15.4.20

WHAT DO I SAY 1

WHAT DO I SAY ABOUT THIS WORK NOW? is an online project for the COVID-19 shut-down period. As new spatial artwork cannot easily be shown during this period, this project instead encourages discussion of artworks that already exist.  Artists are invited to reflect on one of their own works, including how and why its location is part of the work, for posting on this blog. Responses will also be posted here, and can be self-posted on Facebook and elsewhere. Here is the first reflection:

Untitled (First Draft WEST) 1991
Margaret Roberts

Untitled (First Draft WEST) was one of my first installations, which at the time I called room drawings. It was made as a room drawing because embedding it in the building asked for more eye-foot coordination than normal, and asked us to understand our imagination and physicality as one. It did this by enabling only half of the ‘drawing/sculpture’ to be seen at a time, requiring the mind and body to collaborate as we move up and down the stairs, putting the work together in our minds from memory. Making a room drawing meant I could make a large sculptural form without constructing anything, lightly embedding the form in the ready-made building using drawing to borrow part of its physical structure. More broadly, it was a way of trying to understand why as artists we are taught to value the space generated within artworks more highly than the physical space they occupy.


Margaret Roberts Untitled (First Draft WEST) 1991 (detail - ground floor) 
photo: Chris Fortescue

The idea was prompted by making a half-circle of the wall of my Newtown studio using a nail at floor level and a piece of string, and seeing that it implied the other half-circle coming down from the ceiling on the wall of the inaccessible floor below (because a circle seems to be an irreducible whole shape). I used the iron-oxide I had available in the studio from colouring wax in the past. I brushed-in the half-circle on my studio wall with a thick mix of this iron oxide and water, and rubbed it back the next day to expose its rich surface. It was prompted towards room drawing by a need to reduce object-making because I was running out of storage space, and was thinking that slides use less of it (not realising at the time that I might be creating a different problem).

I remembered that by happy coincidence First Draft West (then at 39 Parramatta Road Annandale) had two identical back rooms, one on top of the other and joined by a staircase, which would be an ideal place to make this work, and they kindly accepted a proposal for a joint show later on with Wendy Howard, opening Wednesday 11 September 1991.

I used unbound iron oxide again in First Draft WEST to mark out the two half-circles on opposite walls of the two rooms, joined by the upper surface of the floor/ceiling in between. Because I think of these temporal works as also being permanent, just not always installed, I will jump tenses now from talking about what I did in 1991, to how the work would be experienced at any time. While in the ground floor we see the single half-circle on the Western wall against the ceiling.  When we leave that room and walk upstairs, we enter the first floor room by walking onto the iron-oxide on the floor and see the other half-circle on the opposite (Eastern) wall rising from floor-level. We get oxide under our shoes, and walk it around the building with us, unless (unlike most visitors in 1991) we wipe our feet on the doormat provided at the top of the stairs.

 Margaret Roberts Untitled (First Draft WEST) 1991 (detail - first floor) 
photo: Chris Fortescue

Through this and other works, I came to realise the problem of photographic documentation, and small steps that could be taken to address it.  These two photographs were taken by Chris Fortescue, who also photographed many of my later room drawings. Each time the photographs have been intriguing, both in themselves and also because they show a different work from the one I had actually made. This applies less to photographs of this 1991 work, perhaps because viewer-movement was between rooms, rather than just within them, and each image of this work did not seem to alter its subject any more than photography normally does. Also, I realised later that because documentation of this particular work requires two photographs rather than just one, and perhaps also text or a floor plan to explain their relationship, it may already have some built-in self-awareness.

I kept the documentation puzzle at a distance for a long time because I assumed I had to solve it completely, which seemed impossible. However, after I met up again with Stephen Sullivan, a fellow student from the 1980s, I began to realise the problem could be approached differently. After many months of discussion that turned into years, and a few shows together, Stephen used Chris’ ground floor documentation photo to make a print he called Harmonic Yoyo. He also made prints from the photographic documentation of several of my other room drawings from the 1990s.  Each print repeats a single photo twelve times, six upside down and six right-way-up. This arrangement means the image, while still recognisable, is lost in the pattern as a whole. Stephen and I regard these images as collaborations to which I bring the images, and Stephen arranges them into works and titles them. We exhibited seven of these arrangements as framed inkjet prints DNA Converter and Other Machines at Multiple Box Sydney in 2006.

Margaret Roberts & Stephen Sullivan Harmonic Yoyo inkjet print 2006

Stephen had his own way of engaging with this collaboration, but for me it addressed the puzzle that at the time I had not found a way to approach: why I am motivated to make artworks that incorporate the physical location, knowing that the documentation images, which may be interesting in themselves, will also delete the scale and actual space that is essential to the work? I later realised that even though I make all my installations in part to challenge the photographic virtualisation of the world, conventional documentation procedures mean I get them back as photographic corpses after they are de-installed. The collaboration with Stephen did not restore the value of place that I saw the room drawings asserting and the photographs denying, but it produced images with an in-built self-awareness of their own abstracting nature. I liked Stephen’s solution because the photograph’s own self-occlusion—within the pattern made by their own crazed duplication—is a type of payback for their own role in the denial of actual space in the record of the room drawings. In this way, some of the limitations of the photographic record are built into the record itself, and this saves some space for the work.

Margaret Roberts
April 2020
Edited by Emma Wise