Neil Roberts

Tonkin, Steven,

Uncommon World, catalogue essay, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2000. pp. 19

Steven Tonkin

Neil Roberts

Dew mixed with sweat was the poetic title of Neil Roberts’s recent exhibition in which he explored the spectacle of boxing. The impetus for his investigation was the classic though antiquated text Donovan’s Science of Boxing, written by Mike Donovan, an American middleweight fighter of the late 19th century. Rather than confront the mythical stature of past champions, Roberts explored the depersonalised yet ‘highly charged voids and spaces’ between boxers during a contest. Easily overlooked, the definition of space between combatants is an essential sub-text to the rules of boxing which disallow close-quarter holds and throws.

Neil Roberts’s familiarity with the use of glass as a sculptural component is self-evident, while his awareness of its properties heightens the critical exploration of the subject matter, as seen in Five low blows. Elevated on a plinth, suggestive of the ring, the work retains a sequential and narrative content. The leaden feet of two boxers shuffle through a fragment of a three-minute round, or more deceptively through a series of contrived poses. The definition of space between boxers is ironically blurred by the struggling lines, while the title implies an illegality to the punches to which the viewer is witness.

A second work Half ether half dew mixed with sweat is a distinctly spatial encounter with that iconic piece of gym equipment, the punching bag. However, the punching bag is now cloaked in delicate motifs of Tiffany style glasswork and betrays no more than a trace of past purpose. The protective glass shield acts both as a physical barrier and conceptual denial of meaning, further reinforced by the stillness of the gallery space with its own ritualistic ‘don’t touch’ rules.

Steven Tonkin 2000

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