The Presence of Place: Margaret Roberts’ Store_blp
Articulate, Parramatta Rd, Sydney, Australia, 29 April-15May 2022
You walk into the long white gallery of Articulate project space in Sydney and see primary coloured objects placed on the floor: circles, triangles, rectangles, in a large oblong/lozenge-like shape. This arrangement in red, yellow, black and white is aesthetically compelling, though perhaps puzzling.
Margaret Roberts Store_blp 2022 Photo Silversalt Photography
Margaret Roberts, the artist, calls this installation store_blp in reference to the enigmatic oblong shape, with the equally puzzling name, created by artist Richard Artschwager in the late 1960’s. His objects were designed to draw attention to ‘here’, to help us notice where we are. Unlike Artschwager’s blps, Roberts’ installation is a large floor assembly composed of multiple objects - more of these enigmatic objects later.
As one looks, and you do have to stay with this work, indeed part of its point is that one stay in one place, one wavers between noticing the objects that make up the shape and the larger shape itself. The objects that make up the blp are detritus, left-overs, at least at this moment and as part of this installation, for they are her former installations after being uninstalled, and packed into neat, manageable shapes for storage in her studio at Articulate, the ‘store’ of the title. In that sense the objects, like actors, are resting, having no meaningful part to play at the moment and making no symbolic sense in and of themselves. On the other hand one notices that non-referential as each shape may be, they nevertheless form a coherent shape with clear boundaries- this blp. To those familiar with the history of twentieth century art, the work has clear references to specific genealogies, most obviously, of course, to Artschwager himself, but also to constructivism. While the work can be appreciated without unpacking its complexity and history these encoded elements deserve investigation, for store_blp is an object that, along with its clear geometry and coloration, contains multiple histories and memories, practices and theories.
Margaret Roberts Store_blp 2022 Photo Silversalt Photography
The work is, in Margaret Roberts’ own words ‘a site-specific installation… made to ponder on what relationships site specific artworks could have with the live site while the artworks of which they are composed are dormant.’ (Roberts, catalogue, Articulate project space: 2022) Her statement draws attention to the two foundational elements of all site-specific installation. At its most minimal an installation has an inside and an outside, and there is a relationship between those two basic elements. That relationship between the interior and the space outside, basic and obvious as it may seem, has been central in the recasting of sculpture in the twentieth century. Crucial to the development of site-specific installation has been a redefinition of the relationship an artwork has to the space, place and site that it is in.
In the case of store_blp the installation is in a white gallery space located on a particularly blighted part of Parramatta Rd, part of one of the longest, oldest and ugliest thoroughfares in Australia. Its ugliness is renowned and lamented as generations of governments promise, and fail, to improve the streetscape. This is a part of the world that one hurries through in order to get somewhere else. Parramatta Road is what anthropologist Marc Auge calls a non-place (2009), and not a glamorous one at that. Of course, no place is actually a non-place, as Roberts’ work is designed to point out. All spaces are places of history and occupancy however much acts of erasure and dispossession have done their work. While Articulate project space may conform to a modernist gallery aesthetic through its white walls, it is, as an artist-run institution, a community of hard working artists who have managed to organise, work and exhibit in the space for 12 years, no mean feat in a city that has seen galleries, studios and exhibition spaces decline at a drastic rate. Parramatta Road, dreary and ravaged as it may be, also has a significant history. It is on aboriginal land that was inhabited by communities with complex ecological and culture systems. It was one of the first roads in the new colony linking settlers to aboriginal communities further west, forming the destiny of a nation. Even now people live and work on Parramatta Rd, so it is not quite the soulless non-space it appears to be.
At first site Roberts’ installation seems to be contradictory. Site-specific installation developed in the 1960’s in order to escape the powerful aesthetic of the white cube gallery and the clutches of the commercial art world. Such practices pointed out that places and objects that we do not think of as ‘art’ may be worthy of our attention. Artschwager’s blps were part of this move. Their placement, in subway corridors, exhibitions, here, there and anywhere, suggested that we pay attention to where we are, emphasizing place and our presence there. According to Lucy Lippard during this period the art object disappeared as artists shaped parts of the desert (Smithson), suggested walks though the landscape (Long), placed dirt in a gallery (de la Maria), and made their body part of a landscape (Mendieta). (Lippard , 1973) This history raises the intriguing question, which this essay will try to address, of why Roberts, a well-informed practitioner of site specificity, places her installation in its apparently most unfriendly space, an art gallery. Her point by this placement is that a gallery is both itself a place with its own history and, in turn, embedded in other places, Parramatta Rd, Sydney, Australia, earth, all of which have their own distinct histories. Thus place is a complex phenomena both multiple and unitary.
