Building, Remembering, Projecting
Wake, like much of Wood’s work, is a fixed structure that resembles an architectural model in some respects. Still, 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 a 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 medianetwork. He experiences himself afloat in an anonymous interplay of images which he can, at best, parody, simulate or reproduce. Like a character in a Pynchon novel or Wenders film, the postmodern artist wanders about in a labyrinth of commodified light and noise, endeavouring to piece together bits of dispersed narrative (The Wake Of Imagination, p. 13) 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.
Written by Nancy Roth, Lecturer in Art and Cultural Studies at Falmouth College of Art, (Falmouth University)
Past and Present
Robert Wood’s BAMS medal commission, Past and Present:
The two sides of the medal are magnets. Drawing metaphorically on the principle of a computer hard drive, they represent memory as infinitely changeable variations in a magnetic field. The attraction between the two sides is strong enough to hold small fragments of “memory” in place. Shaped like fragments of architectural ornament or details of a textile design, the detachable elements suggest images drawn in at the edges of awareness, perhaps in moments of reverie or distraction. They may have become memories serendipitously, rather than through deliberate purpose. In any case they now have taken on shape, substance, durability. The relationships among them, however, have not. With a decision and a little energy, it is possible to separate the sides, change the composition, reconfigure the fragments, reshape the whole. Of course such work is to be undertaken with sensitivity to aesthetic values as well as to structural needs of an object in relation to its environment. To insist on using all the steel elements at once, for example, will make the composition look cluttered and inaccessible. Rather there are decisions to be made and remade.
The overall shape and visual appearance of the medal will be substantially affected by which elements are included or left out at any given moment, for example. There are further decisions concerning a balance, or symmetry between those placed inside and outside, about angles, shapes, rhythms in the visual relationships. The aesthetics of the text, its legibility and relative prominence, need consideration as well. ‘This kind of “memory work” should be done often, for the medal will respond to such attention. With frequent handling, the patina will become smoother and more reflective in comparison with the lowered surface that bears the text, bringing the two surfaces into sharper contrast. The text, that is, will appear more crisp and prominent. Taken from Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, the words divide into two nearly equal parts. The first mourns the irretrievable loss of one single, continuous past, its dissolution into fragments. The second celebrates the promise of rejoining the fragments in infinitely many possible ways.
Written by Nancy Roth, Lecturer in Art and Cultural Studies at Falmouth College of Art, (Falmouth University)
The British Art Medal Society (BAMS) has commissioned medals from many distinguished contemporary sculptors, including Lynn Chadwick, Nigel Hall, John Maine, Paul Neagu and Michael Sandle, the cartoonist Ronald Searle and the artist, poet, and gardener Ian Hamilton Finlay.
Acts of Rediscovery: Robert Wood’s Metaphors for Remembering
When Robert Wood began to make medals in 1996, he was working on a sculptural installation entitled Acts of Folly (see above). The work consists of many-potentially an infinite number–of self-sufficient sculptures, all in aluminium, all on the same scale, all positioned on a single horizontal surface. There is a point of greatest density on one side, a point from which all other distances and directions draw meaning–rather like the place where the keyboard sits on a busy writer’s table. And, like characters or episodes of a script, the small sculptures suggest specific places and events, as if the fluid comings and goings of life were momentarily fixed, transformed, perhaps, into a text.
The “folly” of the title is to be understood first in its architectural sense. A term that traces back to the intertwined building and social practices of eighteenth-century Europe, a “folly” is a building without a practical purpose. Better, its purpose is to reflect on building: posts and lintels don’t necessarily have to support anything, stairs and corridors needn’t lead anywhere. In short, the need not be functional, only meaningful. Like some contemporary architects, Wood adopts the idea of a folly as a means of remembering spaces and thinking about them, for representing the way space becomes meaningful. Radically reduced in scale, monochrome, all made of the same aluminium in the same thickness, the small sculptures that comprise the installation will not be confused with actual buildings. Nor can the whole configuration of their relationships be taken for any possible town or city, any more than the uniform pages of a script could be confused with a “real” conversation. Acts of Folly rather constitutes a field of memory, analysis, representation. It is more particularly a record of how space must always mean in a particular way, for a particular person, in a unique time and place.
