Naming and Comparing: Robin Collyer (1983)

Contrary to its appearance in Vanguard, the correct title is "Naming and Comparing."

“Robin Collyer: Naming and Comparing,” Vanguard, 12:1 (February 1983), pp. 13-16.

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Naming and Comparing: Robin Collyer

Beneath its heterogeneity of material and diversity of reference, ten years of Robin Collyer’s work betray a remarkable consistency. Those qualities for which Collyer is known—sensitivity to material and a particular type of construction—show little change over that period. While this structural base and articulation generally remain the same as the artist’s ideolect, form, however, has moved toward language, mediated by reference or through the direct addition of the word.

The same concern for comparing and differentiating is evident from first to last. Except, whereas in the earlier sculpture it was an example of contrasts of material, placement or sup-port, that is, specific formal differences, in the most recent work, it is a case of distinctions of similarity of look and function between different systems of representation. Formal distinctions that the viewer observes within the gallery have been displaced by an examination of the conditions of the subject of the viewer (“image-consumer”) outside the gallery. The insistence of the logic of this development makes us ask the question: What is articulated and for whom? (Who is the “I” of the work?) This development toward language was a move from object to sys-tem, from commodity to communications reflective of the changing social conditions and the function of art in the last ten years. But just as a text subtends an image in Collyer’s photo-textual work, so material and form remain the substrates of the later image-oriented sculpture. Meaning comes from the concrete base of the work, not from the importation of an applied semiotics.

As all the works have more than one piece—even the photo-works have the supplement of a text—they are thus capable of syntactical organization. Even the early formal sculptures, such as Lance Allworth (1971) and Likers (1972), which at a glance seem to have no relation to language, have a syntax, created through oppositions of material, weight, support, placement. That these oppositions come to meaning within the gallery already is a condition of language, but the language conditioning of art by the gallery and the art system is not the issue of this article. In his later sculpture, Robin Collyer has used these formal means, already constituted as a “language”, to articulate a semantic content that the conjunction of the image-laden forms determines. These ready-made images could be said to function as words in a sentence. A work such as I’m still a Young Man (1973) brings in semantics through the associational references of the work and its title. In the photographic series, Untitled I - 4 (1975), text within the frame captions single images. In We can build new belief Systems (1976). Something Revolutionary (1978) and Privileged Positions (1978), language is adjunct to the constructions or images, placed as separate texts on the wall beside the work, but composing part of the overall message. In Untitled (magazine) (1979), it is integrated as a formal constituent. The latest sculpture ensembles, Industrial/mine/Theirs (1981) and Something old. something new, something scary (1981), so much a formal return to the earliest work, do not need to be reinforced by language as their images are completely suffused by it. [1]

Likers and Lance Allworth exploit formal sculptural issues. Everything is there for the viewer who engages in a sculpture game, making a checklist of oppositions through paying attention to what is specific to the work. In Likers, these are questions of material, weight, support and volume. For instance, in the lower of the two box-like forms, we compare the material of the aluminum slab to that of the aluminum sheeting and both to the steel box. But in terms of support, we compare the sheet aluminum box to the steel box which rests on it, and both to the cap of aluminum plate, which brings in questions of weight as well as volume. Comparisons and contrasts are made internally, but also externally through a relation to the other, taller box. In this case, for instance, volume becomes a factor of spatial arrangement.

Specific qualities are determined by sets of oppositions. These sets of oppositions, however, do not engage in any systematic relation between themselves; moreover, the materiality of each of the members of the sets does not permit an arbitrary code of differences to arise. While these criteria may more adequately qualify the sculptures to be considered as a language, doubling the objects in this fashion brings to them the possibility of language.

In Lance Allworth, there is only one material—galvanized corrugated sheet metal—which differs in look according to the pattern of cutting and to whether the corrugation is horizontal or vertical in situation. Exploitation is restricted to placement—on the floor, against the wall, or nailed to it. To each position corresponds a particular form and means of support. A volume is made on the floor from three sheets that are crimped at one joint; a plane of metal is nailed to the wall; and as a transition between the two, five vertical strips together lean against the wall creating a space. Outside of these purely formal and material considerations, the cutting and placing of one of the three parts bring in a referential association: the wall unit looks like a theatre curtain; and we attach this name to it on seeing it. The title also functions as a name. Whereas in Likers the title might describe a relation between the two forms, or indicate a mode of approach (i.e., comparative), Lance Allworth is a proper name. It does not describe, but gives the ensemble a name as an object. Henceforth, it stands for or designates its reference.

