Robin Collyer: Pavilion (1993)

Robin Collyer: Canada XLVth Biennale di Venezia, Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1993.

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Design: Bruce Mau

Design: Bruce Mau


These works are everything we expect a public monument to be: an ideological representation that speaks symbolically to its public. Only now, the images and ideals a society presents itself are realized in a monument that articulates what is disenfranchised from those very representations.

Philip Monk, Robin Collyer: Idioms of Resistance

Such might be the case of this epigraph if the images of Robin Collyer’s works were presented in the context and apparatus of their dissemination in North America, if that media panoply was reproduced in the streets and squares of Venice. Indeed, it would be the case, if Venice did not constrain these modes of “public” address and if this pavilion, in its dictionary definition as “a light ornamental building or pleasure house,” did not awkwardly frame the sculpture in an artificial reality. As connotated types, with recognizable imagery, these sculptures insinuate themselves into a known context in North America. Given the temporary conditions of display for which the Canadian pavilion alone was built in Venice, each work’s sculptural otherness perhaps is exaggerated.

Nevertheless, we bring our media environment with us wherever we travel only to find its images translated into another idiom whose basic language we share. We need merely to pick up a magazine from a newsstand in Venice to be in the reality that Collyer depicts. And is the famous light of Venice, communicated to us through paintings and reproductions, any more natural to us than the artificial glow of an advertising Cibachrome? Or can Venice be any more absent from the discourse of advertising when Benetton finds its residence there?

As with the advertising kiosks or money machines some of his works resemble, Collyer’s sculptures, themselves, are architectural in nature. They are “likenesses,” sometimes at a reduced scale, of those public “monuments” that inhabit other architectural spaces, streets and shopping malls. The only use of these objects is to house a function, namely the dispensing of money or the advertising of images and products. These small buildings or “decorated sheds” that have proliferated around us announce themselves by a recognizable format or look, combining shape, language, logos and images, which as a whole compose a copyrighted ensemble. As “buildings,” they are a pure architecture of communication, and what is communicated is an exchange—the currency of money and desire bound in a circulatory chain. (In Collyer’s sculptures, recognition and copyright, in the form and images of the work, are not mutually reinforcing terms: breach of copyright is rather the norm.)

Collyer’s sculptures inhabit the Canadian pavilion in Venice as if they were counter-pavilions, ornamented with images from advertising and the media but communicating other messages. Simply defined and built--perhaps even light and ornamental-- seemingly they too are temporary structures, constructed shells on which other images are attached. For instance, Take Care’s underlying framework is made of industrial shelving onto which is applied by screws or velcro reproduced signage, glossy Cibachrome images rephotographed from magazine advertising, or enlarged photocopies from packaging (see vol. 1, figs. 44-45). (It is as if the images and signs had no function but to decorate this object, or as if they were there merely to enclose the structure as shelter perhaps with no concern for the nature of the images: how they are juxtaposed, whether they are upside-down, etc. They seem to be there, as well, with no concern for right of use.) Collyer makes his works from the givens of our material and media culture: the sculptures combine readymade industrial and commercial materials with the photography and printed matter of advertising, packaging, newspapers and magazines. It is notable that Collyer does not take television’s dissemination of images to be the easy target of his critique, but makes his works—with rare exceptions—of the hard copy of printed and photographic matter of the commercial world.

In the past, Collyer has combined functional objects and readymade materials in his referential sculptures to resemble not just things in the world but systems of communication as well. Later, image and text were added to the sculptures as constructive elements—material signs, as it were—and the ensembles made reference to things such as storefronts, kiosks, newsboxes, or money machines. These material constructions grounded images from the media in differing social realities than those transmitted by the media. But it was the uncanny ability of the sculptures themselves to change their material reference and scale and therefore their own context of meaning (to look like something else at different moments) that added a complexity of meaning further removed from the simplicities or exclusions of the original transmission. The sculptures offered means to talk back to the media with the very images that they present to us.

More recently, over the past couple years, Collyer has reduced this complexity of association by re-emphasizing the sculptural coherence of his work without sacrificing effect or abandoning reference. Examples are such pieces as Vent and Songs for Manuel from 1991 and Mosque and Circus from 1992 (see vol. 1, figs. 50, 52-53, 57, 58). What these pieces have in common is their sculptural simplicity and straightforward presentation. Both Vent and Mosque are round forms, barely articulated, the former with its frieze-like appliqué of trading cards of the Gulf War and repetitive photographs of the White House, and the latter consisting of two unadorned polyethylene elements. (Vent is a commercially purchased aluminum roofing ventilator and Mosque an upturned plastic storage vat topped by a specially fabricated hemisphere.) Standing upright, Songs for Manuel is shaped like a North American telephone booth; Circus , box-like, sits like a store counter (its form is based on circus trailers the artist saw in France, where the sculpture was made and first exhibited). In contrast to the former two, Circus and Songs for Manuel were constructed by the artist, though still using standard components.

Although they exist very much on their own as sculptures and are things for us to observe, all these works seem designed for use in that they have a scale of functional interaction. That function here—as opposed to their references as things—seems reduced to what they present to view. Their presentation is not limited, however, to what they offer as images: the photocopies, trading cards and photographs framed within the apparatus as a whole. Object and image come together but the former is not merely the frame for the latter and their relation is not arbitrary. Function and presentation are integrated as one.

In fact, sculptures like Circus and Songs for Manuel are all presentation in that they are made completely of the apparatus of display. Circus is put together from pre-fabricated aluminum extrusion and melamine panels, commonly used for store fixtures. Similarly, the structural framework of Songs for Manuel is made from an aluminum exhibition display system whose elements can be purchased or rented. The source objects of Vent and Mosque are manufactured to function as hollow things; Circus and Songs for Manuel are constructed to present their exteriors. In each, everything is visible on the surface; the interior is an empty shell. The object is simultaneously all surface and apparatus. The apparatus of presentation infiltrates every “level” of the work (if we can speak of levels at all and not a unity): as an apparatus of construction composing a recognizable object, which in turn acts as a ground or frame for the presentation of images. Recognizability is derived from the framework of presentation in which the apparatus takes on an appearance. This appearance has its own look and what it presents “looks” at us. We could call this the look of power in that these appearances are regulated by systems beyond individual needs or control.

Such is the mechanism that Collyer delivers through the look and function of his sculptures and it is no surprise that the Gulf War of 1991 with its media regulation and collusion is the ostensible subject or object of presentation. That this conflict was delivered to us and that its forms of propaganda involved strategies of recognition and misrecognition—exemplified in the Desert Storm trading cards Collyer employs, and played upon by the artist in a purely “formal” piece such as Mosque—shows its mechanisms are no different from the other forms of advertising and communication more immediately surrounding us in everyday life. The recognition Collyer offers us goes beyond the direct appearance of the objects he presents. While the sculptures are implicated in these same processes of communication, what is elided in the original dissemination is shown here in a critical construction.