In its relationship to usable architecture, Wood’s installation work resembles such projects as Bernard Tschumi’s Pare de la Villette in Paris, or Siah Armajani’s long series of museum works, Dictionary for Building. Those who speak from a historical perspective call such projects “postmodern”; those drawing an analogy between architecture and written texts speak of “deconstruction.” And in a workaday world that prizes a narrowly defined efficiency and good value for money in architecture as in much else, such efforts are sometimes dismissed as “folly” of an altogether different sort: something ill-advised, useless or wasteful.
For some, of course, it is folly in this sense–imprudent, unwise–to be an artist at all, and most particularly the kind of artist whose working process is modeled here, a relentless processing of life experience into forms, an obsessive accumulating of those forms on a metaphorical “table.” For if the small, separate elements of this installation are about spaces and structure, the order of the whole is about a way of living, a continual circulation of materials and meanings. The metaphor of the writer’s table gives this circulation a helpful explicitness. At its broadest level, Acts of Folly is a deeply impractical, rash attempt of use real stuff-hard and shiny and durable metal to represent the most fragile of perceptual transformations. It asks a fixed organisation of objects to refer to something that never even briefly ceases to change. It attempts, in a word, to expose the paradoxical foundations of representation itself-impossible, supreme and splendid act of folly.
Wood’s first medal, entitled November, clearly shares much with Acts of Folly in terms of material and prevailing concerns with memory. Yet it also represents the resolutions of several new issues that arose with the prospect of working on a far more intimate scale and in a very particular tradition. Completed in 1996, November consists of 37 pieces of aluminium. Four are thin disk-shaped wafers, etched or cut with diverse forms of information a poem, some tide tables, a labyrinth, an abstract representation of ripples. The other 33 pieces are cut, rolled, twisted and cast. They vary in size, but all are well within the boundaries of what can be held in the palm of one’s hand. When the work is not in use, all the pieces fit comfortably into a covered tin.
November perhaps makes explicit what has tended to be implicit in the discourse that surrounds medal making, namely that a medal may be defined by what it does, rather than what it is. For Wood, this insight represented the resolution of a problem: finding himself unable to work in conventional media associated with medals, or to think in terms of a single object, he quite deliberately began to recall his own past associations with medals. One particular memory proved helpful: as a young child he had sometimes played with a box of service medals that had been awarded to his father and grandfather. Through repetition, the playing took on the quality of a ritual, a kind of open structuring of associations through which a mental “picture ” of these crucial–though absent–figures could form.
The idea of using one of Wood’s medals is, in any case, to be understood quite literally. It means unpacking the pieces, sorting, choosing, manipulating and juxtaposing the them, making associations with what is there, making decisions about what is not the indeterminate spaces, the ways it all could go together. What is there includes the poetry etched on one of the aluminium discs, an excerpt from Robert Bridges’s The Testament of Beauty, 1929:
‘How was November’s melancholy endear’d to me / In the effigy of plowteams following and recrossing / patiently the delicat[e] landscape from dawn to dusk, / as the slow-creeping ripple of their single furrow / submerged the sodden litter of summer’s festival!’
The text weaves details together: the title November, the abstract rendering of ripples on one of the disks, the judgement of “litter” quickly passed on so many small, not-quite-identifiable objects. Just to read the poem takes more time than might be expected, for it must be read in ever decreasing circles, on a reflective surface. Gradually, the details of one’s engagement with this medal begin to converge on an expansive image of passing time, change, loss, recognition. In its references to tides, ripples and labyrinthine spaces, in its implicit bid to be “used”–to repay an investment of time and attention the medal enacts, in its user, something like the poet’s slow paced endearment to cyclical change.
Wood made another medal In 1998, shortly after the installation piece Acts of Folly had been completed. Entitled Plan for a Seven Storey Folly, this probably represents the point of closest approach to the larger-scale sculpture, although it retains the medals’ characteristically intimate scale and infinite flexibility. ‘It’s a tower you make in your head,’ he commented, ‘Or it’s best in your head. It would never pass building control.’ In fact the seven aluminium disks that comprise the medal–convincing in isolation as floor plans–are hardly legible as stories of a single building. Rather than describing parts of a space, they seem to record of a sequence of thoughts about a single space–perhaps even about a single drawing of a space. When the medal is not in use, the disks fit into a purpose-built rack, in parallel-like volumes in an archive. As a folly, the work can afford to dispense with entrances and exits–windows and doors. This is an imaginary tower, or better, a record of thinking about such a tower. The absence of doors or windows will never actually inhibit flesh-and-blood users; it will signal them to remain either wholly inside, or wholly outside such a space.
