Carambolage: Robin Collyer and Robert Fones (1992)
Carambolage; Vol. 4: Robin Collyer and Robert Fones, Baden-Baden: Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, 1992. [English/German]
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Models and Maps, Signs and Systems, Part I: Robert Fones
For Robin Collyer and Robert Fones the landscape is a sign, something pervasive that surrounds us, something that is to be read, however differently in each case. The landscape is anything but a natural given. For Robert Fones the landscape is a sign to be deciphered, one that is inscribed by the order of geological time and geographical activity while also being the background for signs of human habitation, communication and understanding. For Robin Collyer, signs have in turn become our landscape and the landscape has been appropriated as an image, the function of which now is dictated by economic time on the order of obsolescence. The conditions might be local in what surrounds us, as are the prehistoric activities that formed the geology and geography of Southern Ontario, the territory of Fones’ concern; or they might be global, as are the economic and technological domains rendered within Collyer’s constructions. For Fones, this territory may be local but it is inscribed by abstract systems that have a global dispersal; for Collyer, the global systems have local effects. In both cases, however, a semiotic is operative in inscription or in reading, in determination or use, whether in the maps and systems of typography of Fones’ predominately photographic work or the syntactical and referential constructions of Collyer’s sculpture.
Robert Fones first began to explore this direction in a 1979 work called Butter Models (ills. 1,2) which is a museological display that classifies and maps a cultural phenomenon, namely the localized production of butter in community creameries. Butter Models consists of two grocery display cases, containing an arrangement of 147 one pound blocks of butter, a map that indicates the creameries’ locations in Ontario and charts listing the creameries and their brands. Seen in a museum, the display might be read retrospectively as an operation of rescue, establishing the archive of a phenomenon at a moment of change: of waxed paper wrappers to foil, of diversity to standardization in the economic absorption of local dairies into larger food conglomerates. Seen in a gallery though, the presentation of a “system” of classification makes us pay attention to differentiation within likeness, as if the distinctions were purely formal differences. What Butter Models comprises is not a true classificatory system, neither is it a didactic display as might be presented in a museum—in a gallery, it is to be acted upon. According to the artist, the sample within this ensemble “is the combination of many environmental conditions that differentiates one butter’s taste from another, and each brand of butter represented in Butter Models is a natural product of environmental conditions: bedrock, soil, amount of sunlight, latitude, rainfall, and altitude. The wrapper itself records local history and landmarks, ancestry of the founder, graphic design, architectural style of the creamery (often depicted on the label) and printing technology. The wrappers share a common vocabulary of pastoral imagery, symbolic associations (gold, sun, ribbons, etc.) and colour choices (most frequently red and yellow or red and green). On the map of Ontario in which the creameries are located cities, roads and political boundaries were eliminated to emphasize each creamery’s link to and dependence on a natural environment.” Gathered here is a whole range of material and observation which indicates that the ensemble Butter Models is not an abstract model, a table of classification of similarities and differences, existing for the sake of the classification, as a model only, removed from its reality. That reality is to be given some actuality as terrain by a system of ordering based on empirical evidence given as signs (the butter wrappers, the map) which in turn we as viewers have to reconstruct according to those signs. These formalized evidences, then, become the means of return to the empirical domain of their observation. Their classification, however, also serves to valorize a particular cultural phenomenon: this specific cultural activity attuned to and determined by its environment and history in a place called Ontario.
In its construction and reference Butter Models implies an interaction between two poles: a system of classification and some reality to which it refers. But it is the individual model which is a tangible sign or material representation of this “reality” which becomes the foregrounded subject of Fones’ work. The classification system of Butter Models is not the static cumulation of the investigation; the individual components (models according to Fones) become means for the grounding of observation. We pass from the system as a whole, Butter Models, to the individual components, the butter models: butter models, for the blocks of butter are simulations, painted blocks of wood covered with real paper butter wrappers. As found in museum displays, for instance, we might think they are samples only; but, for Fones, they are more: “the fact that each block is a model removes the butter from its usual context as a mass-produced commercial product and places it within a museum context as a unique hand-made object.” Here it is the reversal of technology, from industrial manufacture to handicraft, and consequent valuation and transformation within the museological process, that interests Fones. What is on display in Butter Models, however, is as much the mapping of cultural phenomena as the individual artefacts themselves: both the model and the system, the sign and its organization. Thus Butter Models brings together Fones’ interest in maps and models as well as archaeology and cartography as tools of theory and reconstruction. But these tools are also representations and the reconstructions are regions.
Elsewhere in the same interview quoted from above Fones tells the following anecdote: “Butter Models was also influenced by my Uncle George, a candy salesman who worked a route from Sarnia south to Walpole Island at the mouth of the St. Clair river. On one occasion when I was visiting he showed me his suitcase filled with chocolate bar samples and said I could have any bar I wanted. I chose one and carefully unwrapped it. The bar turned out to be made of plywood! I remember going back to London [Ontario] afterwards and making myself a fake plywood chocolate bar.” In itself, the sample suitcase is highly suggestive as an origin for Butter Models (cf. Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise). Equally suggestive is the example (or model) of his salesman uncle working a delimited territory, and, in fact, between 1976-1979, Robert Fones visited and investigated archaeological sites in Southern Ontario such as Serpent Mounds, Peterborough Petroglyphs and Southwold Earthworks. This form of research would be a source for Butter Models and subsequent works.