The personal pronoun “I” of I’m still a Young Man refers us to the proper name of the artist: “Robin Collyer”; but the title as a whole gives a certain sense to the work. How does the title change or direct the meaning of the work? What relations are established between the parts of the work and the title? First, we must recognize that the parts themselves have changed their ontological status. We still see various materials and forms, but instead of a collection of qualities composing formal relations, we find objects in front of us. Linear elements and open figures or closed, simple forms have given way to forms that we can only call objects. Just as the objects are particular, distinct bodies, so each has a label: “airplane model”; “tent”; “sculpture” (i.e. the masonite platform). Each object refers to what is named here, but each is also a semantic unit within the bounded field of the title. They refer to objects belonging to a “young man”, and we interpret them in relation to a real (the artist) or imaginary young man. The sense of each object then is the part it plays in the “sentence” they all compose in relation to the title and its reference. And this sense exists outside the formal relations—such as the similarities of the structure of the tent to the material construction of the model airplane; or the steel base on which the model rests to the “sculpture” masonite form—but the sense is determined by them, nonetheless, as a conjunction of forms. In fact, formal relations change because of each object’s semantic reference and objecthood. The objects are wholes as much as parts.

The relation between the object and its reference are complicated in instances. The tent-like object refers to a tent more than it is one: its cotton fabric and completely sealed seams show it to be a facsimile. Similarly, while the model airplane is exactly that—a model, it is also a model of something else: a full dimensional airplane. Its reference is divided between this and its function within the title. Relations are complicated further by the self-referential quotation of a “sculpture” within the whole sculpture.

The move to language in this sculpture is directed by reference — by the semantic reference of the objects and by the reference of the title. The associations given by the title to the objects first have autobiographical reference to the artist; they are objects of individual value. Objects in We can build new belief Systems are symbols of social value, indicated in the title by both “belief systems” and the first person plural pronoun “we”. The objects are a real, functional fan, a metal ornamental windmill and an aluminum cross constructed by the artist that rotates on the wall by means of an electric motor. The full text from which the title is taken is American astronaut Ed Mitchell’s statement “We can build new belief systems augmented and bolstered by scientific investigation.” Since the text and objects are presented together (the title on the wall is more than just a label), we can ask whether each of the three objects is a substitute for parts of the statement. We might have trouble, though, in determining which object applies to which part of the text. It turns out that the presentation of the statement with the objects is a way of making a comparison that undercuts the objectivity of the statement. The objects do not translate the sentence but take the form of the analogy statement: “one thing is to another as this is to that.” The windmill and the fan that provides the current which turns it are to the rotating cross as science is to religion. Scientific rationality is as much a belief system as religion. It is not to be taken as a positive value: the motor drive of scientificity is a belief not objectivity itself.

There is a presumption to the “we” of the title/text that does not function the same as the “I” of I’m still a Young Man. While we might take the “I” to refer to the artist as has been implied, the first person singular pronoun is a particular form of speech that does not have an objective, singular reference. It is what is called a shifter, and has its proper reference each time that it is used in speech. By the analogy of the artist using an “I” in the title, the proper reference for the viewer would be a positive coming to speech by assuming the “I” in viewing. This would mean a translation of the copyrightable “I” of a unique reference to the artist into the speech of the viewer, To bring the work to a language form facilitates that communication.

When each of us says ‘V, we mean I, just as when we say “we”, we choose to say we. Yet, it is not we who say the “we” of “We can create new belief systems.” Rather, what is being presented as a collective value is given as a signal . An American political scientist has written of propaganda that: “With respect to those adjustments which do require mass action the task of the propagandist is that of inventing goal systems which serve the double function of facilitating adoption and adaptation. [Management must cultivate] sensitiveness to those concentrations of motive which are implicit and available for rapid mobilization when the appropriate symbol is offered.”[2] What presumes to be a choice has become the imposition of a value. These are no common tokens of belief. Every object is already part of a social discourse. As Georg Lukács has pointed out once again, ‘Capital and with it every form in which the national economy objectifies itself is, according to Marx, `not a thing but a social relation between persons mediated through things.’” [3] The object in a gallery, consciously or unconsciously, partakes in that discourse and social relation.

