Neil Roberts

Campbell, Barbara,

"Waiting for the Perfect Fit: when materials become objects"

Public lecture, Canberra: Canberra Museum and Art Gallery, 21 October 2004.

Barbara Campbell

A few introductory words about why I wanted to do this particular exhibition.

Unlike most exhibitions, indeed, unlike the two exhibitions of Neil’s work I’ve put together at Helen Maxwell Gallery since Neil’s death in March 2002, this is not an exhibition of finished works. Rather, it is an exhibition of objects collected, classified and stored by Neil at our Queanbeyan studio/home. They have a value – not as high as a finished object perhaps, but not as low as a piece of detritus at the tip. And of course they have a value by virtue of being kept together. I couldn’t dispose of these things without first giving them one more outing as a group. So I would like to formally thank the director, Peter Haynes the curators and staff at CMAG and the brilliant mind who came up with the idea of the Open Collections gallery.

Not all the objects you see in the display cases and on the walls have the same status: some are fragments from now-dismantled installations; some are tools used in often peculiar ways to make other works; some are left-overs from large series that didn’t quite make the grade and some are totemic objects, perhaps too resonant to have ever undergone another transformation by Neil other than to simply have them hanging around in the studio to think about. Before you challenge me on this last statement, I do want to acknowledge that thought is an act of transformation in itself. I’m pretty certain that Neil would not have placed a lesser value on some object if it challenged his mind but escaped his physical modifications.

One of the similarities between putting up this exhibition and the other two has been my own role as Neil’s collaborator. It’s a role I’ve enjoyed each time because, without wanting to sound too maudlin about it, it’s a way for me to have a conversation with Neil about his choices, his materials, his processes and his ideas. It’s a level of engagement that I am very privileged to have. When I’ve spoken to friends at these times of working intensively on Neil’s projects, I’ve often used the word “channelling” to describe my own way of arriving at decisions. I know that’s a pretty “freak me out” word. I want to imply both an intensity of activity but also a sort of letting go of some aspect of my own decision-making processes.

The “channelling” was particularly strong for me on the third day of installing upstairs. I was placing objects in the second cabinet from the right – the metal objects section. There came a point in the afternoon, and I wasn’t even alone in the room, when each object found its place like it knew where to go. To use one of Neil’s titles, they became “things in the state of belonging.” I’m sure curators experience this all the time and would explain it more prosaically in terms of being attuned to the work and being comfortable with how objects work in space and developing meaningful relationships between things, etc, etc, etc. Yes, I’m sure it was all that too, but this afternoon in this talk, I’m going to extend the channelling just a little bit further.

I’ve plundered Neil’s huge collections of slides and chosen eighty of my all time faves. Of course, there were heaps more I could have chosen but because eighty is the limit of one slide carousel I had to draw the line somewhere. I’ve matched the slides of finished works, which you’ll see on the right with images of materials and objects as they’re displayed in the show upstairs. I hope you’ll have a lot of fun using these visuals to make the connections. Along the way I’m going to quote from some of Neil’s writings derived mostly from public lectures about his work or the things that interested him. And I’ll do some of my own extemporising. I’m not always going to signal when it’s Neil speaking but I think you’ll be able to tell.

Let the show begin. Lights please.

This is Neil: “The thread that generally runs through all of my work relates to the capture and release of energy or the transformation of energy. In particular, I’m most interested in forms of energy most often associated with the lives and actions of men. This interest in gender is not necessarily polemical, or even that explicit in a lot of what I do, but it is the undercurrent that draws me into certain subjects to the exclusion of certain others.”


This is Neil quoting David Chandler:

Consider the picture of a darkened stadium with thousands of shadowed spectators poised on the edge of violence. In the ring, boxing is a luminous concentration of the energies directed by its audience. The brightly lit ring at the centre symbolically glows with their urgency, their expectation and anticipation of what might unfold in the fighting. For in contrast to most sports, boxing has retained its scent of the illicit, and the boxers in the ring carry the projected weight of the crowd’s ambiguous desire. The boxer is both isolated, within himself, and connected, at the charged but fragile centre of an entire nervous system.

And Joyce Carrol Oates:

...while the standing boxer is in time, the fallen boxer is out of time. When a boxer is knocked out, it does not mean, as is commonly thought, that he has been knocked unconscious or even incapacitated; it means, rather more poetically, that he has been knocked out of time

And Neil again:

The canvas is the symbol of this zone ‘out of time’. The upright boxer moves through air, his sensory input focussed on his relationship to his own body in space and its relationship to his opponent’s body - the giving and receiving of pain, the clinching and holding, the exchange of sweat and blood. But it is his movement through air that signifies transcendence, that ensures he operates in an ‘in time’ zone where he can determine the trajectory of the match through position, attack, control. Sometimes the first consciousness that he is now ‘out of time’ will be the sensation of skin on canvas. His body registers a completely different tactility before his consciousness assimilates the shift from the vertical to the horizontal. This tactile signal is why boxers struggle so hard to resist contact with the canvas.

