Building, Remembering, Projecting
Wake, Robert Wood’s most recent work, is a fixed structure resembling an architectural model in some respects. Yet it appears provisional, as if some decisions are still open, and everything might soon look different. Made up of small-scale fragments of building, frameworks, platforms and supports, variously bracing and balancing one another, Wake creates an atmosphere of uncertainty or suspense. It draws a viewer into something like a current -- or several intersecting currents -- of visual events, a story.
This work effectively directs its viewer toward a discovery of narrative threads, toward seeing the work, its development and its potential meanings in time. No one can see the whole work in one glance, not only because it is too long (5 meters), but simply because it is three-dimensional object. It takes time for a viewer to walk along and around Wake, look at it from various angles, notice patterns, concentrations, and the relationships between them. A coherent whole must then be assembled in retrospect, in memory. The making and remaking involves one specific viewer, yet it is not exactly personal; it evokes individual understandings, but really proposes a common ground, a shared story, a history. This is the work’s own story as well as the viewer’s, one of creative discovery. It is a story of working through conflicts and impasses toward a moment when all the layers, all the metaphorical “plots” can coexist, however provisionally, in an equilibrium that has never existed before.
To make such a work, each one of the many small pieces – scaled-down surfaces and supports, joints and frames — must be cut – carefully, cleanly — from a sheet of material, then shaped, positioned and glued. This cannot be done quickly, and over the time the work is underway, associations are also made and unmade, forming fragile, tentative ties to memories or hopes or possibilities. The pieces function structurally, as real things with weight and volume, things that must respect, even as they test, the rules that govern the way the pieces can go together, a kind of “grammar” of building. But the same pieces also resonate with meanings outside the work, things remembered or perceived or deduced or dreamed. The making itself is slow and exacting. The possible ways the pieces could be combined are practically infinite. It takes time to set up one sort of pattern, read it against another, imagine it differently, estimate how a viewer’s eye will move through the sequences or hesitate, and to decide…
In terms of its scale and composition, Wood’s work consistently draws on architectural references, suggests a model. But it is just as consistent in its gestural quality, its sense of invention, and a drawing-like resistance to “finish”. Stretching out over weeks or months, work on any given piece sometimes flows smoothly, sometimes encounters obstacles, conundrums or dead ends. But there is a point when a new association, a discovery comes into view, when the elements reach a state of plausible equilibrium. At such a moment, the work suggests a flow, without sharp edges or definite conclusions, but with a coherent scale and shape and rhythm.
Wake has much in common with the work that preceded it and that is currently in progress — the relationship to architecture, the construction of a whole from small elements, the resonance with drawing, that is, to a kind of modelling that is closer to a suggestion or projection than to any definite plan. But there is no simple order linking one work to the next. Rather each work finds a position with respect to three strong forces: building, remembering, and projecting. At one level, these forces seem completely irreconcilable: building is an activity, remembering or projecting usually a pause in such activity; building engages physical material and real space and time, remembering and projecting can move freely in time and space; remembering looks back, projecting looks forward, and building must be, uncompromisingly, in the present. And yet there is something about saying these things in words that makes the contradictions harsher than they necessarily are in experience. Remembering occurs in the present, building demands some level of projection. The point, in any case, is to get past overt opposition toward some level of accord or symbiosis or balance, toward the fragile integration that transforms conflict into creative energy, impasse into possibility.
If Wake proposes a narrative structure tying building to remembering to projecting, for example, an earlier work such as Interferences proposes a model of memory with spatial dimensions, a way memory could look. Interferences contains some 60-70 very small, architectural fragments—all crafted in aluminium, all seeming to once have been parts of something—perhaps of a town, a community—actual or imagined or remembered. Once they “worked” together in established relationships; now they are in disarray, their relationships to one another no longer established in space and time, no longer recognizable, or even extending beyond the cage-like enclosure that holds them. They are attractive, puzzling, full of promise—and for the moment at least, almost completely inaccessible.
