Neil Roberts

Bull, Gordon,

"Down Town"

Art + Public, catalogue essay, Canberra: Canberra Contemporary Art Space, 2001. pp. 10 – 15

Gordon Bull

Once upon a time you knew when you were looking at sculpture. Standing on its pedestal like a preacher at a pulpit, sculpture declaimed on where it was and what it was doing there. Neil Roberts’ temporary neons don’t do this. Tucked unobtrusively inside windows and doorways, and built into the furniture and fittings of the street, they do not demand attention or loudly declare their presence. Rather they are little signs that whisper, or mutter almost to themselves, quietly soliciting the notice of passers by.

For this project Roberts placed a set of six works using neon light in a series of locations within or near the Civic bus interchange, a major Canberra transit zone and somewhat faded shopping precinct. The area sees a lot of pedestrian traffic: commuters, shoppers, loiterers and nighttime revellers. The latter patronise the bars and clubs that have taken up retail spaces as the shops have shifted to fresher-faced malls, near and distant. The strip doesn’t have inner-city decay exactly, but it is shabby following the retail move away from the fumes and oil of the bus stop. Many of the sites for the neons are survivors of this shift, looking like increasingly embattled oases in an arid territory.

The neons were not hard to find. They were both like and unlike the everyday signage of the street, pressed into the architecture in familiar ways. The ideal viewer for these works is one who has chanced upon them as additions to the everyday environment. And the works ask the knowing viewer, like me having been told where to look, to suspend their knowingness and act out a chance encounter with them. A viewer might notice one or several, it is unlikely that a casual viewer would catalogue them in a line as this description does, but that isn’t important for the set as a whole. It is enough to notice one for a viewer to be attuned both to notice more works and to look rather differently on the everyday things along their walk through the street.

The impetus to produce these works had come from reading Norman Bryson’s Looking at the Overlooked: four essays on still life painting, where Bryson relates the lowly status of still life within the hierarchy of genres and the relative poverty of the literature on still life to its domestic and private, and so feminie, associations. In the light of Bryson, Roberts chose the sites for his neons with some concern for their relationship to the private or domestic, and conceived of them as working against more heroic, public neon writing in the city. They do not have individual titles; the title for the group is Still Light.

One work sat in a window of the Fletcher Jones clothing store, nestled next to a chest of drawers like an anomalous shop fitting. It was an arrangement of familiar industrial or domestic neon lighting tubes, combined with some letter forms recovered from old signs. Its illuminated lines recalled more formal sculptural traditions, miming something like St Martin’s School welded metal work in its bright, fragile glass. Only about a metre high, it nonetheless had a monumental air. This was perhaps the most conventional, or at least best dressed, of the works which took quite diverse forms.

The only consistent thing in common from work to work was the use of neon light. The work that most resembled the one in Fletcher Jones say inside a display case placed in the window of the public library just around the corner. Within the vitrine it rose as a carefully composed, tumbling pile of letters: fragments of old neon signs recombined and reignited, like a monument to some colossal reader. The four remaining works played more directly with signs, relating to both the shops they were set against and the passage of a walker through the street.

Above and adjacent to the sign of the Croissant d’Or patisserie, one of the best bakeries in town, a circle and a line of light-filled table tennis balls were fitted high under the colonnade. Bright pearly forms, they seemed to demand interpretation: in particular, what relation did they bear to the baker’s art? Passers-by variously saw loaf and doughnut, staff and halo, an abstruse puzzle with unpredictable solution.

More legible, if equally curious, was a work filling the abandoned frame of an overhead sign for the now defunct ‘Sporting World’ shop, where a red light ran through two rows of orange latex football bladders. Like toy organs almost pulsing life, their lively vanity gave pathos to the gutted shopfront.

And legibility was a key point of a work sitting on a pair of shelves just inside the entrance to Kim’s Grocery store, now out of the bus stop and on the perimeter of a renovated pedestrian plaza. Kim’s is an Asian provedore, and the only grocery in an area dominated by cafes and restaurants, and book, record and clothing stores; it does a brisk trade. The work was a diptych where neon Chinese characters were fitted through and over tow op-shop works of art: an amateur western landscape and a beaten copper panel representing a ship at sea. The bizarreness of this conjunction was accentuated by the copper panel being inverted, so the ship sailed upside down, while the landscape was set so the horizon was vertical. I had to ask for the translation of the characters: ‘triumphant’ and ‘return’.

The final work, following the particular line that I took through the street, made the connection between sign and reading most clearly and explicitly. Behind three square, opaque glass windows in the façade of Bible House, the ground floor of which is the home of the Paperchain Bookstore, were fitted discrete sets of neon letters ‘NT’, ‘eer’, and ‘In’. These letters fitted seamlessly into the architecture and, more plausibly than most other works in the sequence, might have been part of the advertising of the shop. The sets of letters are all affixes, parts of words that are surpluses, additions that make sense only when attached to other parts to form a whole meaningful body.

The affixes might well be seen as models for the operation of all of the works on this walk. They are fragments point to things beyond themselves that they need in order to become meaningful. They might easily be overlooked, but once seen they present a puzzle of interpretation. They viewer is given this responsibility: to look at, see and read them. And by implication to enliven their experience of the street by looking at its everyday objects in this way too.

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