We've noticed your pull and tear installations cropping up on art and design blogs recently. Where do you think your inspiration to make such large-scale work comes from?
My site works with decommissioned buildings came from a need to escape the studio and consider the built environment and broader landscape. In 1998, whilst on exchange in NY for my Undergrad I had experimented with a site-specific work in an abandoned building in Brooklyn and really felt powerful working directly with a site using only the materials on hand.
The site interventions that I have done since were a necessary progression from my found object-based work. The challenge I had set myself in transforming an object through a process of cutting and segmenting was an interesting challenge with a building. There was a degree to which I could manipulate an object, pushing it to an edge until something new was realised whilst still retaining a sense of its original identity. The built environments had a similar if not greater challenge in considering what action was necessary without overpowering the space and appearing like an incomplete demolition.
With the first few cuts I did I really couldn’t judge their success and importance to my practice. It took time to realise that revealing these sub-surfaces and the subsequent reacting gesture of the material challenged my understanding of our built environments. There seemed to be a more defined explanation to the different feelings I have within certain spaces. The exposing of underlying tensions. The consideration that a space has a kind of memory or story.
What's your design and creative background like? How long have you been seriously pursuing a career in art?
I grew up with a pretty basic understanding of art. My high school teacher even announced in frustration that I would never be an artist because I wouldn’t let him paint on my canvas. I never really thought a career as an artist existed. I spent many years working with musicians as a recording engineer and producer and experienced the fragility of retaining your passion within the arts industry. I was able to witness great art moments, realise their rarity and consider tactfully how I could develop a practice for myself. Sound seemed to lend itself sculpture and so in my late twenties (1997) I committed myself to a university and haven’t stopped since.
We've heard about your participation in the DEPOT project a few years ago. What was your instinctive reaction when you arrived at the bus depot? How do you think this was manifested in the pieces you created?
When I initially arrived at the bus depot it was still in full operation. Apart from a few staff, most were unaware of what we were considering and so we were able to experience it in a very pure state. I was taken into the upholstery workshop that was based in an old 1950’s house set next to the main warehouse. The workshop was crammed into the kitchen dining area with seats and spare leather packed into other rooms. On meeting the upholsterers I instantly fell for the space and knew it held great promise. When we eventually were able to start work on the site, on re-entering the house I was amazed at how preserved the underlying domestic setting was.
Initially the workers were quite apprehensive to our project. The depot had been in action for a good 50 years and so that idea of a space having a memory and story was very strong there. For many of the workers the depot was a greater part of their lives and whilst they were moving to a new modern location there was a lot of emotion in those final months. The show had a great response by the workers. Most had never experienced art in that way. It allowed for a celebration of the building and a consideration that the feeling of loss for this site was part of a healing process not unlike losing a close friend.
At first glance, some people may find it hard to believe your work hasn't been altered or made by photo editing. How do you twist and re-shape such big objects?
The first task when considering an object is to consider the rigidity of the form. The process of cutting and segmenting allows me to loosen this tension creating a kind of vertebrae that can then be manipulated. The segmenting also has tempo, creating a kind of timeline. This sets in play the notion of birth and death of the form. When I’m looking at possibilities I’m sort of photo editing with my mind to consider the possibilities. That and some very rough sketchbook drawings. The objects become quite lifelike and I suppose start to reflect our own vulnerability and fragility.
Your work with found objects is really intriguing. How important do you think it is to re-work people's perceptions of everyday objects around them?
I suppose those words vulnerability and fragility play quite strong with my intentions. Everything I select in some way is a support mechanism for us. In rendering them inactive, in positions that realise gravity and tension we ultimately happen upon a discussion of our mortality. There seems to be a denial at times of how fragile we are even when the structures around us we rely on show signs of stress and fatigue.
What have been some of the best reactions to your work that you've read or seen?
To watch someone suddenly realise the artwork they are looking at is really something as mundane as a bathtub is kind of special. The thought that they may possibly look at their own surrounds with the same newness and intrigue has an importance for me. I had one writer compare my room cuts with the flaying of skin off bone. I thought that really brought home the similarities our domestic structures have to our own bodies.