In this anecdote fascination displaces desire. One might want to recognize the role of fascination in any representation (or classification) while not necessarily suggesting that the disguised origin of Fones’ interest in models is to be found in the type of desire first evinced in the anecdote. Fones’ interest in the model is for its representational value of an epistemological order. Maps and models are two examples of representations investigated in his art. They are not so much investigated as given—they are made by the artist and their reasons of making may not be solely for their epistemological nature. One could apply to Fones what the French physicist Pierre Duhem said of English physicists (as quoted in Max Black, “Models and Archetypes”): “Theory is for him [the English physicist] neither an explanation nor a rational classification, but a model of these laws, a model not built for the satisfying of reason but for the pleasure of the imagination. Hence, it escapes the domination of logic.” These modes of working ally Fones to the artistic milieu of London, Ontario, where he was born and worked as an artist until 1976 when he moved to Toronto.
The models of Butter Models are not isomorphic to actual butter: they are iconic. Their wrappers and their forms point to what we take to be butter. Similarly, the objects of Fones’ next work Ebony Carvings of Charcoal, 1981 (ill. 3), reprise the museological reification of transient things. But now the relation of “model” to source is one of mimesis or, more accurately, representation: Fones calls it “representational sculpture.” However, in that representation and transformation of an industrially produced commodity into a handmade artefact, a process akin to mapping is engaged. Certain decisions have to be made as to what the minimal conditions of resemblance are, how in these transformed circumstances of production the thing will signify, and how these signs might point back to what they are meant to resemble or inform. There is a direct relation here, for the producer, of “copy” to “original.” However, what happens for the observer without access to the original, where in a series of replications there is an uncertain drift from origin, whether by accident or erosion of resemblance from replication to replication?
The question of minimal conditions of resemblance of a representation or model in order to signify (not necessarily to refer directly) partly suggested the making of a series of woodblock prints of range maps (Natural Range of Bur Oak, Natural Range of Canada Plum (ill. 4), Natural Range of Shagbark Hickory, Natural Range of Osage Orange, Natural Range of White Oak, 1984). On finding that North American field guides to trees distribute the range of species prior to European contact, Fones decided to use the technology of mechanical production available at the period of first contact, that of woodblock printing. The representational threshold of this particular technology requires elimination of detail. In also limiting detail to river systems (the transportation routes of contact) and avoiding all contemporary references of boundaries, roads and locales, these maps assume, however, one of the functions of models, namely to reveal new forms of information about a phenomenon. For instance, the prominence of river systems in the maps makes watersheds the indicators of elevation and physiography. While this might be an effect of the model--within the limits of the model what the model (a representation after all) allows us to see--all the same, the purpose of this type of map is to delineate the territory of a particular species.
In light of the chartings of cultural value of Butter Models, we realize that these maps are more than didactic exercises or models of epistemological investigation. Just as the referents for the individual butter models are products of their territories, so too are the species depicted here. It is not so much that these maps chart a species’ physical extension, they indicate the range of their habitus. Let us remember the example of Fones’ salesman uncle lest we think that the maps remain an abstract epistemological theme (Butter Models, for instance, classified a cultural phenomenon as signs of natural conditions). If the distribution of species delineates a territory (being a product of that territory) so a salesman might be defined (certainly he is understood) as the outcome of both his product and territory—he is, moreover, the means by which a product infiltrates a territory. Thus the maps are both epistemological models and metaphors for territories of human habitation.
Choices of trees were made on the basis of distinctive characteristics revealed by mappings but also, as the map can refer us back to the world, of distinctive appearances in the landscape (the latter being the function of field guides to distinguish, rather than maps). This mutually informing interaction between mapping and observation (observing on the basis of maps and models, making maps and models on the basis of observations) is the nexus of Fones’ art. Thresholds apply to both map and appearance: a threshold of representation and a threshold of perception. The latter is a limit below which a stimulus ceases to be perceptible, detachable from its background in a significant way. A threshold of representation is the limit at which a sign is too crude to signify (cf. comments on woodblock printing above). Recognition is the hinge of both, joining one to the other, perception to representation, and the sign is operative in both, whether the realm be nature or culture.
The next set of works is more particular in its investigation of signs within the phenomenal field. These signs are of both a natural and a cultural origin and not abstract models of a phenomenon separate from them. As in the past, the relations between sign and field are the basis of the work; but now discrimination of signs within that field, which may be partly phenomenal (belonging to nature) or conventional (belonging to culture) is up to the viewer. Within the phenomenal field, these signs might be seen or unseen and they might be read and recognized or misread and misunderstood; or, apart from any viewer, the signs in themselves might be functional or dysfunctional.
In 1985, Robert Fones published his own field guide, the artist’s book Field Identification (ill. 5). The name also indicates a specialized practice: “The conventional field guide involves perceptual discrimination within a given field. The field is a physical space, a perceptual space as well as the parameters of a discipline of study. The field guide had close affinities with my own interest in visual recognition.” The field Fones has chosen is the Ontario basin, “the topographical depression in which various prehistoric lakes, such as Lake Iroquois, were situated at various levels before the formation of present-day Lake Ontario,” thus an area of profound topographical change due to glacial activity. This activity has left various traces of itself in lakes and river channels but it has also transformed the landscape leaving signs of itself that may or may not be read as markers of that activity. Eskers, moraines, kames and erratics are some of these remains.
