Neil Roberts

Roberts, Neil,

"Rewiring the plait the tatt and Baudelaire's rope"

Art Monthly Australia, Article, # 143, September 2001. pp. 5 – 9

Neil Roberts

Ed: Neil Roberts relates objects and energy transfer. Here he defines three states of objecthood. His current work explores the relationship between object and photograph.

I want to begin by recounting two material moments, two instances in which meanings embodied in simple matter were unambiguously and potently made clear to me. Each of these moments was a kind of material transmission, an exchange of energy, and I want to consider what form such energy takes and what facilitates its transmission.

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.

Numbers of my works involved simple associations between objects, pairings, balancings, juxtapositions. These exist for me now as a kind of circuitry, a sequence of objects through which this nebulous charge or energy is able to flow. I’m trying to understand the form of that charge better, and to refine the circumstances in which it is made obvious.

Moment one occurred a couple of years ago during a project I was completing for the Australian War Memorial. I was trawling through the stores there selecting objects worn on the bodies of servicemen and women, carefully unpacking archive boxes to retrieve particular items of interest that I had found on the database. Each object was wrapped in acid-free tissue and tied up with cotton tape. I undid one package described as ‘airman’s map’, and found a handkerchief-sized square of silk, printed with a section of a map of Germany, pasted onto worn paper to hold its frayed fabric together. The map and its margins were covered with faint pencil notations. As I unfolded it, the map settled into my two open hands like a kind of garment, a garment that was just my size and well-worn by a body just like mine. Something about the distance from hand to eye, the size and position of the notations relative to the position of my hands, the fall of the fabric over the expanse of my palms – all these things and something else coalesced, and I was overwhelmed by the sense of another mans body, holding the same piece of material, in circumstances utterly beyond my understanding and experience.

The silk map was like a transmitter, a piece of componentry completing an electrical circuit across time and distance. It was a momentary circuit, of course, as the circumstances of the present reasserted themselves, but it was deeply affecting.

Moment two happened over last summer while I had a job installing exhibition displays in the yet-to-open National Museum. Each afternoon we held extended meetings between install leaders, conservation and registration staff etc. Before one of these meetings, when there were just a few of us waiting, I was shown a small zip-lock plastic bag. It looked empty, but looking closer I saw a tiny crescent of whitish material. I was told that this was a baby’s toenail clipping, and it had just fallen out of a baby’s booty in the Conservation Lab, a booty that belonged to Azaria Chamberlain.

Just run your mind over all the trajectories and meanings that are contained in that miniscule sliver in a zip-lock bag – Azaria’s DNA, possibly the only physical remnant of her not tainted by trauma, a relic of another kind of moment, a thing unknown in the world until now, nearly 20 years after the fact, when chance and a conservator’s miraculously keen eye bring it into existence. The distance between that existence and invisibility or disappearance is minute, almost imperceptible, but now, in its existence, that tiny collection of matter becomes huge with meaning and embodied significance.

The clipping is like a radioactive particle, generating an energy that we register only with special instruments or knowledge.

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.

During a residency in Adelaide in 1993, I gave a lecture in which I tentatively tried to classify three states of objecthood that I recognised in my work at that time.

The concurrent exhibition was called The Plait, the Tatt and Baudelaire’s Rope, after the three elements that were emblems of my early concerns and aspirations in the residency. The objects were linked by their formal motif of the braid or entwining lines. The plait is a black hair plait handed down in my family. The tatt was a photograph of my arm tattooed with a small design based on four woven lines. Baudelaire’s Rope was an article about Baudelaire’s short story of 1868 in which a length of rope used in a suicide approaches the state of the fetish through being sold in short lengths as a macabre souvenir.

I’d given one of these emblems to each of three writers in a geographic chain I’d set up to produce a catalogue essay for the exhibition, and so I was obliged to think about the similarities and differences each object presented.

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.

Within this classification, the Plait stands in for objects of immanence. It is a state of being that is a given, unmediated and somehow present as a quality, at least for some. The Tatt is about union, a state of belonging. Its quality of withness is arrived at by agreement, by acquisition, almost by necessity. If immanence is a quality that is somehow present, belonging is a quality that becomes obvious. 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. Immanence is somehow present, belonging becomes obvious and the fetish is described.