The channels of exchange in the dissemination of information are not value-free. Likewise, image-text relations are far from innocent; but our analysis of them cannot he broken down to an examination of either the content or formal levels alone. In Privileged Positions, six rows of sets of three colour photographs accompanied by three texts to the side, Collyer explored how a sequence of images ambiguously could accommodate itself to a narrative and act as an illustration or “explanation” of the meaning, a sort of moral of the text. Untitled (magazine), forty-four pages of mock magazine, shows that the ideological processes of meaning are not so simple as to suggest that the caption alone directs the reading of an image. What is evident here is not the subtle or not so subtle directing of meaning, but the authority of labelling: an intimidating and forceful assault on the reader. A violent antagonism is acted out in layout, headlines, inserts of photographs, presentation of data in graphs, etc.

This work helps us locate the threat latent in Collyer’s other sculptures. A late work such as Buy Me (1981) returns these findings to the object level. Rather than investigate the ideological practices of representation in television, Collyer instead set up its structure of referendum response in a pair of facsimile television units. The one, mechanically implying projection by means of a fan in front of a small monitor altogether housed in a larger set, and the other, implying reception through a receding sequence of stepped lights, are traps for binary response. What is delivered to television and its advertisers (i.e., bought — “Buy Me”) is the audience, the mass of people that inhabit the barred photo-graph attached to the wall behind the sets.

Buy Me is one of three sculptures exhibited in 1981 that examined the role, or rather, function of the viewer in art and different systems of representation. The viewer was implicated both positively and negatively in what the works presented and what they brought to attention. In other words, they concerned what was mine and what was theirs, when the mine was more than the “me” of “Buy me”.

Industrial/mine/Theirs, like so much of Collyer’s sculpture, bridges wall and floor—three objects on the floor and two planar elements on the wall. And like the earlier pieces, such as Lance Allworth, it is not an installation, but remains a sculpture ensemble to be approached frontally and read internally. This approach binds us to specific directions of reading: from left to right or right to left for the objects, although the former may seem more “natural” to us, and from floor to wall in the case of the two objects that have corresponding elements directly behind them on the wall. Each of the units has a direct reference or indirect association: a plastic model refinery to its real counter-part, for instance. On another level, the elements can refer to one mode of production but indicate another. The wall component corresponding to the model refinery is a plastic vacuform relief. Its material indicates petroleum technology, but it depicts a gear (actually, it is a seamless index of a gear, like a footprint in the sand). A mechanical industrial product is represented in a process of a more recent industry; and the whole is hung on the wall as a sign, although the process does not display itself, only the sign of the gear. As they operate on two levels, these are not simply objects of commodity fetishism. They refer to a world of industry but indicate a process of technological transformation: old production processes, and hence social relations, are dissembled or aestheticized in newer technology. From part to part on the floor, we see a devolution from the “solid”, “concrete” box (it is already a sign since it is a hollow and backless wood structure covered in plaster) on the left, to the open, filiform metal chair frame in the mid-le, to the plastic model on the right. And as above, we witness the devolution, or, rather, evolution from commodity to sign. Objects take on a sign value: we do not see their use values or commodity forms as much as their part in a system of signs .[4]

The objects on the floor are permutational , as the direction of reading them is reversible, But if they change their order, a corresponding shift has to follow with the wall elements. The gear is tied to the model, both by its material and its position, and the Bauhaus-type, geometric abstract design, that vacillates between print and painting, is tied to a Bauhaus or Le Corbusier-like chair frame. The “painting” is at the same time the symbolic duplication of a machine aesthetic, and a degeneration into the design environment of fabric art for bank walls—an empty sign. Whereas an industrial product was turned into an art sign in the case of the vacuform gear, here the painting tries to lake on industrial effects.

With each object having a reference, the whole is like a rebus; but while associations are possible, subjectivity is regulated by the structural relation of the objects. The work, however, operates more like a sentence with a horizontal axis of interchangeable objects on the floor (after linguistics, we could call this the metonymic chain) and an invariant vertical axis (similarly, the metaphoric series) associating wall and floor. 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 as synchronic traces, as representations.