The field is also a site of human habitation which has adapted itself to and developed along geographical/geological determinants. Such contemporary modes of transportation as freeways or railways follow waterways, themselves original transportation routes. These networks are accompanied by their own communication systems as in expressway signage, for example, that must be designed to communicate to its high-speed users. (A driver needs to recognize and act upon a sign or acknowledge it to be of no use in a short period of time.) Thus, in these networks we have a physical system (roadways) accompanied by a semiotic one. What is immediately discriminated in Field Identification as a field guide are these signs. Identifying features of individual letters of the Interstate typeface (the one used for freeway signs) are indicated by arrows, as are the natural species in Peterson’s Field Guides. The signs themselves retain traces of another typographic system which may not then be immediately known: “Abbreviations, used in ancient Roman inscriptions to save space and time in stonecutting, are used here once again to save space and to present information quickly and succinctly in the limited time available to the driver of a moving vehicle.” The signs adapt the economic solutions from one technology, stonecutting, to another need—that of quick recognition. We might take the images of Interstate typeface floating on an eroded stone background as a modern version of ancient devices, but what we are actually treated to here is an archaeology of typography, finding in modern conventions ancient solutions. Within one system we have evidence of past tradition which is the cultural equivalent to the temporal condensations found in the geographic formations of a site, typographic traces the same as glacial traces.
The floating typefaces detached from their backgrounds, reminiscent of film subtitles, also suggest Field Identification is an implicit narrative, but one delineated in “shorthand” as are subtitles. It is up to the “reader” to turn these signs (the text) and images into narrative, thereby realizing the function of field identification: discriminating on the basis of signs and, in the particular case this book presents, finding the equivalences between different orders of experience. If we choose to discriminate these markers as signs, and not just as empirical phenomena, they serve a particular function, but each, as well, can be read as a sign of something else. These signs are indices of larger activities or systems. Just as the highway signs point to the larger freeway system, so the transportation system points to geographical factors of original river routes, themselves markers of past geological formations. We can then read back into them, through the continuities of the time they embody, an archaeological process. Field Identification exhibits these continuities whether they are found in geography, transportation, typography or urban inscription.
A sign, however, may not register as a sign. We may not know that a particular aspect of terrain (a moraine for instance) is the trace of glacial activity. (Displacement of evidence is also part of the book: the text overlaying the image may not refer to that particular site. The sequence of images does not demonstrate a relation or continuity; the reader makes it so.) A sign, moreover, may no longer retain its original meaning. For instance, a sign may become obsolete as a description and yet remain as a place marker. This occurs towards the end of the book where the human activity of hydro-electric development on the Ottawa River, a technological equivalent to glacial activity, has raised the river to such a level that the old French place names of early exploration and settlement, such as Chenal du Rocher Fendu (channel of the split rock) and Long Sault (long fall), are no longer descriptive. This condition is emphasized in three separate works of the same titles: Chenal du Rocher Fendu (ill. 6), Long Sault and La Chaudière, 1985. These works were the first where Fones combined photographs with typography. In this case, the names were set in Interstate typeface, mounted on plexiglas and photographed against the eroded stone of a man-made limestone wall. The text stands out against the other surface worked by time, separated from it by the space of its shadow. That very ambiguity parallels the uncertain status of its function as a sign, and the lost history it signals, from original iconic representation to present conventional marking. Displaced in a gallery setting, the signs are further detached from their site and original function in order to indicate another meaning. In this sense, these are the first of a series of works that take as their subject the readability or non-recognition of the “signs” that surround us and not just their transcribed representations. In these pieces, the “unseen” geographical formations that surround us are allied to an all-encompassing graphic formalism which together shape our lives.
By title, the works, Erratic I (ill. 7), Erratic II, Moraine and Kames, all dating from 1987, indicate some form of glacial deposit, but their images present nondescript landscapes that only an eye educated in geographical formations could read back into the terms of their titles. Two forms of inscription register themselves in these works. We find as subject matter, on the one hand, a record of geographical formation and, on the other, typographic imprint. As with the immediately preceding photoworks, image and text have been brought into relation, but whereas the floating type of the 1985 pieces was embedded photographically, in the 1987 works the letters are actually inscribed, as if carved, into the photographic surface, itself given three-dimensional form by the bevelled construction of its support. (Floating the text in the former and carving the inscription into the surface of the latter emphasize the two-dimensionality of the photograph.) For example, in Erratic I, a Roman typeface “M” is incised into the photographic surface that depicts a displaced boulder on a grassy plain--the geographical erratic of the title, the refuse carried by a glacier and deposited far from its point of origin. The rock is a silent record of this past history, mute witness of an event that can be read in this remnant but in most cases is overlooked as a mere trace of its present milieu. (Fones has said of the connection between Erratic I and earlier pieces: “I think the connection would be that visible fragments are used to reconstruct a theoretical model—in this case the past reality of glacial events.... I was intrigued by the idea of a monument to mark a vast geological process but also an absence, for the ice sheet that caused these changes is gone.”) The letter “M” deposed from a Roman inscription (actually it derives from a stone-cut inscription on a late nineteenth century Toronto building revealed for a short period during renovation), serves as a tag to this particular stone, its arbitrary classification. At the same time, the letter is empty, a mere possibility for communication. Together, the two inscriptions, one geographical, the other typographic, could be taken as two limits of our being: the two determining influences of nature and culture. Both mark something pre-existent but do not necessarily each establish themselves as recognizable differences despite the fact they are the landscape and signage surrounding us. They are the cultural inscriptions that bind us, something pervading but unseen.