In 1993 I thought these categories were a good fit for the kinds of objects I sought out and the kinds of actions I took with them. Now however, the necessity to visibly transform the things I work with is much stronger. I think this necessity comes about because I have recognized an even more basic drive in my work over the years. At its simplest, all my work seems to address the capture and/or release of energy, energy most often (but not exclusively) associated with men’s lives. I’m drawn to describe the qualities and consequences of such energy, hopefully not too didactically, sometimes to express modes of transformation or of antidote, sometimes to simply represent.

For example, 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. 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.

Similarly, the bounce drawings I’ve been doing since the mid ‘90s are all about the capture and representation of a sporting energy. I’d read about Don Bradman obsessively honing his boyhood cricket skills by throwing a golf ball against a rainwater tank and trying to hit the rebound with a cricket stump. He would do this day in, day out, for hours at a time. I wondered about the material memory of the tank, whether that surface could be made to picture such an application of focus and effort. So I set about to bruise paper, to bring an image to a surface through repeated striking, an image that would represent something between a painterly eye and sporting skill. I make these drawings by bouncing balls dressed with various shoe-polishes onto sheets of paper on the floor, sometimes hundreds, sometimes thousands of times. Like the bladders, there is a direct correspondence between energy expended and energy pictured, although the bounce drawings still rely on relatively pictorial conventions like compositional balance, depth and tone etc.

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.

Immanence is the generator. It glows in the dark, it hums and throbs, producing its energy whether we are there or not. I don’t think we necessarily create immanence and I think we often confuse it with significance, which can be acquired over time or use and agreed upon against set criteria. Immanence is both substantial and elusive. I think that the closest I get to it is in works like the bladders that strive to only picture immanence.

The fetish is however, common in art and, in its own rusty, rural way, common in a lot of my earlier work. The social contract embodied in the fetishized object is always implied in art. We agree to attach certain attributes and qualities to a thing beyond its simple materiality, but the terms of reference of that contract are always in contention. Its electrical metaphor is the plasma ball, those glass spheres that discharge little bolts of lightning when you touch them. In a plasma ball, your participation completes the circuit – you are both the agent and the recipient of the effect. In this symbiosis, the plasma ball is like the fetish in art – arrived at by agreement, always in the state of becoming.

Given my interest in tools and sport and so on, I could be accused of fetishizing masculinity, but I try to keep my interactions with those arenas of manly energy mostly observational. So when my work arrived inevitably at the sport of boxing I had no interest whatsoever in getting into the ring to understand the full corporeal experience. I was actually more drawn to the representation of boxing, the images and films that constitute for most of us all we will ever know about it. Relative to my interest in the flow and exchange of energy, boxing pictures seem to be a kind of spirit photo, capturing unseen auras and charged zones that get lost in any real time flurry of bodies and arms.

In this subject, the base of the real from which I normally start was in fairly short supply. The artefacts of boxing, significant though they can be, are not many – one of the attractions of the sport is the rawness of engagement, without technological mediation or advantage.

Without recourse to the real, I began with representation. I was drawn to the space between boxing bodies in photographs, firstly as a formal drawing, but also as a site of enormous energy charge. Can you think of a more alive volume of air? In a great boxing photograph, that negative space fairly crackles with the discharge of effort and adrenalin. Boxing is after all inherently photogenic. Even mediocre photographs seem to hold an aura of violence within them, and the bodies in space are often very sculptural and starkly rendered.

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.

The reasons for using this technique relate to two things. One is the traditional ecclesiastical function of leaded-glass panels – 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.

The second reason for using the leaded-glass technique relates to speed and the normally instantaneous nature of the exchange of energy in an arena like boxing. Glass, of all media, has an existence in time outside our normal physical understanding of the world. Glass appears to behave like a solid, but is actually a super-cooled liquid that flows infinitesimally slowly. It’s as though glass operates in a parallel universe and spends a blink of its existence in our known world. Within my interest in capturing the moment - the desire to describe an energy transaction that is barely visible to the naked eye - a material from a parallel universe that is moving in a flow outside our perception seems especially appropriate to me.