It did provoke a bit of a Silence of the Lambs comparison for me that sat a little uneasily. I did a light pole work, Wanting More in Paramatta, Sydney and sat back in the distance and watched people meander past, double back, glancing at similar poles and back to the work obviously wondering what had happened and considering all possibilities to why this pole had fallen in such a way. I enjoy that idea that these works suggest in an imagined way that they have been caught in a state that they may regularly return to usually out of sight from our eyes.
Talk us through a bit of the process when you work with outdoor sites. How does it compare to working on specific objects?
The site works range in intensity. Some are very spontaneous such as the cross cut work, Surface Tension in the kitchen and recently the light pole, Fallen – Only 30 (above) in Detroit. Depending on the public outcome there are aspects of occupational health & safety and infrastructure that demand a lot more attention. At times it can be a challenge to retain the integrity of the creative process. This is a factor I always have at the forefront of my mind when working on sites. I suppose I still think in terms of working with an object and try to scale the work in accordance. The beauty of the site works is that they become studio and material in one and so you can really bunk down and sink into the work.
The symbolism in The Offering is beautifully understated. Has any controversy surrounded the project?
The challenge with works such as The Offering was to map out cuts allowing for a kind of narrative that tapped into what was already present in the building. The site from the outside was very understated and initially I thought it was just a community hall. On my first visit I entered the front room and realised it was a church. It was kind of a shock especially also discovering the floors had already been removed. In a way the floors missing realised the demolition phase of the site had already begun, liberating it and allowing me an entry point.
There were many points of hesitation with the work. I had a Christian upbringing with an Evangelist father who for one example, refused to believe in dinosaurs due to how it conflicted with the bible. I suppose some of this underlying baggage started to play out in the experience. I found myself questioning at each point if I was crossing some undefined line. Maybe this hesitation and allowing myself time to really consider the actions that were necessary became an important mechanism to how I approached the work.
There is a certain amount of humour in the work though such as the cross cut out of a cupboard that has an original note written on the door stating “please don’t remove without permission of Pastor”. There was a kind of childlike Sunday school anarchy in play there. The cross ended up cut and slumped in a very powerful and exhausting action in a backroom of the church. This was all caught on tape and left all of us, assistant and film crew, quite drained and affected. It was one of those moments you hope for in a work.
As far as controversy, the church in a way seemed to have been forgotten by the extended community. I don’t think it had even been deconsecrated. It wasn’t built of brick and stone. Just a modest structure headed for a modest end. Most people where impressed that I could create something of beauty with something that had been deemed useless and dispensable in the path of progress. A four lane road!
Although at first glance your work may look destructive, the razor-sharp cuts hint at a much more delicate hand. Where do you think your eye for precision comes from?
I don’t think there are any surgeons in my family history but I suppose in using circular saws and tools that potentially can take your arm off I tend to pour an exhausting amount of concentration into each cut. I think this defined period of action really guarantees that I have my mind and body tuned into the work. These are the parameters I learnt from recording music. Finding ways to repel unnecessary thought processes and be in the moment.
To date, which have been your favourite projects to work on?
I think the quick spontaneous works always level me pretty happy. The outcomes are always incredibly fresh and dynamic. Works such as the single bed ‘Persuaded’ that I cut and configured in a very short period of time holds this tension and gesture that realises everything that excites me about sculpture. As far as working with a team, the Depot project was incredibly rewarding. To have the confidence and enthusiasm of the council, support crew and be working along side such great artists. But The Offering really was a significant moment for me. I felt so isolated and in a way vulnerable to all the doubt ridden moments that plague you through a work. I suppose it’s not a great thing to put yourself through but necessary to achieve a critically important outcome.
And finally, what's next for Mr Rowlands? What have you got coming up in the pipeline?
I have two new projects on the run at the moment. I am about to install a reconfigured light pole, rescued from the main street of Dandenong where The Offering and Depot were based. The steel pole Fallen – The Utilitarian is a 50’s light blue and will be installed in a small park metres away from its original position. The other project is a solo show, The Gardener for Arc One gallery in Melbourne in August. I’m basically in studio lockdown mode sitting deep amongst a broad selection of found objects and a slightly defined direction so anything could happen from here.
To see more of Robbie's work, visit his website robbierowlands.com.au