Chronologically earlier than Plan, Wood’s second medal, Squaring the Circle of 1997 again takes the form of an enclosed box of parts. The subtitle, For My Brother, confirms that the work concerns relationships between people. In place of the clear architectural references that characterise much of Wood’s work, the dominant shapes in this medal are the squares, circles and arcs of basic geometry. The two flat pieces of aluminium that form the base of the piece are cut and incised with both straight and sinuous shapes, mixing references to topography and engineering in such a way as to loosely suggest a journey. The two main parts of the medal are identical in form and designed to ‘sit’ and ‘stand’ at right angles to one another. Each consists of a square frame mounted between two rings of flat metal. The frames are, in turn, divided twice more by cross-pieces, yielding three equal parts along with the impression of a sturdy, well-braced structure. Both the title and the relationships between the square frames and the enclosing rings recall the medieval geometric conundrum-inherited from the Classical world-of how to ‘square the circle.’ that is, how to divide a circle’s perimeter into the four equal sides of a square, or conversely, to find the radius of a circle with the same perimeter as a given square. In time the problem came to stand for the unattainable resolution of philosophical opposites, or intellectual impossibility as such.
Still, the medal does represent resolutions. They are necessarily approximate, provisional: the circle still not be “squared” geometrically, as the ancient philosophers would require. But the medal is not a work of philosophy. Rather it exists as most of us do in actual material and three-dimensional space. As the ancient thinkers knew well enough, these conditions are inconsistent with philosophical perfection. Moving about in space, maintaining relationships, adapting, learning, changing in a word, actual living requires a willingness to act in the absence of certainty, on the basis of approximations, estimates. Woven through the open structure of the work is a text that sounds, despite its very careful formulation, thoroughly exasperated with the ideal of other-worldly contemplation endorsed by philosophy. An excerpt from Goethe’s Essays: Conversations with Voss 1805, it sweepingly rejects the opposition said to exist between inner and outer experience. Confident of a real unity between things said to be irreconcilable, it sets the ‘squaring of the circle’ firmly in the realm of human psychology:
‘From early on I have suspected that the so important–sounding task, “Know thyself’ is a ruse of a cabal of priests. They are trying to seduce man from activity in the outside world, to distract him with impossible demands; they seek to draw him into a false inner contemplation. Man only knows himself insofar as he knows the world–the world which he only comes to know in himself and himself only in it.’ (Goethe).
Dispersed in fragments on the edges and cross-pieces of the medal, the text requires as does the text in November some effort to read. It takes some time, that is, to notice how the medal’s apparent oppositions at length dissolve into the image of an elegant, complex circuit.
Overlapping and intersecting with work on Squaring the Circle, the large sculpture Constructs retreats from any reference to psychology or personal relationships, and returns to architectural references as a means of representing space and memory. Like Acts of
Folly, it is constructed on a flat surface at table height. At first glance it appears to be a model of many buildings–modernist buildings, radically reduced in scale. Rendered in a single material aluminium–the models are arranged in the shape of a stadium, the space of a spectacle, surrounded by spaces for someone to sit. And yet this is not a model of a real stadium, a “real” museum of architecture. Scale, for one thing, is wildly variable, inconsistent from one part to the next, and from any part to the whole. In fact there are no reliable references to buildings at all, only suggestions of buildings rhythms or proportions suggested in aluminium. Nor does the space refer to anything outside itself. It is as though these buildings had been filed in an archive, rather than sited for use. Rather than systematically coding architectural space, Acts of Folly envisions something like a thin “slice” of time, a split second of architectural memory excised from the flux of time and made durable. It encircles this modernist memory with many places to sit, to celebrate or criticise, retrieve or reject. And it allows for an imagined self to enter, to sit, watch, even as it is being watched.
In becoming memory, in edging close to one another and becoming comparable, the spectacle of modernist architecture has lost substance, site and particularity. The buildings have become light and empty–the merest skins identifiable by an ephemeral rhythm, proportion or texture. What most of us can hold in memory, after all, is only such pieces–impressions. What an archive can store is not a building, but a photograph or a drawing or a written description.
