1993 PURL

Exhibition in the West Melbourne Primary School, Fifth Australian Sculpture Triennial, Melbourne.

PURL was a group show which I proposed in 1992 for the Fifth Australian Sculpture Triennial (FAST). My proposal was motivated by questions which had arisen as a result of my previous experience of curated group shows of site-specific work, where it had seemed to me that there were problems with the way my work related to the work of the other artists. The main problem seemed to be that participating artists, myself included, made little attempt to consider the connections between their own work and that of the other artists at the development stage. In order to work out this issue I wrote a paper which was circulated to a number of interested people. A summary was published in Artmaster . I argued that, because site-specific work becomes part of the site, either the curators need extraordinary predictive capacities, or each artist must understand on some level how the others are going to change the site, so that everyone's work incorporates the site despite the changes continually being made to it as the various works are installed in the show.

The questions then are: how can the artists in a group show know what the site is going to be, unless they know how the other artists are going to alter it? Given that often no one knows what their work is going to be until an advanced stage, and hence that they can't even tell the others what they are going to do, how can anyone know what the site is going to be until after everyone has installed their work? If curators could select the artists who will interact successfully, or double-guess what each artist will do and plan the exhibition backwards, then the issue would be resolved. However, unless the curator is something of a clairvoyant, they would seem to be the least well placed to solve this problem, because they have such a limited role in the actual production of the work. They can only expect certain things in the future given certain other things in the past, and stand back and hope.

I thought a more realistic solution might be to have the artists working in collaboration with each other, similar to the way they collaborate with the site. The artists could follow each others' developing ideas as their work develops, with the hope that this contact would also emerge in the work each produces. By 'collaboration', I do not necessarily mean the seamless sort where you can't tell whose work is whose. I mean collaboration in the sense that relationships and mutual recognition occur between the different and individual works, reflecting the relationships (ideally) that exist between the artists. In order for this solution to work, the artists would need to take a considerable degree of responsibility for the overall exhibition. They may also need to select each other, because collaboration depends on mutual understanding and commitment, and this is only possible with some people. In this process the artists would be taking over the curator's role to a considerable extent, and many artists are reluctant to do this It is almost as if, with structures as they are at the moment, the curator's presence works against this process of artists taking responsibility for this relationship. This is a pity because it is one that needs to be built into the development of the work.

Because of these issues, I have attempted to generate group shows of site-specific work to try to work them out. PURL was one of these. It was a show of work by Kate Brennan, Mikala Dwyer, Rebecca Turrell and myself .... In working towards this group exhibition, I hoped to work with other artists within a relationship where we were simultaneously together and separate. I would expect that this freedom in the relationship between the people, were it to be achieved, would also be reflected in the nature of the relationship between the works. In PURL, it is probably true to say that the major battle for each of us was to work out a way of asserting our own presence alongside the very strong presence of the school building. While some interaction between the works occurred at some points, this issue was secondary, relying as we could to some extent, on the commonality of the site as the bond between us.

My drawings in PURL came out of playing games with making a drawing of what you would see from certain positions if other objects were not blocking your view of it, and then seeing what that drawing looked like superimposed over the objects that block your view. On the first floor of the building, I drew the shape of the ground floor as it would look if it could be seen from that floor (e.g. Figure 8); in one room, I drew part of another room as it would look if seen from the room I was drawing in (e.g.Figure 14). The shapes were determined after a lesson in trigonometry given by Kate - in the case of the floor drawings, what can be measured is, firstly, the distance between the ground floor and eye height on a particular point on the first floor, and, secondly, the distance between that point on the ground floor and the edge of the ground floor against the wall. These two lines make a right angle. From these two measurements, a triangle can be drawn on graph paper between the point on the ground floor against the wall, and the eye of the viewer. The point where that third line of the triangle crosses the first floor, determines the outer edge of the drawing made on that floor. Thus the drawings present a known object (e.g. the shape of the ground floor), in order to see how that object could be recognised in a context in which it is not normally seen. In order for it to be recognised, one must use conscious mental processes to interpret what can't (in this instance) be perceived by the senses (because there is a floor blocking the view). Normally, the shape would be more easily interpreted by visual perception than by mental processes. Visual perception of three-dimensional objects involves being able to move around them and see them from many positions, thus very rapidly getting far more information about them than by thinking about them. But not only can you not get any more information from my drawing by moving around and viewing it from different angles, moving away from the set-up point destroys the only visual information you are given. The shape could only exist as that shape, and thus need to be interpreted, because you are physically present in a particular position. But any attempt to get extra information in the normal way abolishes the only source of information there is. These drawings are a kind of dada-game. The mind is handicapped by being given only one viewpoint, and by being required to substitute for the body; and the body is handicapped because there is a wall or floor between it and the object to be perceived, and thus the eyes cannot see it. Yet this mental activity is required because the body is in a particular position and needs to recognise this shape because it can see it. And the mind is handicapped in these activities because it has to rely on sensory information which is unavailable. If the mind were not tied down to being in a body, it could be everywhere and understand a floor or a wall from every perspective simultaneously. If all minds were so free, there wouldn't be a need for floors or walls at all, so they wouldn't exist to need to be understood. But in that case, the mind would have no (currently recognisable) purpose either.

In assuming such an absurd disconnection between mind and body, I hoped that some other interesting thing might appear, because gravity and other corporeal considerations do seem to effect perception and interpretation, and because our automatic perceptual and interpretive faculties stimulate our rational ones. When the drawings are actually made they exist in their own right, and where the process that produced them is unknown, they can be considered as if they have no history. They can be seen as abstract and without reference to the concrete or particular. However, because their ground is the concrete and particular, yet another game with ambiguity can begin. Though the shape is abstract, it is a concrete form and incorporates real space within itself. There is 'confusion between the shape of the space and the space of the shape'. They are open to any interpretation viewers can make. Someone described the green shape in Figure 14 for example, as a shadow, an interpretation consistent with the process actually used to create it, only back to front.

Altogether, I made three drawings of the ground floor and four drawings of outer walls, each from different positions throughout the building. Each of the floor drawings are drawings of the actual shape and size of the ground floor as it would appear if it could be seen from the middle of one of three first floor rooms. The outer wall drawings are of walls facing in four different directions as seen from locations in the building where there was a blank wall nearby. My initial intention was to pretend to grasp the whole of the internal space of the building as if it could be seen from one location, but without using any architectural plan or the memory of walking through all the rooms to put together the general overall plan in my mind. If we had a type of x-ray vision that saw only the edges of planes from any one position, instead of the cerebral freedom to conceptualise space irrespective of our physical location, then we could see the world as overlapping shapes such as these. In practice, in each case I took a point in one room and drew on the floor, ceiling and/or walls of that room, the shape (including its size) which I calculated either the ground floor or another wall would look like from that point - as if the internal walls and floors of the building were transparent or non-existent, even though I was standing on one. In some cases the external walls of the building intruded on the shape as it would be seen, both because the floor plan was not a simple four-sided rectangle, and because the external walls were not transparent for the purposes of this game. Hence, the shape of the ground floor as seen from certain points was affected by the commonsense rule that the outer walls would block one's view. The purpose of this pretend-limitation or magical ability is to see what something would look like from a position which has no purpose. It is a process with a dada-like randomness, although it also involves something very concrete because these shapes would reveal actual things if only we had the capacity to see them like this.

from: Margaret Roberts
Drawing on Rooms, Project Report for Master of Fine Arts, College of Fine Arts, UNSW, 1996.