Site specificity came to embody the idea that installation would be composed of objects that were ’not art’: everyday objects, bodies, rubbish, construction materials, or dirt, that most ubiquitous of non-art materials. But Roberts’ work is itself composed of parts of her former installations, which she calls dormant, that have been neatly packaged, stacked and stored in her studio. This is another complex move for a site-specific installation. Although the materials that compose store_blp are everyday- cardboard, felt, plastic - they have previously been transformed into art, only to be taken apart again and reconfigured here, emphasizing the mutable nature of the art object.
Place, Site, Blp
The complexity of store_blp is no accident. The work intends to both excavate and critique recent debates about site-specific installation and place. It also connects to a broader history of practices in the twentieth century than is usually associated with site-specific installation and, most ambitiously, it expands and clarifies our idea of what site specificity is. If some critics of site-specific installation, such as the influential Miwon Kwon and other members of the October group are to be believed, installations such as Roberts’ shouldn’t be practiced, or at least are not worth practicing, at all. This sounding of the death knell is not the first time a particular art practice has been banished-we have all heard of the death of painting too many times to take it seriously-but this particular banishment by influential critics is not simply some arcane art debate. Rather it rests on a very specific view of the contemporary world, and the stakes are one’s notion of how power and place work in that world. This banishment of site-specific installation was decreed by the theorist Miwon Kwon in One Place After Another (2002). Although a complex argument, Kwon’s over-all point is blunt. Site specificity that uses the phenomenological site (the physical, corporeal space) is no longer relevant, and she defines a site to include ‘sites’ that are not necessarily physical places, for example, a discipline of study. She suggests that because contemporary life is not a network of discrete, distinct places with fixed identities but rather a ‘network of unanchored flows’ site specificity based in the physical space is an exhausted practice. She maintains that: ‘It seems historically inevitable that we will leave behind the nostalgic notion of a site and identity as essentially bound to the physical actualities of a place.’ (Kwon 2002:164) Roberts maintains, on the contrary, that recognition of the presence of place is more important than ever. This insistence on the importance of the phenomenological place represents a resistance to the tendency toward the erasure of attachment to place that is so useful in capitalism and colonialism. Contemporary life is only a network of unanchored flows to those who have the means and freedom to move around this flow. It is certainly not a network of unanchored flows to the have-nots or to those who have been disenfranchised. One must be in a very elite structural position to see life as an unanchored flow. And it certainly doesn’t take into account the nexus of identity and place for indigenous peoples.
Store-blp embodies Roberts’ critique of this strand of thought that would banish the value of place and, with it, site-specific installation. However a practice such as Roberts, anchored as it is in the history of constructivism, minimalism and installation, is not going to answer Kwon’s dismissal with a simple resort to sanctifying place as an unchanging, stable locus either. Rather Store_blp is Roberts’ suggestion about how we might give a complex conceptualization and embodiment to a notion of site and place now. A place is both fixed and mutable, phenomenological and metaphysical. It is not an either/or, as Kwon’s work would have it. A place can have a specific identity, as Articulate does, and at the same time contain multiple memories, identities and histories. This work, though specifically located on Parramatta Rd in Sydney contains, literally and figuratively, references to a far-flung lineage of artists that the artist’s work has explored for the last twenty years, forerunners that have inspired her own work. Most obviously store_blp is a homage to Richard Artschwager’s original blp. These objects, deliberately identified by his own neologism, are not easily defined (the description, “if you sliced a knockwurst longitudinally, that would give you a blp,” is his own attempt) but made unexpected appearances. They were placed anywhere Artschwager thought the gaze should meet and question. Blp’s could be made of spray paint, wood, hair or felt, and could be different sizes. They seemed to be asking, somewhat playfully, teasingly, in typical Artschwager fashion: Where am? What is this place, this space? Is this something or nothing? Am I somewhere or nowhere? Does this have a meaning or is it meaningless? They suggest that perhaps this place that I pay no attention to, these subway steps for example, are actually a place - or maybe not? His blp’s were designed not to answer questions but to draw attention, using a very minimal technique, to the question: Where are you?
Memory, Time, History
Roberts’ large composite blp is, like the work of Artschwager, also asking you to give your attention to the questions: Where are you and what is this place? However Roberts’ work is not simply an imitation writ large of Artschwager’s but also a summation of her own practice and an interrogation, again in a playful way, of if, and how, the objects in this installation ‘fit’ together in this place. What do we do with our dormant, sleeping artworks? Store_ blp is a way of resurrecting her dead works, of resurrecting them in another form, a form that will alert the viewer to both where they are now - an installation in a specific location with a particular identity, but also suggest that this identity is also fluid. This exploration of the complexity of object and site is done through the works of which the blp is composed.
