Neil Roberts

McNeill, David,

ed: Osborne, Margot, Power and Knowledge, catalogue essay, Adelaide Festival: Visual Arts, 1992.

David McNeill

Transmission Tower is Neil Roberts’ second monumental public sculpture commission. In 1990 he produced a work for Canberra’s Spring Festival, Floriade. On a lake surrounded by a park decked out with lavish beds of European flowers he installed a gigantic travelling ‘Southern Cross’ irrigator. In such an unlikely environment, the beautiful but imposing machine became more than a little bizarre, especially as it carried in bright red neon a line from an Adam Lindsay Gordon poem which read—

“In lieu of flowers from your far land, take wild growth of

dreamland, take weeds for your wealth”.

The parody was gentle but insistent; the neon could only barely be read through the mists as the irrigator recycled the water upon which it appeared to float. The piece was economical in its means and rich in its connotation. It seemed to suggest that the manicured beds of roses and tulips spoke less about ‘nature’ than about a long and convoluted history of hybridisation, commerce and colonial expansion.

The Floriade commission was by far Roberts’ most logistically ambitious work but it was entirely consistent with the kinds of concerns that he has been developing for many years in his art and in his writing. These concerns are complex ones but they do orbit a discernible centre and that is the belief that historical knowledge is contained in materials and objects just as much as in oratory and text. He has a remarkable radar for the stories inscribed on the surfaces of the kinds of objects and sites that exist beyond the peripheral vision of most of us in our daily lives. His art-making is a kind of poetic archaeology that allows humble and disenfranchised material to speak of its role in the ebb and flow of social history.

Every time we pick up and use an artefact, tool or appliance, we pick up a conglomerate of history and expectations, and it is history in this sense that Roberts looks for when he is selecting his found objects. These historical meanings can be literal ones—the handle of a worn farm implement will show the imprint of the hands which have held it and thus testify to the dignity of labour—or they can be associational, as with the Floriade work. In either case, Roberts chooses to manipulate and articulate the meanings latent within his raw materials. It should perhaps be emphasised that not all artists elect to work in this way; many prefer to work as if their materials are waiting to take on meaning in their hands. They choose to constitute meaning instead of foregrounding and juxtaposing inherited significance. That way is fine but it is not the path that Roberts follows.

For what it is worth, this probably means that he is not a modernist. He works in a manner that alludes to Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades, but the connection is less strong than it may at first appear since, unlike Duchamp, his choice of materials is anything but capricious. Instead, Roberts carefully selects his objects with an eye to their sculptural potential. However, he does acknowledge the influence of the Italian Arte Povera movement. He shares with an artist such as Kounellis, the desire to employ processes which both unlock the subliminal histories of his materials and which also allow us to appreciate anew the formal and textural beauty of things which are so often taken for granted.

Further, he frequently orchestrates the imminent properties of his chosen objects to ends that are self-consciously political.

This sensitivity to material-as-history may stem from Roberts’ background as a glass blower. He respects making and crafting and he acknowledges these as prerequisites to expression. However, his archaeology goes much further than this. He accepts the founding assumption of modern semiotics that all meaning is relational; that is, that objects take on a meaning only by virtue of their placement in a complex system of difference. Just as an innocent word such as ‘wealth’ can have no sense without an understanding of ‘poverty’, so too, do things and the stuff of our world become comprehensible as a result of their insertion into networks of exchange with other things. Thus significance resides as much in the spaces between things as in the things themselves. There are, for example, rather precise settings (landscapes) in which we expect to see a large travelling irrigator and the surface of a pond is not one of them! Roberts disassociates objects from their normal locations in the flow of meaning and thus makes them strange (and wonderful) for us.

A consideration of Roberts’ Adelaide commission Transmission Tower (Render to all their dues) helps to flesh this out.

On an empty block next to the Morphett Street overpass on North Terrace, the artist has located a high tension pylon of the kind that forms such an ubiquitous part of the Australian landscape. The pylon sits at the meeting point of invisible lines which link the Holy Trinity Church, a plaque which commemorates the site of the first South Australian school, the Exhibition Hall and, to the north, the River Torrens and the railway. Thus, the generation of electrical power is conscripted as a metaphor for the social power generated at the intersection of theology, education, culture and trade.

The work suggests an alliance with a long history of social thought (from Bacon to Foucault). This argues that accumulated knowledge has less to do with truth, whatever that might be, than with producing material effects in the world—that is with power. Further, it suggests that power/knowledge is most fruitfully understood not as somehow residing in discrete institutions such as a church or a schoolroom, but instead as a kind of potent sublate distilled out of the changing relationships between such institutions. Social power is, like the electrical power we use to light and heat our environment, invisible, dynamic and if mishandled, potentially dangerous.

Roberts underlines this transitive perspective on social power with a biblical quotation written on the upper section of the pylon in neon—

“(Render to all their dues) Tribute to whom tribute (is due).

custom to whom custom, fear to whom fear, honour to whom honour”. (Romans 13:7)

The alignments which we might expect here (for example, “Custom…” facing the railway and so on) are all slightly out of sync, implying perhaps that the complex webs of coercion, suggestion and opportunity which determine our lives can never be completely understood or captured. The role of metaphor, in art (or elsewhere) is, finally, to evoke rather than to explain.

Roberts has worked on this project with a sound artist from Canberra, Kimmo Vennonen, who adds another co-ordinate to the matrix, and it is one that is particularly apt in Adelaide during the staging of its Festival. He has wired a shortwave radio receiver into the structure and it alters its tuning in response to the movement of people at the base of the pylon. Thus, information from all over the globe flows into Roberts’ metaphorically reconstituted city alerting us to other less obvious conduits within its seemingly immutable structures.