those relationships between two cultures, represented in objects I’ve collected and things I’ve learned here, and I see some evidence of my self, also, and of my looking for other wounds to address.

I’m happy if the boundaries between the layers seem blurred, because I think it’s in that region of least focus that we can often see the most.

3: Bartering the Shovel

One theme that can be traced throughout the development of western 20th century sculpture is that of the changing identity of the art object. Whereas once it was fairly easy to spot the art (it was the one on the pedestal), now there are blurred edges between what is art and what is the world. Will the real object please stand up.

The change in identity began early in the century, most dramatically with the Dada art movement which appeared briefly during and just after the turmoil of the first world war. The movement centered in Zurich, Barcelona and New York, and one of its more famous exponents was the artist Marcel Duchamp, who created the concept of the found object.

The object was never the same again. During the following decades there were many developments that took the argument in different directions according to the specific needs and cultural contexts of the sculptors. Pop art, for example, emerged in Britain and America in the early sixties, and used images and reproductions of objects found in popular westernized culture. At its most fascinating level Pop blurred the distinction between an object and its image: is a painting of a target a painting or a target?

Art povera emerged in Turin and Rome in the late 60’s and took the discussion in another direction by constructing sculpture from found objects chosen for particular valued such as their inherent cultural meanings or physical properties. The resulting construction had a multiple layering of meanings derived from the sum of its parts and the new meaning they developed when combined. Often the works are site specific. That is, the objects are drawn from the immediate environment on which they are commenting and in which they are placed. The artist’s raw material is neither pre-conceived nor manufactured. It comes from what is found in that particular location of time and space.

Neil Roberts’ work has developed from a position close to that of art povera. It is important to Roberts that he works with objects found within the immediate environment. In Australia, this means he goes to the local rubbish dump and scavenges for those objects which the consumer based, hi-tech, commodity-surplussed community of Queanbeyan and Canberra throw away in their weekly garbage purge. In Manila, where objects are more often blessed with a regenerative cycle that moves from new to used to old to saleable refuse, Roberts developed a unique new for old bartering system to obtain his objects. The result has often been that these objects have a freshness like the bud harvested in the morning and thus caught in the act of opening.

Roberts chooses objects that carry significant means about the Philippines, about his experiences in it, and the transitions that occur when individuals and whole cultures cross fertilize. To provide some initial framework and a means of editing these experiences, Roberts chose three latin phrases drawn from Jose Rizal’s novel, “Noli Me Tangere”: ex ore (from the mouth), in which the works include text and image, ab irato (in anger), which focuses on various images of physical violence coming from the earth and from man, and in corde (from the heart), those works which grew more simply from an intuition about the poetry of the objects and their transformations. Six brooms on their tenuous glass legs, raised from the dust to become sheave of mature grain stalks, is an image of abundance and optimism in the face of daily effort and perseverance.

I think Duchamp would have enjoyed the spectacle of Roberts earnestly bartering a new shovel for an old on the Makati construction site a few weeks ago. For the construction workers, this exercise was so bizarre that the new shovel became the object of a most critical and skeptical scrutiny. A receipt was demanded in case the new shovel did not match the value and performance of the old. In Roberts’ view, it certainly didn’t.

Nola Anderson

Manila, 1991.

4: This work has not been made in isolation – many people have made contributions, physical and otherwise, to the project, and I acknowledge, very gratefully, their help.

Including (but not only):

Nola and Ian Anderson, with Claire and James and the household

Cesare and Jean Marie Syjuco and family

Australian Embassy, especially John Milne and staff

Jóse Legaspi

Alan Rivera

Efren Salumbak

Eva Toledo

Metal work by Romy Iral of EZ Metalsmiths, Tondo (ph 20-20-13)

Neon by Joey Pornel of Acrilites, Sampaloc (ph. 741-50-86)

This exhibition was funded by the Visual Arts and Crafts Board of the Australia Council and assisted by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra and the Australian Embassy in Manila and the Polaroid Corporation (Australia).