Fones has said that “many of the references in my work are to experiences anyone might have had: choosing butter; looking at charcoal; reading signage, but they are presented within larger abstract systems that are--because of our limited scope in space and time—beyond the range of individual human experience.” Butter Models and Field Identification are representations of these larger systems, in which any individual component may have one meaning for viewers and another within the system as a whole. Chenal du Rocher Fendu and Erratic I are examples of different signs that inhere within a meaningful “system” but may not signify for the observer. Fones’ interest, however, is not in setting up models of observational competence for potential users of a system. The systems in which Fones is interested are not abstract; they are expressions of cultural value, culture being considered in its widest and oldest sense of cultivation. Already this is obvious in a work such as Butter Models. The “signage” of subsequent works with their natural indices or abstract systems seemed not to need an observer except as a potential interpreter. And that observer, represented by the viewer, always stood outside the representation. A work complementary to the 1987 pieces, Ethos/Nomos/Physis, locates the human within the actual depiction itself, binding the human to his locale.
Ethos/Nomos/Physis, 1987 (ill. 8), is a three-part photographic work in which three men stand in front of landscapes surtitled in floating type, each with one part of the title that the artist associates with the individual. These individuals have a direct association with the landscape depicted: a geographer (the co-author of The Physiography of Southern Ontario), an apple grower, a farmer. “The three words are ancient Greek philosophical concepts roughly translated as follows: ETHOS—character, habitual way of life; NOMOS—custom, law, convention; PHYSIS—nature. All three words originally referred to aspects of the landscape. They seemed to me the three primary forces governing human actions.” And they indicate that for these men “their livelihood is linked to a territory and, in a sense, their experience and knowledge is the product of that territory.” In this summarized fashion, we come full circle to the discussion initiated with Butter Models and find in Ethos/Nomos/Physis a reference point for all the intervening works that were seemingly without a human content or context (we are, after all, makers and users of signs). The obvious grounding of Fones’ work in dialectical inhabitation (man determining and determined by nature) is revealed here.
The counterpart to this work is the three-part piece Insert/Press/Deposit, 1989 (ill.10), which takes as its subject the loss of the image of work, in particular manual labour and industrial manufacture. Two separate elements are materially juxtaposed: sandblasted aluminum pictograms of hands, immediately recognizable in their instructions (and effortlessly letting us engage vast electronic networks, the “larger abstract systems...beyond the range of individual human experience”); and photographs supplementing the bankcard, button or coin whose landscapes we do not immediately recognize. These “depict earthworks and mounds from Ohio that were constructed by the Hopewell people circa 200 A.D.. Much of the Hopewell’s rich and prolific artistic production was geared to the manufacture of grave goods for their elaborate burial practices. This production would not have been possible without their extensive trade network that stretched almost across the entire continental United States. In Insert/Press/Deposit contemporary electronic networks are juxtaposed with aboriginal trade networks, the ‘work’ in both engaging vast economic systems. Work in contemporary society has, in a sense, been buried.”
Insert/Press/Deposit places within one order—the pictogram—that of another which is unclear or unknown: the prehistoric earthworks function much as the glacial traces did for Fones’ earlier work. Similarly, Three G’s (Futura G with Serpent Effigy, Gill G with Turtle Effigy, Kabel G with Bird Effigy), 1989 (ill.9), incorporates within its typographic cutouts photographic images of segments of sacred Indian effigies. We are given only fragments of the incised stones as if in aerial view like the Hopewell earthworks, cut out and effaced by three twentieth century typefaces (Futura, Gill and Kabel). At a further remove from where they are rendered to us in their respective museums outside their natural contexts of signification and obscured here by the typefaces, is what is effaced merely fallow resting with its powers of signification intact? Or has it become, like the signs in the landscapes of Fones’ other works, the unconscious milieu of our predation?
The story of the migration of an object from its original site of signification to its place in the classificatory systems of Western museums might be understood as an archaeology of museological practice, if we conceive archaeology as no longer the uncovering of the artefact in its original site but rather as the revealing of the discursive formations and operations of the institution of the museum itself. Cultural “erratics” which originate in one place and culture and end in another are given a narrative in Fones’ most recent exhibition, four works, collectively entitled Order and Control, 1990 (ills. 11-14).
Just as Butter Models was not an abstract model but referred to locales in Ontario, so once again Fones has chosen to situate this exercise (of critique?) in what is local, in this case the “story” of the purchase of a pair of seventeenth century Chinese sculptures of lions for the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. (And once again, he has applied photographs--archival and recent--to typefaces, this time to a popular nineteenth century invention, the Egyptian Expanded whose sometimes implied three-dimensionality is literalized in Fones’ actual three-dimensional letterforms.) While much can be said about these letterforms of Fones, what relates them to past work and keeps them within the themes of this presentation is the attempt at restoration of meaning to phenomena of transference or transformation (the removal from China to Canada) whereby an object or indication once again takes on its function as a sign, as multivalent as it might be.
1. All quotations of Robert Fones are taken from Jeanne Randolph, “Product and Territory,” C Magazine, 24 (Winter 1990), pp. 40-44; and Robert Fones, “Field Identification,” Northward Journal, 52-53, pp. 15-24.