The works with architectural titles, such as Canopies or Pavilions, approach the constellation building-remembering-projecting from yet another angle, tending to start from the functions served by such buildings. A canopy can be protective or celebratory or simply at the top of other related structures (as a forest canopy). A pavilion may be a freestanding form related to another, larger structure, or a part of a larger building— either way, the name refers to a comparatively open structure usually associated with a space for relaxation, recreation. The names point to particular associations, to play as opposed to seriousness, perhaps, or openness as opposed to control, or experiment as opposed to tradition, and the work draws on the associations. It works through oppositions by means of architectural forms, drawing on metaphors of weight and stress, visibility and concealment, accessibility and inaccessibility, among others.
The series Building a Drawing carries its own central oppositions in its title, We take “building” to be a project in three-dimensions, and “drawing” to be a project in two-dimensions, and the relationship between them to be far from simple. The works in this series involve a “found” drawing, something that is there before the building work begins. In the context of Wood’s work as a whole, this two dimensional starting-point suggests memory. It leaves the field for projection particularly open, then, for the work would be to develop a whole new dimension—literally and figuratively. And it does. And yet in course of actually building, it also becomes clear that projection will never be “pure,” that it is always subject to material limits, always constrained by memory.
The recent work entitled Points of Departure underscores the provisional, or perhaps cyclical form of the work as a whole. It reveals a kind of reciprocity, or mutual energizing of the three main forces that interact in this work. After considerable effort, that is, one may arrive at a point or points of balance and accord—say, a balance between remembering and projecting. In continuing to build, however, the balance lost, and will need to be found again, for the tensions were only ever suspended, never completely resolved. The endpoints of one project eventually move out of equilibrium and off in a new direction. They become points of departure.
In his book The Wake Of Imagination, the philosopher Richard Kearny contends that narratives — and by “narrative” he understands a wide range of cultural phenomena, including concepts — can and do have palpable effects in the world. Specifically he sees works of narrative imagination as having the capacity to heal, to help individuals or even nations live through painful, repressed conflict (“Narrative Imagination and Catharsis”). In the book, Kearny integrates the idea into a broader historical framework, addressing a widespread fear that imagination — the kind of narrative imagination behind the most powerful, durable works of art in Western culture, is presently under threat. A contemporary artist, he suggests, has lost the secure identity once provided by of a narrative shared between artist and audience, a loss that radically changes his circumstances.
The artist becomes a ‘player’ in a game of signs, an ‘operator’ in an electronic media
Kearny is not implying that narrative imagination is some timeless positive value that should simply be restored. Quite the contrary, he takes it to be an integral feature of a modern culture we know to be violent and unjust, leaving untold damage and unresolved conflict behind. Echoing the view of the well-known theorist of postmodernism Jean-Francois Lyotard, he suggests that the work of a contemporary artist lies not in avoiding or denying the past, but in
an attempt to rework the unconscious legacy of modernity by working it through (durcharbeiten) in a radical fashion, exposing and re- examining its unacknowledged assumptions, confronting the crisis of its ending (The Wake of Imagination, p. 21)
Wood’s work can readily be seen in terms of such a reworking. By resisting completion, for example, it tacitly raises a question about exactly how “completion,” fixity, durability came to have such a high value in the first place. By straddling familiar categories, e.g. drawing and architecture, two- and three-dimensions, models and inventions, “real” buildings and sheer fiction, the work gently undermines the authority of the categories themselves. By sometimes explicitly employing archaic architectural ideals and procedures, Wood challenges — without necessarily rejecting — the characteristically modern demand that artists should “make it new”. And by insisting on narrative movement, flow, change within a still structure, this work raises questions about its own position in traditional history, about whether we can still think productively in terms of a chain of events linking past to future at all. This work resists cause-and-effect logic, the linear links of traditional history. Its narratives have gaps, and aren’t necessarily logical. By looking again, remembering imaginatively, projecting reflectively, it proposes another kind of story.