Neil acquired this boxing ring canvas in a somewhat nefarious way in 1999. He put a wanted ad in a cheap boxing magazine and was rung by someone who had the canvas he desired. He had to bring $100 cash to a carpark in an outer western suburb of Sydney. The exchange was done, no questions asked, and Neil drove happily home with this smelly green canvas folded up in the back of the panel van. From time to time he would pin it up and think about it long and hard. At one point he even contemplated cutting it up. He said publicly a year after buying it: “It’s easy to be paralysed by the resonance of the material memory in an object so loaded.”

Mostly, however, representations of boxing were a source of inspiration. The following works were in the exhibition Half Ether at Helen Maxwell Gallery in 2000 and Dew Mixed with Sweat at Gitte Weisse Gallery also in 2000.

A few years ago I started collecting photographs out of cheaply-printed black and white boxing magazines. Even mediocre photographs seem to hold an aura of violence within themselves, and the bodies in space are often very sculptural and graphic. I began to use a photocopier to blow up details from these often very small images, isolating bodily connections and individual features that seemed to hold essential information about the forces in play at the moment of the photograph.

My interest in photography as a fragmenting of a greater reality was part of this cropping exercise. I enjoy using the car windows for this work. In their former function, they framed the world in quirky and fleeting patterns, composing brief glimpses grabbed in passing, and there is a remnant of the speed of that way of looking left in them even now. There is something of that sense of fleeting speed in the representation of boxing too and in the way I frame my images of boxing. What was once a clear surface laminated to a passing landscape has become an artefact encased in cement, but some signs of their past purpose remains in their oddly recognisable shapes, strange proportions and curved planes.

It is important to me that there are several layers of image degeneration or image transformation in this process. These layers successively distance the photograph from its reportage function, from any intention to tell a particular story about a particular contest. The decisive moment has become the imbedded image, held in suspension for a sort of scrutiny not possible in either real time, the fluid time of the boxing ring or even the impenetrable surface of silver nitrate time.

Being interested in boxing, Neil was especially drawn to Mohammed Ali.

There is truism about boxing contests that goes like this: if you can see a punch coming, even for only the most split of seconds, you can’t be knocked unconscious. You can be knocked down, obviously, stunned and unable to continue, but the punch that short circuits your brain is not the hardest or the strongest but the one you can’t see. The Ali - Liston result is the perfect illustration of this effect. The invisible punch from Mohammed Ali didn’t actually knock Sonny Liston out, it shocked him into unconsciousness. Liston’s brain was short-circuited.

The explanation is that the forewarned body can is some fashion, to some degree, transfer or channel the force of an impact it sees coming - in the boxer’s case, through the legs into the canvas. But the secret, the unknowable, the out-of-nowhere shock - that’s the energy spike that breaks our circuit.

One of the skill’s Ali developed, due to his extraordinary reflexes was to be able to duck a punch by moving his head backwards along the line of his opponent’s arm rather than to the side. You can see it in this photograph from the Liston-Ali match. To the world of boxing it was something new, to the visual world, it also provided a new shape. At the end of 1999 Neil developed a new series of works about the negative space between boxers.

The idea behind the work was to describe the charged space between two boxers standing toe to toe. I used an old boxing instruction manual from 1893 that included a series of staged static poses of certain blows and defences. I selected certain poses for the dynamic shape of the negative space and then I imagined a sort of force field being generated by each of the boxers. As a form of drawing, I described the interference patterns of these lines of emanating energy, and I rendered those intersections as a series of lead lines in a standard leaded-glass panel.

One of the reasons for using the lead-lighting technique is for its traditional ecclesiastical function – they were designed as architectural features that were meant to literally transform God’s energy into visible light within the sacred space of the church. I’m interested in that transformative reference, the idea of a window onto a charged space mediating energy. I also wanted to strip the reference back to the bare bones by using simple clear glass and by positioning the glass against a wall as reflective surface, not as transmissive membrane.

It seems natural that we would arrive back at a Christian reference in relation to boxing. Take one last look at the boxing ring canvas. With those notches cut out of the corners, is not a very fat cross form?

Boxing paraphernalia appeared in other works as it does in the first cabinet of sporting goods.

This vaulting horse appeared in the studio one day. And like the boxing canvas, Neil’s first response was to affect its natural orientation by mounting it on the wall.

Ramp is a canvas and metal vaulting horse that has been remounted vertically onto the wall. The surface is encased in a leaded glass rendering of a section of the skylight of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York. In part, it is about the idea that there is a relationship between the ‘sweet spot’ of sporting activity or apparatus and of the kind of architectural endeavour that is embodied in something like the Guggenheim.