Models and Maps, Signs and Systems, Part II: Robin Collyer
Both Robert Fones and Robin Collyer began working as artists in the late 1960s with the legacy of minimalism, postminimalism and conceptual art. In this catalogue, the thematic presentation of their work, commencing from 1979 for Fones and 1981 for Collyer, coincides with the aesthetic shift labelled postmodernism. The systematic development of their work from this period on and the coherence of their field of reference perhaps say more, however, about our social, economic, and technological environment than about the artistic maturation of two artists (who were born in the same year, 1949) coinciding with these aesthetic changes. From this perspective, the theorizing about postmodernism which began in the arts at that time (1979/81), suggests instead of a new theoretical moment, the near completion of the late capitalist transformation of the economic system into a sign process—the era of Baudrillardian simulation. Henceforth, this extra-artistic situation becomes the field of reference or gives the tools of semiotic analysis to artists such as Collyer and Fones. It is the field, not the art/theoretical practice, that is their reference.
If we view this socio-economic process as originating in the 1960s, the promotional optimism of this new era found its expression in art in the advertising images and serial techniques of pop art, the new materials and processes of sculpture, and a McLuhanistic glorification of electronic media. At the same time, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, optimism’s obverse was found in a pessimistic realization of the commodification of both the public realm and of the landscape. (Two strategies of reference to the landscape in 1960s art can be found in the Bechers’ photography and Robert Smithson’s earthworks.) Guy Debord expressed this awareness, in terms appropriate to Collyer, when he wrote in 1967, that “In the advanced regions, social space is invaded by a continuous superimposition of geological layers of commodities,” (Society of the Spectacle). Still thinking of Collyer, we can perceive this layering only as a superimposition of signs, a consequence of which is, as Venturi et al wrote—albeit positively—in Learning from Las Vegas (1972), that “the rate of obsolescence of a sign seems nearer to that of an automobile than that of a building.”
For a sign to become obsolete does not mean that it cannot still signify, perhaps in another way and in a new construction. And that a commodity loses its intended function or becomes outmoded does not mean that it cannot be used in another signifying process. Robin Collyer takes the sign processes of this changed environment together with the availability of its materials to make his work. Like other sculptors of his generation, Collyer’s sculpture of the 1980s addressed representational issues. The appropriation of readymade objects into the sculptural ensemble to make it resemble things in the world did not stop at a mimetic level for Collyer. The elements were recombined in a signifying process to refer to systems as well as things in the world. If the 1980s marked a return to representational sculpture, it was a return informed by semiotic practice. The accomodation of Collyer’s own practice to the effects of language and photography separately and in relation to sculpture prepared him for this semiotic imperative of the 1980s.
When Collyer began as a sculptor in the late 1960s, like many young artists he had the dominant options—and contradictory aims—of the works of Anthony Caro and Donald Judd before him. “The early work was very much a reaction and comment on the formal aspects of art practice that was prevalent at the time, for instance the work of Anthony Caro or minimal work like Judd. I shared some of their use of space and simplicity but felt uneasy with the formality and coolness of the works. I became more and more interested in incorporating elements into my work that operated or had a function outside the context of sculpture. I still used them like I had used raw materials in the early work but they were no longer just a piece of metal or wood. They were actually something that had a use or a function in the world.”
Even though the formal element was not absent in subsequent work—Collyer’s method of construction and juxtaposition of materials would not change radically—it was raised to another structural level of complexity through the work’s referential organization. The shift towards function was not accomplished merely by this incorporation of non-sculptural elements—recognizable objects or commodities—into the sculpture or by some type of figural association. Language (initially through titling) and subsequently photography would provide some of the mechanisms for that reference. In fact, we could say that Collyer’s sculpture is structured as a language.
What the model of language provides is a way of reading the often dispersed elements, not only in reference or resemblance to something outside them, but almost as a sentence that composes meaning. The tripartite construction of a sculpture such as Industrial/mine/Theirs, 1981 (ill. 1), demonstrates the articulated character of such works. The sculpture begs some sort of treatment of the elements as units of meaning or signifiers in relation to each other and to their referents. (Collyer has never concerned himself with figural wholeness nor abstract part-to-whole relations; the essential function of title to work, on the one hand, and resemblance to some type of function outside sculpture, on the other hand, is preliminary evidence.) The placement of Industrial/mine/Theirs on the floor parallel to as well as on the wall sets up various possibilities for reading. But these possibilities seem constrained along two axes: from left to right or right to left for the objects on the floor and from each object to its corresponding wall element behind it. If we think these constraints, then we see that the ensemble operates much like a sentence with a horizontal axis of interchangeable objects (the metonymic chain or axis of combination) and an invariant vertical axis (the metaphoric series or axis of selection) associating wall and floor elements. The horizontal axis reads as the transformation of industrial processes in time; the vertical axis reads as the evolution of objects into signs, although the “objects” are retained therein as synchronic traces, as representations. While individual elements might have a direct reference—the plastic model refinery to its real counterpart, for instance—it is each element’s function or value within a system as a whole (both internal and external) and consequent evolution from object into sign that is important.
