Bull, Gordon, "Lost-Object Sculpture: Neil Roberts' Touching Things", Metis 2001: Wasted catalogue essay, March 2001.|
After her death, all of my great-grandmother's things were thrown into the well in her garden. It was early in the 1960s and her daughter didn't want the china and glass, the silver and linen, the kitchenware and clothes, because they were old. My father always regretted this. And I wonder about the well, packed solid like a geologist's core sample, the great-grandmother lode, waiting for a tenacious archaeologist to reassemble its shards. But what restoration is possible? There is no return for these broken things, lost like their owner. And my father, for whom they might have meant most, is dead now too.
When I visited my grandmother after my grandfather died she wanted me to take at least some of his fine old gardening tools. I remember her opening the door of his shed to show me the dozens of worn wooden handles, all standing in an undulating landscape of rust. One or two handles still held the shadow of its metal, the blade of a spade for instance, but these too shimmered into red dust when I touched them. We both stood shocked at this dissolution, the measure of his long illness and irrecoverable loss. All we could do was shut the door. Later that afternoon she gave me the engraved cigarette case that she'd once given him, a token of love, before they were married. I kept it for twenty years. It was taken from my house in a burglary two years ago.
People and things mark each other and can wear each other out. But a lucky thing, or even a fragment or part of a thing, can outlive its people and become someone else's treasure or someone else's junk. Still, they always carry the traces of their earlier lives. A well-used thing betrays the touch of a body or bodies: it bears the impact and wears the friction of an animate life it doesn't itself have. Worn things are the signs and residues of life.
Put in this general form, this is hardly an insight. It's obvious, surely? The problem is that it is the particularities of things that count. Why are my stories about death and things, family and things, loss and things, relevant to Neil Robert's work? Only as examples, as particular cases: everyone has them. The problem is that they are not transferable. They won't shift from private to public with their objects. What does the thief know of my grandmother's love?
This transference is Neil Robert's problem too: there is something particular in his use of worn things in his work. Conventionally, we might say that Roberts uses found objects, but this doesn't seem adequate to me. Conventionally, artists who use found objects treat them as empty things, waiting for the artist to fill them with new purpose or meaning. Roberts doesn't do this. He uses objects that are already and still full. But, like my thief, neither he (usually) nor we can know what they are full of. Their significance is lost to us because the objects are lost to the lives that filled them with meaning. And the material things he collects are often almost lost in themselves: so worn or damaged that they barely have any reason to survive at all. Roberts' delicate art holds on to this loss. So it may be better to think of his work not as found-object but as lost-object sculpture.
Roberts chooses and collects objects that are replete with lost stories. They are objects that have been places and done things. They have been handled and are worn with use. Often, the touch of earlier users is emphasised: he makes us see the touch of prior use. We don't need to know what these lost stories are, but we hold onto the loss itself. And each viewer will be drawn into making good the loss with his or her own stories. These are touching things, and the risk is that they might excite a shallow sentimental reverie. Roberts avoids sentimentality by using the simple technique of bringing things together in ways which let us know that their narrative lines have been diverted and displaced.
Roberts described to me his orientation to the things he collects, and how this narrative displacement is achieved through diverting attention to the thing through form and pattern, rhythm and variation. ""I'm initially more interested in the formal qualities of the stuff and that's what I try to draw out. The opened out footballs [in Pause in Time of Weariness, 1996] are pattern first and foremost, and their inherent meaning as footballs and the meanings inherent in the process of their opening out (release, dissipation of energy etc) follows the eye into the material. Same with the trowels [in Strosimomancy, 1993] - installed, they function first as a long rhythmic line of variations on a graphic shape, then the particularities of their embodied narratives and the logic of the attachments comes through.""
In Roberts' work things are collected, layered, held in balance, piled and arrayed in relation to one another. They are stuck, bound, spliced, grafted, or twisted together to make their old uses redundant even while they are held before our eyes. Their points of reference oscillate between now and then.
The work that his things once did is often turned to play. Perhaps this is especially close to the surface in works that use tools, such as Show (One Man's Toil), 1990, where a hoe is held in elegant balance with an arabesque curve of glass, or in the graceful balance of pitchfork and metal object in Things in the State of Belonging, 1993. But this redundancy is everywhere, even in Teaching Blocks, 1992, where the lesson will no longer work because the didactic objects are paired with texts that do not make sense of them. Pause in Time of Weariness, 1996, stitches work and play together as its flattened footballs become petals decorating old working aprons in a leathery masculine set of ensembles.
Sometimes Roberts uncovers hidden meanings within the things he uses. And sometimes his work activates possibilities that couldn't be realised in the life the things had previously led. But overwhelmingly his combinations deliver both the loss in his things and a new life through building possibilities that weren't there in the individual objects he collects. His most consistent method is to bring, or to fit together two things, often in a set or series. But this fitting can be the result of quite different processes. The work in this exhibition covers a ten-year period, from 1990 to 2000. Earlier work, such as Show, (One Man's Toil), 1990, tends to take pairs of things and add them together. Later work, such as Pause in Time of Weariness, 1996, see objects being dissected, peeled apart and layered. More recent work sees new things being created as projections from objects, such as the lead-glass flower pattern which is built from a set of shadows cast by the boxer's speedball in Agnes Northrop at the Gym, 2000.
It is precisely the ways in which Roberts shows us his processes, just how he has touched and combined things, that carries us into his collected objects and excites our interpretation. Both the material and the process touch us, and nothing goes to waste.