Neil Roberts

Emery, John,

"Towering Lights"

The Advertiser, Review, 28 December 1991.

John Emery

One of the biggest and most public artworks of the 1992 Adelaide Festival will be a huge ETSA tower festooned with neon lights on North Terrace. John Emery talks to its creator.

The 1992 Adelaide Festival will see an ETSA tower rise 35m above North Tce. From that tower neon lights will pulse out a message: “Render unto all their dues. Tribute to whom tribute is due. Custom to whom custom. Fear to whom fear. Honor to whom honor.” (sic)

At the tower’s base will sound an ongoing chanted liturgy distilled from worldwide shortwave radio transmissions that the tower will be pulling out of the air.

This extraordinary piece of “found” sculpture will be the work of Canberra artist Neil Roberts. The tower is being sponsored by ETSA, and a team of Transfeld riggers will erect it on February 23 and pull it down on March 29. In between time it’s bound to become a talking-point, a visual Festival Focus, and a symbol of many things–not least being the uses and abuses of power in our society.

“When the big flagpole was erected on New Parliament House,” Roberts recalls, “I said that if I ever got famous enough I’d like to replace it with an electricity transmission tower as a symbol of corruption and power.”

So when Festival visual arts manager Margot Osborne approached him for a submission for a Festival installation, Roberts realised his chance had come. Particularly when he found an ideal disused site for the tower, on North Tce adjacent to the Morphett St overpass.

He sees the site as historically, and symbolically, important.

“Across North Tce, to the south, stands the Holy Trinity Church, the first such site in South Australia, and just to the west…the site of the first South Australian school room…To the north lie a mess of railway lines and the Torrens River, symbolic routes of trade…and directly east the Exhibition Hall and Festival Theatre.

“From this basis I have named a quadrant of subjects to which the chosen text will in some way refer: Trade (North), Knowledge (West), Religion (South), Art (East).”

In choosing the text that the tower will spell out, Roberts wanted “… to avoid those sayings which were too closed, like Lord Acton’s ‘Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.

“I also thought that–given ETSA’s sponsorship–it would be hypocritical to use the tower to buy into such specific issues as the alleged effects of Electromagnetic Radiation on people who live near transmission lines. I wanted a quote that was open-ended,” he says.

Adelaide’s reputation as the City of Churches turned him to studying the Bible, convinced that Adelaide’s citizens would be more familiar with St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, from which the quote is drawn, than citizens of the various Babylons to our East.

“My own sense of spirituality is non-specific,” he says. “It’s a hotch-potch grab-bag of Eastern and Western influences. But I’m a great believer in the power of Faith. I take issue with the structure of religion. I think that the system is not as important as the act of Faith itself.”

One of the symbolic aspects of the tower will involve it “…as a structure, as an object of oppression, but one which acts to serve you.”

Once Roberts realised that the tower would act as a gigantic radio aerial he saw the potential to also make it work as a Tower of Babel–for it would collect radio messages in every tongue. These messages will be tuned by the viewer walking beneath the tower, and passing between infra-red sensors.

And how does he see the average Adelaide citizen–gospel-reading or otherwise–responding to this object which, until February 23 next year, has either been ignored or else been the focus of anxiety related to “aesthetic pollution”, and more recently to panic about Electromagnetic Radiation?

“First of all,” he says, “it will be a spectacle because of its scale. And there will be a high energy-level there because it is temporary–just like Christo’s massive wrap-ups of buildings and beaches. People will want to come and have a look at it.

“Then there will be a certain level of dismissal. ‘Why is it art?’ some people will ask. But the antidote to that reaction is the very familiarity of the tower. People will not be as alienated by it as with totally abstract art. People will recognise it for what it is, they will see some sculptural qualities in it, and then they will be able to read the text.”

Roberts has made a specialty of working with very familiar objects, transforming them into icons. In Canberra in 1990 he resited an irrigation sprinkler into the middle of a lake. It too had built-in neon lights blinking out a poem.

Earlier this year he spent three months in the Philippines, where he presented an exhibition of “ready-made” art using local shovels, brooms and other everyday items familiar to all Filipinos to make his sculptures. The results were, as one Filipino reporter wrote:

Neil Roberts, in his one-man show Addressing the Wounds… dissects Filipino culture through research and interaction, a rarity among ‘foreign’ shows…in contrast with condescending attitudes of most foreign painters or sculptors who impose their standards on Filipino viewers, here is one who seeks to understand the Filipino soul…Maybe it takes an outsider to realise the treasures within ourselves.”

As an outsider to South Australia, Roberts has hit upon a symbol that has already generated intense controversy. In 1961 the controversy concerned Stephen Spender’s poem, The Pylon. Not only did that poem liken transmission towers to “…tall nude girls who have no secrets…” it was also alleged that the author was a “practicing homosexual”. Both counts were given as sufficient reason to remove the poem from the school curriculum.

More recently, we have seen suburban transmission towers, humble Stobie poles, transformed into things of joy and beauty by Prospect citizens and artists.

Roberts’ tower promises to electrify the Festival atmosphere. And, in these times of recession, it’s worth remembering that no one will be charged to see it.