In athletic terms, the sweet spot is the expression of the relationship that can develop between the athlete and the apparatus. It is like an energy zone within the material that could be captured or pictured if only we knew how. It also exists in architecture, a certain point within a space where all the forms and volumes described in that space work at their peak. The Wright skylight has a coming together of lines that imply such a spot. Personally, the sweet spot is also part of a kind of utopian metaphor for a way of being that is about fit or belonging in a very fractured world.

Then there are balls.

Neil had a solo exhibition at Kunst in Sydney in 1996 which he rather cheekily called Balls. These are works from that show.

A few years ago I spent some months unstitching and opening out a large number of old footballs to create a series of floral emblems. I would often puncture the almost-deflated bladders in the process and there would be this little phoof of air.

Pause in time of weariness

Neil’s Bradman’s Tank series of drawings began in 1995. It was a form of drawing activity that he would return to many times. Like many forms of drawing, I think for him it was a way of releasing the mind through the body so that other things might be brought forward and new work could be created.

There is a story about Donald Bradman honing his ball skills by obsessively attempting to hit a golf ball, thrown against a corrugated water tank, with a cricket stump. These drawings start from the point of trying to retrieve imaginary evidence of that repetitive energy from the material memory of the metal and continue into inquisitive zones like the overlap of painterly and sporting skills, focus and concentration, and the accretion of marks as a compositional system.

This work, Anvil, 1998 employs a similar obsessive accretion of marks to surface. It is a large piece of plasterboard, marked up with pencil dots in grid formation. Neil then attacked each pencil mark with a hammer, attempting to centre one over the other.

I would often puncture the almost-deflated bladders in the process and there would be this little phoof of air. I began to wonder what kind of metaphysical energy was stored in that air, subject as it had been to this intense focus, this concentration of effort and force over years and years. The insertion of red neon tubes into arrangements of these bladders was an attempt to directly describe something of that kind of intense energy.

Obviously, ascribing this kind of electrical energy to inanimate objects is fraught with difficulty. The charged object is a conditional experience. For a lot of my kind of work though, which begins with the actual meaning of a real thing and its trajectory through time, the possibility of some form of tangible energy transmission is an essential starting point.

It may have been (the roar of) 1995, burnt impression on bitumen paper

It may have been (the blast of) 1995

Looking at large parts of my practice, I realise that this what I attempt to do - catch a glimpse of the real as it becomes visible to me… Having seen, the acts I perform are then also about making visible - making visible unseen associations, the charge and flow of energy, the potential for transformations and so on. I try to bring those objects that were somehow absent from the world into a state of presence, into the here and now.

My actions never deny the history and former function of the stuff with which I work, no matter how damaged. This is important to me - I want that ‘site memory’ to reach across time and distance and make itself felt, however feebly, in front of the viewer. Because my actions are often so simple, it is a challenge to go further than just presenting these reclaimed materials. I try, through juxtaposition, association, unnecessary attention to detail and so on, to invest them with some new forms of meanings and significance.

I think there are different states of objecthood, certainly of object association, and somehow those different states enable or induce different forms of energy transaction.

For example, the Plait held significance for me as a link with an otherwise vague ancestry. It lived in a chocolate box on the top of my parent’s wardrobe when I was growing up, passed down from an unknown relative on my father’s side of the family. Despite the possible fetish that human hair can evoke, for me the Plait functions as an immanence, something quintessential and indwelling. This is a state of objecthood that is one of the forms of presentation I try to work with; un-mediated objects that seem to be inherently present.

The Tatt on the other hand, represents what I have called ‘withness’, a sense of belonging, of union between things that is more than simple association. The tattoo is a great image of this for me – the bond it implies between a skin and an image, between a decision and a lifetime, the needle and pain. The artist and tattooist eX de Medici once said: ‘My interest in tattoos was initially sparked by observing a tattoo close up – the manner in which the coloured dye had become a living part of the wearer’s body, appearing as naturally there as the eyes, the lines on a hand or a birthmark’. Withness then is a formal commitment and a durable relationship between objects.

Finally, Baudelaire’s Rope stands for me as a story about a transference in the object’s status and significance, an agreement whereby the thing becomes a fetish beyond simple reference to its original function, an object of charged reverence. Something of the material memory remains, but there is a potency beyond any material functions. And Baudelaire’s Rope stands in as a fetish, an object in the state of becoming. It is made significant by having something ascribed to it.

I think a relationship can be made between states of energy at play in my work and the states of objecthood I described in 1993. The state of objecthood I call belonging is described by the notion of the electrical circuit. Two or more things, in series or in parallel, properly connected, create a system that transmits energy. Resistance is harnessed to mediate outputs, transmission is facilitated by judicious distance and appropriate materials. Linking methods are vital. The proper circuit is a glorious thing – in balance, efficient, no leakage. It delivers energy.

By the winds, 1993, brass object, wood

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