This ability on our part to read Collyer’s sculpture would continue to operate throughout his work since his sculptures always unite an internal construction (linguistically, the axis of combination) to an external reference (the axis of selection). If the referential relation is established by the internal construction creating a resemblance of the material ensemble to something outside it, and because this internal construction is seen to be articulated, then it is realized the outer system is constructed as well. Each sculpture can thus be read and, in turn, read into another system of meaning. And as each makes sense within a particular system of meaning (and communication), this insinuation implies the potential of a critique. A critique articulates the system it criticizes and thus, in whatever it reveals, is still bound to the language of that system. In this sense, Collyer’s sculpture of 1981 limited itself to systems of representation that act upon us. We were not to be the users of this language.
Collyer’s next group of sculptures from 1983 assumes a different form of reference and strategy than those of 1981 in that they begin to take on a representational character of architectural proportion and design. More than scale models and less than buildings, these sculptures situate themselves in the space of the gallery as if in a landscape. They are part of both the physical space of the gallery and, by association of reference and subsequent shift of scale, the urban landscape outside the gallery. This shift is performed by the function of the object/commodity which has a scale of use we are commonly familiar with when we confront our recognition of it in a gallery, and a scale of association when we match the ensemble’s resemblance to something larger in the world.
Like Collyer’s other work, these sculptures are configurations of unaltered or minimally changed industrial or commercial materials; they are actual objects or existing standards combined in constructions to make specific referential associations. For instance, the metal grating (generally used in industrial application for overhead platforms or steps) in Home Box Office, 1983 (ill. 2), simulates the gridded window façade of a high-rise office tower. Given that there is an obvious difference in scale and function between the two, the fact that the grating in its new position can be read as a post and beam structure indicates a translatabilty between standards. The piece, however, clearly displays an incompatability between building types in the built environment in the discrepancy between “office” and “home.” This discrepancy is presented without commentary, just as the uninflected title (referring to the American cable television company) factually presents the words side by side.
Parade, 1983 (ill. 3), continues the architectural theme, but instead of the juxtaposition of discrete elements, a resemblance to a billboard actually is constructed. Part of the urban fabric lining expressways or inhabiting tops of buildings (whose only function is to deliver information with no necessary care for its architectual context), a billboard is a sign that assumes an architectural scale. It is a type of building which is “an architecture of communication over space” and in which “the sign is more important than the architecture,” (Learning from Las Vegas). Parade does not merely combine materials that have been purchased ready-at-hand for the purposes of construction, it takes an already used material, i.e., an aluminum printing plate with its registered information, and puts it to another use. The metal is used for its planar qualities and for its structural strength. Thus, both the “sign” and supporting structure adopt this same photo-etched material. An analogy exists, of course, between the imprinted plate and a billboard, the plate being used here as a scaled-down sign for, or model of, a real billboard. Considering that it has been cropped and that the text and images are sideways, the information on the plate obviously is not functional. All the same, for purposes of representation, it can stand for and we can read the construction as an image of a billboard.
Yet if we discount the message of this plate (as the sculptor would appear to have), then in Parade, a sign seems to have been used purely for its material rather than communicative function, as if one took a sheet of steel or aluminum with a sign printed on it as material for roof or wall of one’s makeshift shelter. The subversion of an original communicative function is only partial as a sign in this state can still be read whatever the context of its use. Parade reproduces this double condition, using signs as material, letting materials be read as signs. And yet, by the fact the subversion of the sign takes place within the sign’s own context and function, namely that of a billboard, Parade suggests (unlike Industrial/mine/Theirs) that languages and sign systems that come before and determine us may be adapted for our own use beyond an intended function or communication. Parade turns a readymade material—a material that is also a sign—to another constructive purpose. But it accomplishes this material transformation within a construction that still signifies and communicates a value other than the original message (thus, it is critical of the original message and sign process and at the same time positive in being a new construction of signification). Parade is a sign of another value while itself materially accomplishing this value through a new construction.
Parade and Home Box Office rely on resemblance to trigger the association of model to reality. Of the three works exhibited together in 1983, only New Commercial/Residential, 1983 (ill. 4), includes a familiar commodity object of domestic use in its ensemble. Whereas the other two works incorporated readymade materials, in reality these materials are usually hidden away in a specialized process, practice or product—the steel reinforcing rods in concrete structures, the printing plates in the product of a magazine (Parade) or they disappear in use, as in the real function of the metal grating in Home Box Office. This disappearance initially lends the element its “metaphoric” capacity: we tend to first read an element as the “something else” the ensemble suggests. Compared to the other two works that inhabited their own “landscape,” the oddity of New Commercial/Residential is the disproportion of scale between the two elements. (In the reality Home Box Office depicts a disproportion exists, though not actually in the work itself.) We stood above Home Box Office and Parade, but we accepted the coherence of their frame of reference; we shared their physical space but were outside the space of their coherence. With New Commercial/Residential our relation is split. While we still maintain that first relation, standing above the box constructed of some type of building board and plywood, the disproportion is heightened by the human scale of use of the plastic water storage tank. The awkwardness of this relation, however, turns us to what appears most makeshift in this construction.