Store blp’s spatial order is dictated by the sequence of years in which the work was installed, from 2012 to the present. What is left from each installation has been packaged into precise geometric packages, red plastic circles, black rectangles etc., which form the blp. Each of these former installations was also about a particular work of an artist in a twentieth century lineage: the brilliant Polish artists, Katarzyna Kobro, Wladislaw Stryzeminski and Sophie Taeuber, among others. Roberts’ blp, unlike Artschwager’s, unrolls a particular lineage of practices that pointed toward issues raised later in the century by site-specific installation. Roberts composite store_blp, is thus an embodiment of her own practice and that of these other forerunners, both literally in that the materials that compose the blp are the leftovers of her own works, and genealogically.
Although Roberts' visual language is rigorously minimalist, this austerity is combined with a poetic sense of loss, and a desire to make present dormant, neglected and incomplete practices of the artists in this lineage, a way, according to Roberts, of having a conversation with these artists across time, and of recognising their ways of promoting the value of place and the phenomenological site. The installations in store_blp were often attempts to make present incomplete and unfulfilled visions of her artistic genealogy. The circumstances of these artists’ lives prevented many of their remarkable visions and plans from being realized or widely known. Kobro and Strzeminski were a couple, part of the dazzling Russian avant-garde after the October Revolution. They located themselves in Poland in the interwar period and produced brilliant theoretical and artistic work, as well as teaching and organizing art institutions. Tragically they were caught up in the Polish nightmare of World War 11. Much of Kobro’s work was confiscated by the Nazis and disappeared. They, and their child, almost starved during the war and Kobro’s energy was taken up with basic survival. After the war both artists became victims of the Stalinist suppression of the avant-garde and prevented from functioning as artists at all. Kobro produced no known work between the onset of World War 11 and her death from cancer in 1953. Sophie Taeuber, Swiss born, was one of the central figures in Dada. She worked in many mediums, but died in an accident at the age 54 in 1943. After the war her dazzling work was eclipsed, until recently, by the fame of her well-known husband, sculptor Jean Arp.
Margaret Roberts Sophie dances 2020, Photo Sue Blackburn
While there is not space here for a detailed examination of Roberts’ many works about Kobro, Strzeminski and Taeuber, a brief look at one may demonstrate how she seeks to make present, in a transformed way, the work of these artists, in her unusual combination of the minimal and the poetic. Her installation of 2020 is entitled Sophie dances (see image) and is a homage to one of Sophie Taeuber’s drawings, which was a plan for a larger wall work for a building interior in Strasbourg in the late 1920s which was at one point a dance hall. Taeuber’s drawing is complete in itself, but it was intended as a plan, and this plan, like Taeuber’s life, was cut short. According to Roberts: ‘Sophie dances brings it [the plan drawing] one step closer to realisation by drawing it in yarn at life-size scale—on a wall that is approximately the same size as the wall that the plan was made for—while still leaving the plan unfinished. It is called Sophie dances because so many of [Taeuber’s] works seem to be derived from her early dance training, and once made, this wall-drawing seemed to use the wall like I thought a dancer might use the floor.’ (Margaret Roberts website accessed 01.07.22) In similar fashion Roberts has devoted much of her practice, for example, Occupy Kobro (2013), Waiting for Sophie (2018) and Night (2021), to create open-ended realizations of the works of these artists. As Roberts suggests ‘The works are kept open to keep them alive.’ And speaking of Waiting for Sophie she adds : ‘This work is part of a larger project in which historic works are stepped back from completion by being converted into drawings or other incomplete forms, hoping to confuse past and future, art and life…’ . (Ibid) Roberts’ work summons presence in a transformed way. One can’t bring the dead back to life but one can, through conversation, summon their memory and their work in its splendid, always incomplete form.
Augé, Marc. Non-Places. 2nd English language ed., Verso, 2008.
Kwon, Miwon. One Place after Another?: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity. MIT Press, 2002.
Lippard, Lucy R. Six Years?: the Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 ... Studio Vista, 1973.
Roberts. Margaret. Catalogue. Store_Blp. Articulate project space 497 Parramatta Rd. Leichhardt 2040 Australia. April29-15 May2022.
Store__Blp. Margaret Roberts, Articulate project space.497 Parramatta Rd. Leichhardt 2040 Australia. April 29 -15 May2022. Photos Silversalt Photography
Sophie dances. Margaret Roberts. 2020 (yarn on wall) is shown in Frolic Freeze. Photo Sue Blackburn
Store_Blp was supported by funding from the National Art School