Robin Rhode is fixated with breathing life into objects. Even his own creations; such as his filmic-cum-installation Recycled Matter. On the day of the press launch for it at the Stevenson Gallery in Joburg the live drumming at the entrance fills us with expectation and situates this hybrid-exhibition as a ‘live-show’ rather than a life-less installation, which is what it will be for its run after the opening night - unless you count its audience as the live element (which Rhodes does). Joost Bosland, the gallery director, motions me to the entrance of the rear gallery, which is concealed by a curtain. Only a limited number of people are able to enter at a time, he says. When he pulls back the curtain I’m half expecting a nail-biting scene with an acrobat performing a wire act, suspended between life and death. It’s the circus drum-beat that has engendered this fantasy.
The room is more like a backstage area where nothing takes place; the space where the objects are pregnant with the ambitions of a performer, director. It is a collection of arbitrary objects affixed to walls on which a faint grid is marked out. They could be art objects or installations, though there are no labels, titles or such; a window frame, old suitcases and uniform bicycle parts arranged in a group. Black smudges on a wall imply something has taken place here. It is only when you watch the film that you are able to grasp the significance of the props in the ‘backstage’, which in a gallery context is presented as the front stage. Turning the gallery into a backstage area tickles me; instead of treating this space as a hallowed one where objects are elevated, he situates the art act, the veritable stage, elsewhere. Or at least momentarily displaces it, until the film begins. But even then the gallery space is upturned into a cinema – the walls are black and padded.
People don’t immediately register that the rear gallery is a ‘backstage’ area. Due to the display being part of a Rhode show (his international status makes him an art star) set up in a gallery, everyone is lingering a little longer than normal around these objects in the hope they might unlock their significance. Collectively they don’t make sense. The most obvious clue to their ‘meaning’ or role could be gleaned from an installation of roof tiles in a corner with a rope hanging over it, which brings to mind a film set and how the medium is able to transform these flimsy makeshift mise-en-scenes into something seemingly coherent and substantial, architecturally speaking.
This is probably why Rhode is drawn to film; film facilitates the kind of magic he is interested in; bringing the inanimate to life and locating it within a context that is both real and synthesised. Maybe this is the ambiguous space where all art resides, or artists aspire for it to, for art can never accrue cultural or financial value if it isn’t synthesised on some level. We need to perceive the hand of the artist, or in the case of Rhode’s practice, his doppelganger - an anonymous man who like the Stig in Top Gear, performs almost unbelievable acts that are further mystified by his unknown identity – though many assume that the man in Rhode’s films is the artist. This unknown character is ironically, one of the defining symbols of his films and photography. Is it part of a cunning strategy for Rhode to exist as a performance artist without his own identity interfering with the work?
As soon as you start to watch the film it becomes pretty obvious that the objects in the back room are merely props – their meaning is defined by the film, though the way in which they remain part of the exhibition in a separate room, also allows them to be physically and psychically liberated from the ‘art’ factor – it is performance that gives them purpose but also these things make the performance possible. Certainly, conceptually this is how the work was conceived, he tells me. The props were all objects that were lying around his Berlin studio - except for the window frames which he flew in from South Africa - and he allowed each one to dictate and shape the narrative that unfurls in the film.
Recycled Matter presents a reversal of performance props and their role vis-à-vis performance art or live acts – they are not supporting accoutrements or ‘documents’ that merely substantiate what has occurred, material to help us archive the transient, but drive the performance. In doing so Rhodes has touched on the interesting and elusive space where performance and object-based art overlap and feed into each other or even mirror each other – art making becomes a “performance” to give objects meaning. Rhode simply exploits this reality by exaggerating this process, laying it bear and finding ways of trying to make visual this strange if not mystical act of transference that draws people to galleries and buying their products.
Belying this installation/film/exhibition’s playful almost Charlie Chaplin-esque comedy is a cheeky analysis of this process of transference and a self-reflexive comment on the manner in which the artist is trapped not only in the cycle of investing meaning and divesting it into objects but how performance too is trapped by this process and the spatial, physical constraints that support it. That is the gallery – where performance must be located in order to complete the act of transference of meaning and value. No performance artist can escape this – hence even Marina Abramovic with all her clout must still “perform” in a gallery and as such makes work in response to this setting and all the baggage it entails.
Rhodes illustrates this conundrum in the film with a narrative involving a character trying to escape the film set. As with any journey, he packs his suitcase first, which proves difficult – the objects (Rhode’s oversized sculptures) can’t fit into it. He opens doors, windows and runs across a roof in search of a way out of this flat, empty and non-descript setting, where only the props keep him tethered to reality. Exploiting filmic tropes such as a chase scene on the roof, generates tension that the drumming soundtrack enhances. There is always the expectation that something will occur, but the only outcome that could really release the subject exists outside the bounds of the film, the set, the gallery. In this way art doesn’t provide a doorway into the world, but a synthesised exit that can never really be accessed. This is perhaps where Rhode’s interest in magic, art, performance, the circus all intersect and the pay-off that these ritualised acts provide. As with watching a circus performer walk a tightrope, or observing an artwork, we want to vicariously step into the site of our own psychic and physical annihilation, knowing all along that when we look over the edge, that what exists beyond it is not real.
The narrative also echoes Rhodes conflicted position as an artist who evinces such a clear allegiance to ‘the live’, performance and its politics, but must advance a practice in galleries and museums. Ironically, he can only exist as an artist and maintain his international status if he locates his practice in these spaces. This is a compromise he has exploited; his distinctive vocabulary and approach, as illustrated via this new work, has been formed in response to it. If he was given the freedom to perform anywhere he would probably not know what to do – at least to start off with, before he started to evolve in opposition to that new context.
For now, the only way he can sustain a performance practice in a gallery setting is to enter into dialogue with objects, while trying to escape becoming objectified himself. This filmic work and installation distils his solution, while cheekily employing the limits as the source of the narrative. Oddly, we, the audience want him to succeed in his escape – as we do when we root for the heroes in an action movie – for we do not visit galleries to visit galleries. If he escapes so can we. Galleries are meant to function as portals to imaginative spaces that cannot be contained and not present the veritable prison that prevents 'the escape'. Is the real prison capitalism and the hyper-commodification of art? Artists don’t like to ask this question; the answer means making a kind of art that will never feed their egos or pockets.
There is one last metaphor to be drawn from Rhode’s film and the persistent desire for escape that pervades it. The superficial one-dimensional visual character of it, which is distinctive of Rhode’s aesthetic is not one he can escape or tamper with too much. He has to play/make art with the limits which he himself has set or which now others hold him to, while similarly expecting that he ‘crosses’ the line and manages to escape just long enough to maintain their/our interest. Great work, go see it before the exhibition closes.