Taking a lead from its title (“New Commercial/Residential” is the signage posted on lots where zoning allows commercial or residential building for development), we can construe the work as condemning the commercialization of the environment, where property is bought and sold and buildings constructed on speculation with little or no concern for the urban fabric. Structures are built cheaply and to pattern, their function indicated by signs rather than form. (“The duck [a particular store in the shape of a duck] is the special building that is a symbol; the decorated shed is the conventional shelter that applies symbols,” Learning from Las Vegas.) In New Commercial/Residential, a “standardized” box (corresponding perhaps to standard steel post and beam cinderblock construction) has been built and modified by the addition of crenellation. Crenellation, a sign or symbol that turns one thing into another, may express one value on a house and another on a commercial structure, such as souvenir shops or tourist attractions, for instance. We hold it suspect in that it can switch ambivalently in its reference and ideological value.
But doesn’t the versatile sign character of the crenellated box point to multiple uses and users thereby shifting the work itself to appreciative and not only negative associations? Perhaps New Commercial/Residential is not simply a critique. Take the symbol of the crenellation once again—we might recall any number of stores and restaurants we have encountered on strips and malls with this or other symbolic decoration appliquéd to their identical shells; but if we think of the crenellation in its touristic function, then its tackiness refers not to the ideological subterfuges of corporate theme parks such as Disneyland but to commercial enterprises of individual entrepreneurs on any number of highways. As much as we might object to their appearance and lack of integration in their milieu, they usually express the individual owner and maintain a hand-made value that does not fool us for what they are. (Postmodernist architects alone do not have the monopoly on the use of signs and symbols; their proliferation around us point to a common need.) This shift to and valuation of individual use seems the positive message of New Commercial/Residential. That Collyer himself can take an ordinary, cheap and not at all well-designed or attractive water tank and put it to a new signifying use indicates this change of value.
These three sculptures direct our attention to landscape and architecture as the signs around us and away from the systems of representation that preoccupied Collyer in his 1981 works with their legacy of his semiotic investigations of the late 1970s. The passage from critique of systems of representation to regaining signs leads to an unravelling of representation towards individual use and, of course, towards the vernacular. New Commercial/Residential helps point us in that direction.
Many of Collyer’s photographs seem to record an “inventory” of vernacular fabrications. The put-together quality of Collyer’s sculptures finds a source in these structures that he has recorded, not just in their look, but in the activity itself. (Collyer does not attempt to create a mere resemblance; mere resemblance functions within a semiotic process.) Thus, they are suggestive of the handyman adaptation of pre-processed material to another, personal use: public “signs” put to private purpose. Lévi-Strauss has analysed this activity’s mechanisms under the term bricolage in La Pensée sauvage. The ad hoc appropriation of industrial products for personal use is not to be taken as evidence of the individuality or oddity of human endeavour; rather it is to be seen as one token of the transposition of the socio-cultural landscape into a sign system. Changes in the commodity process, which have led to the “ruin” of the industrial landscape, here lead to the invention of a new fragmented reality of personal value. The ready-at-hand components of industrial production become the semantic and syntactic elements of a newly constructed language.
Bricolage is not just an unconscious process using the materials and tools at hand; it is meant to signify as well: the oddly transformed vehicles and strangely fitted sheds of Collyer’s photographs may be exactly that—odd; but the customized character of others points to a communicative value. The Zulu (European Version) and Wonder Mini Storage, 1985 (ill. 6), comprise evidence of some of those objects scaled up to human proportion and to the size of made things in the word from the earlier “models” of 1983. Nonetheless, this fact does not help us with the opacity of a work like The Zulu where the lack of a concatenated part-to-part construction prevents us from piecing together meaning on the model of language. Instead, the “seamlessness” of its construction from vacu-form plastic and black plexiglas seems to suggest the opaque surface of a photograph, another of society’s saturating representations. Thus The Zulu integrates itself into the environment while being completely other from it at the same time. Language, however, is never absent from the image. The resistance we encountered in The Zulu has been transformed into a negative command between language and image in the third piece of this grouping, No Darlene, 1985 (ill. 5), which was the first of Collyer’s works to use light box and photographic image (Collyer consistently has worked with photography and photo-text), elements which would become dominant in the ensuing groups of sculptures to the present. While the negation of No Darlene is ambivalently directed—the use of an image can never be controlled—negation may be a two way street: as subjects of authority, we may also reject an image that is presented to us.
Robin Collyer’s sculptures register the transformation in culture from the order of material production to that of sign systems and from an economy of production to one of consumption. We should not assume the devolution from object into sign to be a passive consumption. It is just as much an active transformation. Collyer’s constructions compose one system while dismantling another. Because his sculptures do not merely replicate man-made structures in the world, but are capable themselves of a signifying function, they engage in a dialogue with the forms, signs, symbols, and values of the dominant commercial and industrial commodity culture we inhabit which is both descriptive and critical. His constructions never take the shape of a simple display. While the ensembles of materials as a whole refer to objects, structures or sign systems, because the materials are both put together and articulated, the sculptures assert their own independent meaning. These hybrid constructions tend to undermine the values of the systems their materials originate from and assert instead the individuality of the maker in their place. Robin Collyer the artist, however, is only a substitute for the bricolage process which is the positive pole of value in works that in one ensemble can make references both critical and affirmative.
Collyer has pursued the relation between object and system—or the logic of this interaction since it reflects a changing cultural logic—through works where objects, images and language intersect in different combinations. The works from 1987 on are not any more complex for these relations but they are the most varied in that they bring photography and language (through the printed matter of advertising, packaging, newspaper or magazine) into the presentation of sculpture. With the incorporation of the image and its textual component, these works are more explicit in their communicational function and carry a dual reference. On the one hand, the vernacular character of the assemblage is an affirmation of the manipulation of pre-given signs and symbols for one’s own purpose; on the other, the textual or pictorial components allow the sculpture to function on a critical level with those very elements taken over from the dominant culture. In effect (and once again), one and the same material has two different ends, a positive expression and a negative critique: materials that still carry a sign function are used to make a new construction that imparts other values. Where there was one sign, there are now at least two.
