Brennan, Anne, Art Monthly Australia, No. 149, May 2002|
Neil Roberts was killed by a train whilst walking his dog near his Queanbeyan home on March 21, 2002. Canberra’s small art community has suffered more than its fair share of losses in the past four years, but the loss of Neil seems nevertheless incomprehensible and unbelievable. His was the reassuringly solid presence of someone we assumed to be destined for a long life and his arbitrary and violent death seems wrong, as though he had somehow blundered into the wrong story.
And yet, it is also true to say that, in spite of his untimely death, Neil’s was a well-lived and fortunate life. He was genuinely loved by a myriad of friends and colleagues, he was a leader in the best sense of the word and he was able to use this quality for the good of the community in which he worked. He conducted his practice on his own terms and outside the constraints of an institution whilst contributing generously to the life of those institutions with which he had anything to do. He had a strong conviction in the value of the life of an artist, which informed his own sense of self-worth in a way which was unfailingly modest, and which had nothing to do with the self-absorbed histrionics of the artist of popular imagination. In turn, this quality led him to enriching experiences and unexpected projects that might be overlooked by artists bent on a more ambitious and conventional career trajectory. His work was exhibited internationally and he travelled widely, most notably to Sweden, the US and the Philippines, where his residency at Art Lab in Manila involved him in a thoughtful and rewarding dialogue with local artists at a time when Australia was only beginning to realise the importance of establishing cultural relations with its near neighbours in South East Asia.
Neil’s was an exemplary model of a successful artist’s practice and in the five years leading up to his death he appeared to be reaping the rewards that he so richly deserved. His contribution to Canberra’s arts scene had been marked by two major fellowships in 1995 and 2000, enabling him to produce two significant bodies of work, and in 2001 he had been honoured by a survey exhibition at the ANU School of Art Gallery, curated by Merryn Gates. He had also met and married his dearly loved partner, performance artist Barbara Campbell, in whose engaging and intelligent company he had found a truly loving and rewarding match. This year was solidly booked with residencies, travel and commissions. Neil was well aware of the richness of his life at this time and that he revelled so fully in his contentment is a small comfort for his premature loss.
Neil’s career began in 1978, when he undertook a traineeship with the Glassblowing Workshop at the Jam Factory in Adelaide followed by a stint at the Orrefors Glass School in Sweden in 1981. In 1983, Klaus Moje invited him to move to Canberra and help set up the Glass Workshop at Canberra School of Art. Although his time at the School was short, he was instrumental in helping to set the serious, experimental, rigorous tone of the Workshop, which was, in the ensuing twenty years, to earn it an international reputation.
During his time at the School, he bought a factory in neighbouring Queanbeyan with fellow artist eX de Medici. Together they transformed it into Galerie Constantinople, the workshop/studio, gallery and home that Neil was to occupy for almost twenty years. Constantinople allowed Neil and eX to envisage new possibilities for Canberra’s nascent art world. Together they set up an intermittent series of transitory events in the space. Idiosyncratic, sporadic, democratic and whimsical, the events which they orchestrated together, and which Neil subsequently fostered on his own, provided a truly radical alternative to the limited and conservative artistic activities on offer in Canberra at the time. His friendly and generous nature won him a wide circle of friends and contacts in the art world, and events at Constantinople invariably involved well-known names alongside writers, neighbours and the children of friends. These events seemed to be marked by a sense of serious fun. Participants took the challenge of participating seriously, without ever feeling any angst about the outcome, an open response to Neil’s gift for friendship and his inclusive nature.
It would be no exaggeration to say that Neil was responsible for shaping the landscape of Canberra’s contemporary art scene. He was active on the boards of the Contemporary Art Space, Studio One and Muse and fostered the alternative activities of Bitumen River Gallery in Manuka before it was subsumed into the Contemporary Art Space. He also literally helped to shape Canberra’s inner cityscape through his public art works House Proud at the Playhouse and The Fourth Pillar at the ACT Magistrates Court and through his contribution to the planning stages for the refurbishment of parts of the city centre.
Neil was also an exceptional events manager. As coordinator of the 1995 Canberra National Sculpture Forum, he gained a weekend of unwanted but humorously-borne notoriety when he defended, and finally gave a decent burial to, Greg Taylor’s notorious sculpture Phil and Liz Down by the Lake. If the Sculpture Forum debacle displayed his grace under fire, his handling of the ambitious Contemporary Art Space project Archives and the Everyday in 1997 was also exemplary: the way in which he negotiated the complexities of reconciling the often conflicting needs of eight wayward artists and eight national archives was a model of diplomacy and the enriching opportunities which the project afforded to all of its participants is a memorial to his generosity and skill.
Neil never lost his romantic engagement with the drama of glass blowing, and although his later work was to move away from the making of glass and into the realm of sculpture, installation and drawing, glass remained an important element in his work. He continued to use it in both his private practice and his public works, revelling in its paradoxical properties: its capacity to be both hard yet fragile, ductile yet solid, opaque yet translucent. His work was also shaped by his wonderful facility with objects. He sought them out in op shops and dumps across Australia; they in their turn appeared to flock to him and his home was full of small idiosyncratic collections that provided endless amusement for the children of his friends.
Neil’s relationship with objects had nothing to do with the collector’s power-driven urge to possess. It was more as if he befriended them, seeing in them some quality which touched, amused or challenged him. His interest lay in things which had once been used, and upon which the traces of their functional lives could still be read: tools, household implements, sporting equipment, workers’ gloves, the more dented and mangled the better. Incorporating them into his beautiful and witty assemblages was an act of rehabilitation, giving them a new life and dignity in which the old language of their previous quotidian existence and a new, contemplative language remained equally discernible. However, Neil’s work was never just an empty aesthetic exercise. In the open meanings invested in objects, he discovered an inexhaustible vocabulary to explore his interest in the rituals, languages and culture of masculinity, unveiling a set of metaphoric possibilities, both robust and gentle, serious yet whimsical.
In 1998, the Australian War Memorial invited Neil to design an installation from their collection for their new Orientation Gallery. The brief required the installation to reflect the contribution of all those who had participated in Australia’s national conflicts. At the same time, it had to have enough impact to attract the transitory attention of an audience en route to the “main event” of the Memorial’s other galleries whilst also setting the emotional tone for the visitor’s experience of the rest of the Memorial.
In an airy, backlit wall of glass, Neil installed a collection of objects whose only connection with each other was that they had been carried to war on the bodies of Australia’s servicemen and women. His inventory of relics is resolutely unheroic and heartbreakingly resonant: battered cigarette cases, rolls of bandages, mess tins, sewing kits, water bottles, gas masks, sweat-stained uniforms, photographs, crutches, letters and prayer books seem to strip the bayonets and guns which also form part of the collection of their dangerous glamour. In a museum which is often co-opted in the cause of the dubious national masculine stereotype of the soldier-hero, Neil managed to instate another register of experience: that of the profoundly ordinary human caught up in the big, unforgiving events of history. In the language of this sensitive and inclusive monument to Australia’s lost and mourned war dead may be Neil Roberts’ own most eloquent memorial.