What is mine and what is theirs are questions of how we address the work and how it addresses us, or what addresses us through it. Something old, something new, something scary has a tripartite construction—two objects on the floor and, on the wall, a single, large photographic compilation of images shot from a television screen. The relation between the three is not positional or syntactical but on the order of resemblance. Still, we have the quantifying references of the title. The “something” of the title is like the “I” of I’m still a Young Man: it is filled by “old”, “new”, “scary”, perhaps in reference, reading from left to right:, to the old books, the new papier-maché model of a fluid pump, and the scary bombs, missiles and violence of the photographs. In turn, these three elements are like the three parts of I’m still a young Man: the stage-set vacuform books compare to the facsimile tent; the pump to the sculpture; and the photographs with images of aircraft to the model airplane. Only now the idylls of youth are threatened and the models have taken on an ominous role: as simulations, they are both models and deceptions.

Unlike the earlier material comparisons and contrasts, the collection of images now document representations and resemblances of look, function and name: a toy missile in hand, a missile in the air; a model of a pump, a fashion model; a mouth and an audio speaker. The latter pair mimic each other in look and function. The images also catalogue modes of address to which we are subject. These modes of address, which take place through representations produced by mechanical means, establish positions for us in everyday life, and through the photograph here more so than through any other element of the work. The floor objects do not determine positions for us: they are fairly open to our approach. As simulations, however, they are only paths to the images in the photograph—concrete entries to representation through resemblance to real objects. The fashion model addressed to our look is one example of adherence to a code that rein-forces sexual stereotypes and consumption values. The word, as given in the central position of the mouth and speaker, is another. Louis Althusser has written that: “all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects, by the functioning of the category of subject.” He goes on to say:

I shall then suggest that ideology “acts” or “functions” in such a way that it “recruits” subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or it “transforms” the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace every-day police (or any other) hailing, “Hey, you there!”[5]

The individual is subject to that address everyday. On another level. every time we enter an art gallery, we are invited unquestionably to assume a function within a system of the creation of Value. Not only is concrete individuality dis-placed, individual speech is lost to the authority of art’s codes. We might become subject to the address of Collyer’s works if at the same time they did not didactically display that threat. This is the double warning of Collyer’s intention —watch out, then pay attention. It is no coincidence that the invitation to Robin Collyer’s exhibition of these last three sculptures showed a low-income city apartment block from a window of which hailed a threatening “HEY!”


 I. The examples I take to show this development—and l shall concentrate on the sculpture alone—are pre-chosen by those works from 1969 - 1981 exhibited at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre (23 April -3U May, 1982). The exhibition was organized by Philip Fry and will circulate across the country in 1983. In his catalogue essays and entries, Fry is engaged in a strategy of description which is interesting in its own right except that it falls short of an analytical overview. The present article simply tries to make up for what is left out of that strategy, but which, at times, may be read through the lines of Fry’s text. Individual works by Collyer often have shrouded themselves in obscurity—seemingly willful and aggressive at times. It is unfortunate that this exhibition will not be seen in Toronto where most of the works were exhibited at the Carmen Lamanna Gallery over a decade, because seen together, not only are all the works clarified, and an intention uncovered, but we see where the aggression is coming from and where it is directed.

2. This 1933 essay by Harold D. Lasswell is quoted in Noam Chomsky, Towards a New Cold War, (New York: Pantheon, 1982), p. 66.

3. Georg Lukács, History and Class Conscisuness, (Cambridge: MIT, 1971), p. 49.

4. For an analysis of the culmination of the commodity in a sign system, see Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, (St. Louis: Telos, 1981).

5. Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy, (London: NLB, 1971), pp. 162 - 163. Baudrillard warns us, though, that ‘By not submitting use value to this logic of equivalence in radical fashion, by maintaining use value as the category of “incomparability,” Marxist analysis has contributed to the mythology (a veritable rationalist mystique) that allows the relation of the individual to the objects conceived as use values to pass for a concrete and objective—in sum, “natural—relation between man’s needs and the function proper to the object.’ (p. 134). Instead “consumption does not arise from an objective need of the consumer, a final intention of the subject towards the object; rather, there is a social production, in a system of exchange, of a material of differences, a code of significations and invidious values. The functionality of goods and individual needs only follows on this, adjusting itself to, rationalizing and in a stroke repressing these fundamental structural mechanisms. “The origin of meaning is never found in the relation of a subject (given a priori as autonomous and conscious) and an object produced for rational ends—that is properly, the economic relation, rationalized in terms of choice and calculation. It is to be found, rather, in difference, systematizable in terms of a code (as opposed to private calculation)—a differential structure that establishes the social relation, and not the subject as such.” (p. 75).