These works continue the architectural orientation of the sculptures of the early and mid 1980s with their sign function and vernacular character. But now the vernacular character has a more critical edge. Exemplary of this, as well as in its initiation of this new direction of Collyer’s work, is the 1987 piece NO TV (Stoa Brokdaon Finis), (ills. 7,8). “Stoa brokdaon finis” is pidgin english for “store broke-down finish,” meaning a bankrupt store. Collyer travelled to the South Pacific in 1986 where he says “I saw many objects from western-industrial culture used in unlikely ways. Discarded signs were used to make shelters. Containers were used for decoration and copyrighted material was duplicated without permission. I felt very close to this situation. My work shares some of this casual use of others peoples materials.” Thus, in the positive manner New Commercial/Residential predicted and illustrating this statement, NO TV makes a shelter from the discarded fragments of western-industrial culture (sheets of metal, signs, discarded shelving, table frame, newspapers). Just as pidgin english transforms the English language—the language of imperialism—to its own needs of communication, so too a re-fashioning takes place here.
At the same time these positive claims are made, another agenda is also clearly at play. This construction is made in the West of the objects of the West and any shelter it suggests (put together from discarded elements) could only address the crisis of the homeless in North America in the 1980s (and 1990s). Moreover, as the title states, this construction can just as well be interpreted as a collapse: a bankrupt store. One of the two faces of the structure is made of disused retail shelving, and the other of a lightbox faced with pages from a local (Toronto) tabloid newspaper (actually they are onesided photocopies on newspaper) as if an empty store front had been papered over. Acting as a sign for vacancy or bankruptcy, the lightbox also becomes a vehicle for the presentation of an implicit critique of this particular newspaper. By merely splaying out the pages of part of one day’s edition the presentation shows the newspaper as a primary vehicle for advertising. In addition, in the room left for articles, the paper’s pursuit of a rhetorical politics and a conservative social agenda stands clear. While the newspaper daily runs a pinup, that particular day (April 1), the pinup was cut up and spread throughout the paper as a puzzle, reinforcing the editorial commodification of women. (The other lightbox has a photo-transparency of the newsvehicle of a local tabloid television station. The photograph is crossed out by the international symbol for “no” of the title No TV, a negation reinforced by the spelling out of “NO” in the structural support and circumference of the upended table top.)
The dual nature of the signs brought about by the sculpture’s construction allows the artist to speak back with the very materials, signs and representations taken from the dominant culture. Such is the case with What Affects, 1987 (ill. 12), which houses various forms of printed matter—of a business newspaper’s advertising campaign (“what affects business affects the world,” etc.); poster (“all men are not created equal”); and car sticker (“Don’t touch this vehicle unless you are completely naked.”), all suggesting various power relations. The insinuation of these social relations in all strata of society is confirmed by the construction whose scale changes internally to be taken at one moment as a scale reduction perhaps of a factory building and at an other as a life-size businessman’s, or, more likely with its typewriter return, a secretary’s desk.
Stadium, 1988 (ill. 9), whose profile reproduces a stadium in section, may refer to a local (Toronto) event of an unwanted domed stadium that drove up land values, forced artists out of studios, etc. However, Stadium, with its dilapidated retail shelving, stacked bus shelter seats, and empty lightbox, suggests perhaps (like NO TV) a society that is broken down and bankrupt culturally and economically while still maintaining escapist representations of itself which it presents to the people as “bread and circuses.” Stadium does not need to present a critique through an image or advertisement that might have occupied the lightbox; its very emptiness is more appropriate than any critical image which could have been presented.
An ideological representation (a spectacle of sorts) undermined by an economic reality that produces the ideological conditions for it in the first place is addressed by Things Men, 1991 (ill. 13), whose manufacture coincides with the year of the Gulf War (compare as well Vent and Penthouse Whitehouse Lighthouse, ills. 14, 15). The presentation simply juxtaposes a commercial sidewalk signboard with packaging of Viet Nam war toy models, a simulated game table and a lightbox of a photograph (taken by the artist) of fuselages, junked parts and bombs stored behind an American museum for the atomic bomb. The title, of course, inverts “men’s things”: the toys of reality and fantasy depicted here are spectacles of different orders, but of the same ideological source and function. The title sets up complex associations in its inversion, a complexity which is reinforced by the simple juxtaposition of the elements Collyer has chosen and manufactured. As with Stadium, the representations a society gives itself are questioned with other images of the same reality, the two simply presented in a new construction that articulates the relation but does not editorialize.
This lack of editorialization in work that is obviously critical is the mark of all Collyer’s sculptures: even the first, formal sculpture was to make us pay attention to the articulation of difference. Making us pay attention is different from acting for us: in articulating representations, Collyer does not stand for us. He offers tools that are ready-at-hand for our taking.
1. Robin Collyer quotations are from an interview with René Viau in Robin Collyer (Ivry-Sur-Seine: CREDAC and Mulhouse: Musée des Beaux-Arts, 1991), pp. 41-43.