Catalogue Essay – Melbourne Art Fair 2014
Evidence : Recent Works By Robyn Base
Beginning in 2010, Robyn Base has produced a varied, interconnecting series of artworks encompassing sculpture, film, photography and installation. This ongoing project was first inspired by a series of car accidents that took place close to the artist’s home. Base gathered the detritus that remained on the streets following these incidents and reconstructed it into gritty yet ethereal sculptures that were presented in the exhibition Accidents Near My House.
Accidents and regeneration are central themes in Base’s project, both materially and conceptually. Base is clear that these works are “neither morbid nor melancholic … not sensationalist nor voyeuristic”, rather they are testament to the indiscriminate and seemingly random way that life takes place in all its mutability. Her creative process is aesthetically driven, systematically planned and carefully executed yet thematically the work celebrates mistakes and chance. The transformation of unwanted debris can be seen as a metaphor for the positive outcomes that can manifest through error.
Mirroring this transformative paradigm is the predominant use of broken glass, which is a highly charged material, symbolically and emotionally. It brings to mind notions of bad luck, destruction and even violence, but Base was initially drawn to its jewel-like appearance. An intriguing and very deliberate ideological contrast is created as the pieces of broken glass are precious and beautiful, yet discarded and the result of misfortune.
In 2012 Base developed her sculptures into more structured forms that were presented within illuminated light boxes. These works formed an installation piece titled Collision about which Base has written “The work is an investigation into the push-pull between the imposition of order and the unexpected breakthrough of haphazard events.” The light boxes themselves are de-commissioned hospital radiography boxes, which encourages a sense of forensic examination.
Base’s work can easily be placed into the long artistic tradition of turning ephemera into art, with particular points of reference to be found in the Fluxus movement of the 1970s and the work of Nam June Paik. Base’s work is distinguished by a combination of keen aesthetic discernment, a gentle philosophical approach and a high level of personal authenticity, which is brought to bear in the next stage of her project, a video installation titled Casual Observation.
Over a period of three months, Base used an iPhone taped to her car window to record the passing scenes that she encountered in making her usual journeys around Melbourne. Base describes this work as “a fluid self-portrait, diarizing the artist’s personal landscape”. The twelve films are displayed concurrently, and are viewed through screens of cracked glass, producing a layered and fractured visual narrative that is closely akin to the formation of memory.
The subsequent photographic series, also titled Casual Observation, are stills from the aforementioned films that have been re-photographed through cracked glass. They constitute the culmination of Base’s project to date. The decision to present the Casual Observation series in black and white was in part inspired by Base’s enthusiasm for Film Noir, and it certainly increases their sense of mystery. This is heightened by the impaired visual field of the cracked glass filter, which also evokes the sharp, edgy cynicism of Film Noir. The viewer can take on the role of the detective pawing over clues from a crime scene.
Base intends for her work to be read as a form of evidence and for it to signify the presence of surveillance. The Casual Observation series has the appearance of CCTV footage, which carries a dark, almost oppressive mood. Is the footage shot through a smashed camera lens? Are the photos taken from the perspective of someone trapped in the wreckage of a car? There is a sense of an untold story and missing information, they beg the question ‘What comes next?’
The viewer is therefore placed within an ambiguous zone of meaning, there are mixed signals and the works oscillate within a matrix of documentation and reconstruction, traces of memory and fractured evidence. The earlier sculptural works have the facade of specimens found at an archeological dig, and overall the project engages a pseudo-scientific framework. New technologies have meant the presentation of reality is now always potentially manipulated, and our reception of it must also be filtered through a critical lens. Base’s recent works remind us that we need to retain a spirit of enquiry within this digital landscape.
There is a certain irony to be found in Base’s use of the iPhone to bring attention back to the urban environment that people now often tend to ignore, due to the ubiquitous use of these devices. The filter of smashed glass through which we view Base’s everyday vignettes is prescient as our addiction to mobile phones is increasingly the cause of the car accidents that have been the impetus behind this project. This work provides a subtle call to be more present in our everyday lives, a reminder that accidents do happen, and that we need to be prepared within the quotidian tumult of chance, transition and regeneration.
Independent Writer and Curator