Wood’s work explicitly draws attention to the kind of transformations memory demands, the shaving off of an aspect suitable for filing. Perhaps most strikingly, the diverse materials of actual buildings steel and stone, glass and wood–must be rendered in a single substance and organised on a single surface. Scale, location, colour and context abruptly become illegible–or more exactly, they begin to relate to the needs of storage to comparability and economy, rather than to the functions of the referent building. No doubt the most familiar model here is the photographic archive. But the principle is the same for drawings, models, simulations, arguably even for storage in organic form–synaptic pathways. Of course no one actually remembers in aluminium. But exactly the seeming arbitrariness of the choice as a storage medium, its distance from the expected materials of architectural records, aluminium forms a striking metaphorical relationship to memory. It is extremely light and strong. It comes in a standard weights and sizes, and infinite quantities. It’s not so easily manipulated. Its surface reflectivity sometimes
makes the edges of things ambiguous, allows one surface to read into the next, to potentially merge and split and reappear in another order.
Around the “core” memory–the bank or battery of facades and frames, are fragments of sharply raked, empty seating. On the ground beyond these, large, flat fragments of an aluminium surface trace out the shape of a stadium. Memory, then, reads as a kind of spectacle attended by no one–or rather by exactly one, the one watching now. In principle, anyone gain access to the archive. The seating is open. There is no right spot, no preferred view or privileged access. The price of admission, however, is the loss of specificity, the reduction of sensual experience, accident, flux, risk, surprise.
In Muddle Medal of 1999, Wood began to use magnets for the first time, engaging more closely than before with the model of computer memory. The very small pieces that belong to the work, this time in steel, recall extremely diverse memories, fragments of patterns and signs imperfectly remembered, torn from context. One reproduces a pattern from an Indian scarf, another a ceiling cornice drawing of a “Greek” Thompson design, another the alchemical symbol for ‘forgotten process.’ Yet another recalls part of a drawing for a Victorian vase. They seem like images drawn in at the edges of awareness, perhaps in moments of reverie or distraction, remembered serendipitously, rather than through deliberate purpose. They now have taken on shape, substance, durability. The relationships among them, however, have not. Rather there are decisions to be made and remade. Decisions about which elements to include or leave out at any given moment will affect the overall shape and visual appearance of the medal substantially. There are further decisions concerning a balance, about angles, shapes, rhythms in the visual relationships. The text is slight in this case–only a punning on “medal”: “meddle” on one side; “muddle” on the other. The logic unfolds from the user’s experience of the medal. A distracted user, faced with a surfeit of possibilities, can easily be tempted to select too many, inevitably resulting in a muddle; it is equally possible, on the other hand, to “meddle,” to pay too much attention, try too hard to control the result.
In Wood’s most recent medal, Past and Present, the metaphor of a magnetic field has moved to the literal centre of the work, providing the structural link between the two steel disks, and with them two parts of the crucial text. Drawn from Marcel Proust’s from Le Temps Retrouve, 1926, pt. 3, this text initially mourns loss of a past moment, then moves on to celebrate the possibility of its recovery:
[obverse] ‘ If owing to the work of oblivion, the returning memory can throw no bridge, form no connecting link between itself and the present minute, if it remains in the context of its own place and date, if it keeps its distance, its isolation in the hollow of a valley or upon the highest peak of a mountain summit, for this very reason it causes us suddenly to…
[reverse] breathe a new air, an air which is new precisely because we have breathed it in the past, that purer air which the poets have vainly tried to situate in paradise and which could induce so profound a sensation of renewal only if it had been breathed before, since the true paradises are the paradises that we have lost.’
The magnetic attraction between the two sides is strong enough to hold small steel fragments in place. As in the earlier Muddle Medal, the small pieces of Past and Present are shaped like fragments of architectural ornament or details of a textile design. Any given composition, then, is provisional, contingent on the conditions and sensibilities of a given user at a given moment, and available for reconsideration moments or years later. In fact the medal will respond positively to frequent use, the patina becoming worn in comparison with the lowered surface that bears the text, making the text appear more crisp and prominent.
Past and Present models memory as an activity, something that requires attention, decision and purposeful effort. Close to Proust’s verbal image, it renders the ordinary relationship between now and then as smooth and consistent attraction–a strong magnetic field. But the connection may be lost–the sides pried apart the structuring tension dissolved, leaving detached fragments to float without meaning, potential paradises awaiting the work of rediscovery.
Written by Nancy Roth, Lecturer in Art and Cultural Studies at Falmouth College of Art, (Falmouth University)