There is no way around just through
Robbie Rowlands’ practice is informed by acts of intervention. The artist cuts, slices and peels apart interior architectures and material objects to expose the fragility of their construction. Working site specifically, Rowlands reveals the complex histories embedded within abandoned buildings and utilitarian forms. In opening up what seems impenetrable and inaccessible he challenges conventional readings of space and our emotional relationship to material surroundings. Rowlands explores the language of material things by calling attention to the presence they occupy in our lives. He surveys the often perplexing ways in which human presence can linger in diverse materialities and how these traces of the past affect us.
There is no way around just through, Rowlands’ latest exhibition, offers a more intimate contemplation than previous projects. This shift inward is perhaps precipitated by prolonged restrictions experienced by Rowlands as a result of the pandemic. The exhibition explores a collection of domestic and industrial objects as sites for intervention. Material remnants of what Rowlands terms ‘sectional cuts’ are displayed alongside a series of photographs that reveal the object site they have been removed from. Appearing as splinters of timber and tarnished steel, Rowlands’ sculptural forms invite the viewer to move around the gallery to encounter photographs of these original sites — a wardrobe, toolbox and industrial locker. In meeting these documentations, the viewer is confronted with both the protrusion and cavity of each subject.
In response to the confines of the gallery space, the photographic documentations serve as portals through which larger abstractions can be experienced. This expands the possibilities of access to offer a disorientating separation between the sectional cuts and the objects of their extraction. The photographs encourage viewers to gradually form connections between the sculptural segments and the objects from which they have been removed. Each presented in their detached state, the splinter and whole object retain a shared language that can be understood beyond their separation. Rowlands is interested in how we read these materialities both independently of each other and in their perceived togetherness.
Rowlands’ process of material disassembly reveals the inaudible language of objects. In his essay On Language as Such and on the Language of Man, Walter Benjamin explainsthat “there is no event or thing in either animate or inanimate nature that does not in someway partake of language, for it is in the nature of each one to communicate its mental contents”. Benjamin proposed that objects communicate the mental being of those who experience them and that it is through this language that their latent meanings are conveyed.He identified the ability of objects to assume memory and meaning. It is through this imbued language that Rowlands’ material interventions highlight the ways in which we are intimately connected to the spaces in which we operate and the objects that inform them.
In fabricating the work Just holding, Rowlands describes the process of cutting a large horizontal line into an old wardrobe and being astonished by the perfumed scents that emerged. Over time, a collection of smells had accumulated in the timber from previous owners and the belongings they chose to store. In cutting into this object, Rowlands has retired the wardrobe of its function. The severed structure, holding itself in a vulnerable state, now stands in memoriam to its former life. It speaks of domesticity and our tendency to care for treasured things. The acute slice extracted from the wardrobe, on the other hand, reads through materiality alone. Embellished with a decorative brass handle, the sectional cut offers a residual memory of the movements enacted by the body to function the wardrobe. The work brings attention to the physical and psychological relationship that we hold to domestic objects.
Feeling so removed continues Rowlands’ exploration into sites of storage as intimate and informative spaces. Sharp and structured, the work appears to slice across the gallery wall. The steel shard has been extracted from an industrial locker which features in a photograph on the opposing wall. Much like the sectioned wardrobe in Just holding, the locker remnant invites the viewer to imagine what possessions it once held and the events it may have witnessed. The title of the work refers to the gradual distance that often forms between ourselves and the experiences of our past. The precise dissection of the industrial locker can be understood as an analogy for the fragmentation of our bygone memories.
For Rowlands, understanding the language of these objects serves to reconnect and make amends with the experiences of his past. In Reparation for example, the powder blue and rust stained toolbox pays homage to a gift both he and his brother received from their father during their youth. Like father and son, the now divided parts of the object form a part of one another. Rowlands describes the cold steel toolbox as a symbol of empty gestures and absent figures - an object that held great promise but never much use. He considers what can be understood about his father through this object. As Benjamin suggests, the language of an inanimate thing is the medium through which one's mental being is communicated. In acknowledging his own set of material associations and memories, Rowlands is able to confront aspects of his past.
The title of Rowlands’ exhibition There is no way around just through implies a passage through which to move. In cutting a path through the exterior thresholds of material objects, Rowlands promotes a cathartic movement through the many evocations we experience in reengaging with the past. The exhibition disrupts our perception of material things as complete forms to reveal the unexpected spaces in which our thoughts occupy. These bodies of loss hold a relationship to our own bodies as sites of memory and emotional residue. They reveal the ability of objects to communicate with our innermost beings.
Nikki van der Horst
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Eden and the Willow Team
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