These boxing works are more symbolic than actual – there is little sign of the real in them. They are not indexical objects, and so stand outside most of my earlier work. The representation of energy is there but it is mediated through raw materials and pictorial conventions, something like the bounce drawings. But in both of these examples, something else that is real or actual is drawn into service – the meaning inherent in process. The sporting skills called on in the bounce drawings describe elements of their meaning. The evidence of process is not just the means but part of the end of the work. And in the boxing leaded panels, the process of leading glass, and all of its symbolic baggage, invests the work with a content not available through any other technique. Even when there are no visible real objects in what I do, I am still drawn to literal, actual things. It’s no surprise really that I first began to creatively register the world through photography, a process historically predicated on the irrefutable existence of objects in time.

My most recent work is titled Suicide of the Hands. It is a slide projection of some seventy ruined worker’s gloves. It grew out of two impulses or concerns that underpin so much of my work. The first of these is of course the ongoing interest in arenas of masculinity and the sorts of energy transaction often played out in such places. The gloves fit squarely and simply into that sequence – for example the ruination of sensation that often accompanies manual labour, the ‘suicide of the hands’ of the title. The negative images of the withered and contorted gloves stand in for the bodies of the men who wore them out.

The second link here is the impulse to gather numbers of a thing. I first came across these gloves because I needed some more material with which to extend a number of earlier serial works that I was remaking for exhibition. There was a disused concrete works near where I live in Queanbeyan, a vast industrial wasteland of great atmosphere and sadness. I find these kinds of places extremely beautiful, and their disappearance intrigues me in the way that the imminent disappearance from the world of so many of the things that I gather together for my work intrigues me. I was drawn to this site by the sense of something fading into invisibility.

Trawling the area for bits and pieces, I began to notice numbers of old gloves on the fringes of the buildings, obviously long discarded and subsequently weathered and hardened like fossils. I began to pick them up and soon I had about 180 of them, from fragments of a finger to whole blackened and rigid gestures.

Recently, I read a profile about an American book collector, an utterly omnivorous obsessive who was donating houses full of early American printing to a major library. But he was still driven to collect and had begun buying signs from homeless people, for no real or apparent reason. He tried to explain his proclivity like this: ‘When you start on something like this, you say OK here is a genre, here is a field. And you just start buying it. You don’t start off with a theory about what you’re trying to do. You don’t begin by saying I’m trying to prove x. You build a big pile. Once you get a big enough pile together – the critical mess – you’re able to draw conclusions about it. You see patterns. You start to see that homeless people in the South put together wordier signs than people in the North because people in the South like to read billboards so they’ll slow down and read the sign. People who have the greatest intuitive feel for physical objects start from a relationship with the objects and then acquire the scholarship, not the other way around’.

The scholarship surrounding the gloves is still evolving, especially with reference to the particular relationship between photography and sculpture. The gloves mark a new extreme in the boundaries of disappearance from which I have been prepared to retrieve objects. The re-working of disintegrating materials to obtain some sort of permanency has often been fraught with technical and theoretical questions for me, but the gloves are patently unable to be saved. They will rot soon and be gone. Therefore, the photographic record of them becomes an archive that has to take the place of the objects themselves, but in doing so what of their energy, their output, can be recorded or transformed?

In the object works the energy of the things themselves is not just recorded, it remains an active presence. The photographic referent, however, is a more complex presence across other spatial and temporal dimensions. The object referred to in the photographic record is commonly believed to be present but is logically absent. Roland Barthes talks about the reality of the photograph offering nothing so simple as ‘the being-there of the thing’, but rather ‘an awareness of its having-been-there’. The photograph, at least in its analogue form, presents ‘an illogical conjunction between the here-now and the there-then’.

I’m drawn back to Azaria’s toenail clipping and the way it teetered on the brink of oblivion. Having become visible, it now oscillates like a charge across time and space, just like the dismembered gloves in Suicide of the Hands. 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, like the conservator caught a glimpse of the clipping just before it disappeared forever. 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. The gloves are a first attempt at addressing the interesting and difficult conjunction between a photographic version of that here and now and its corresponding there-then.

From a lecture given at the Canberra School of Art on June 6th, 2001, in conjunction with the exhibition The Collected Works of Neil Roberts in the School of Art Gallery.

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