Robbie Rowlands is a Melbourne based artist whose work explores notions of stability and vulnerability through the manipulation of objects and environments. His repetitious and precise cuts and the resulting distortions reflect the inescapable passing of time that affects everything around us. Rowlands' works have been described as 'spotlighting the history, humanity and function' of his subjects. His manipulated objects and spaces blur the boundaries between our fabricated world and the natural world.
The philosopher Martin Heidegger argued that objects are often invisible to us, gathered up as they are within a context of functionality and use. It is only when things break down that we become aware of them, seeing them with fresh eyes. In many ways Heidegger' observation could form the basis of an approach to Robbie Rowlands' work. Rowlands takes objects that are often forgotten, invisible or transparent to us, objects that exist on the verge of disappearance, and stages a kind of 'breakdown', inviting us to rediscover the object, poised somewhere between what it was and what it might become.
Rowlands bases his sculptural work on things that exist at the fringes of our awareness, utilitarian objects such as lampposts or desks. He refashions them into something altogether different yet in a way that never allows their original identity to be shed. The mass produced and functional designs are softened and framed in terms of a new aesthetic, giving the object a renewed energy or sensibility. The effect is to reveal hidden potential in what had come to be regarded as outmoded. If the former object is largely unrecognizable in the new sculpture, the process is not one of violence, rather there is a sense of redemption, as if the object has been liberated from obsolescence, from forgetfulness. This redemptive sense is twofold; on the one hand the object has become something else, inhabiting a new and often sensuous form. On the other hand we can't help reading this new form back into the old; we sense that the change is not entirely arbitrary, that maybe this new energy, this emerging beauty and potential was always there in the original object, even as it was sat on, written on, or passed by on the way to work. As such his work enables us to reflect upon the wider process of change, upon what our relation with things might suggest about us, and perhaps invites us to inject a little more care into the quotidian realm.
An early work entitled Comfort in Sadness encapsulates many of the concerns that would shape the artist's future projects. In this piece we can identify an old bathtub whose base had been repeatedly sliced open allowing the tub to curl upwards into a crescent-like shape. The result is a piece of sculpture that is both visually arresting and imbued with a powerful affective resonance. The work's title 'Comfort in Sadness' stages precisely the kind of opposing tensions that inform much of the artist's work. Not comfort and sadness or comfort or sadness, but comfort in sadness. An invitation perhaps to tease out a complex melancholic reaction to change or loss, to see how there is a certain paradoxical comfort to be had in sadness. This dialectic of comfort and sadness opens up a rich theme that Rowlands had pursued since. Often exploring the ambiguity of domestic spaces and objects: bathtubs, interior rooms, beds and chairs, the artist reveals the dilemmas of 'comfort', of our investment in the familiar, suggesting how a certain level of sadness might shadow the comfort we create for ourselves.
More recently, Rowlands has had the opportunity to create site specific installations in spaces that might once have housed the kind of half-forgotten objects he likes to work with. Utilizing a wide variety of buildings and environments that have included a Bus Depot, a Toorak mansion and a beach shack, the artist has been able to project his thematic concerns into spaces rather than upon individual objects. Despite the obvious differences in scope and choice of medium, it is clear that the installations share many similarities with the individual sculptures. Significantly these spaces have themselves all been on the verge of transformation, either condemned, or subject to renovation. Of course it is this very condition, poised on the edge of erasure that allows the artist to work. The materials and structures are no longer of use; the artist is free to do what he wants with it. However, because these places and things are placed under the sign of erasure: condemned buildings, abandoned objects, things whose use-value has become obsolete, he is able to explore the complexity of reactions involved when we erase or replace our sense of the familiar.
Not everyone has seen Rowlands' installation work in this light. Perhaps the enclosed spaces of the installations heightens our sensitivity to change, causing some to view the kinds of transformative processes as largely invasive, even suggestive of a certain kind of violence. Yet if the cutting up of interior spaces - walls and floors - can provoke a sense of the space being 'gutted', there is often more going on here, once you can get past the visually stunning effects of say, a floor being cut up and curled, leaving a hole in the ground. Rather than simply finding evidence of structural evisceration, it is possible to find a more subtle process at work, one that 'suspends' the fate of the condemned building, and allows us to contemplate this scene of frozen entropy as the room almost unravels before our eyes. One is also able to discern new patterns within the altered room, new symmetries and plays of light that extend beyond a 'flight' response.
The works on display here lend themselves to this kind of reading. The artist takes spaces and objects and shapes them in a form that makes them almost unrecognizable, and of course there is certain violence, an element of destructiveness in the process. But the effect is productive. At a sensorial level we shift between remembering and reconstructing the old object and responding to the reconstituted form. This is essentially a process of openness and suspension rather than simply an exercise of force. The energies and possibilities of the object are unlocked in an engaging if ultimately elusive way, as the forms of the sculptural move toward but elude symmetrical or identifiable shapes and patterns.
Extract from Disintegration catalogue essay
By Simon Cooper
Simon Cooper lectures in Communications and Writing at Monash University. He is the author of Technoculture & Critical Theory: in the service of the Machine? (Routledge), and is an editor of Arena Journal.