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Robert Andrew's Unforgetting
Robert Andrew’s art works are orchestral. So long as you imagine an orchestra in which the conductor has a game plan but the performers are independently-minded and even secretly practice a little disobedience. No-one follows the same score.
Many of Andrew’s works feature continuously moving parts: fragments of wood, chalk, stone and shell. Sometimes the works are complex mobile installations that dip, sway and bob. Other times, they are mechanical paintings that make or rework themselves. Usually, the motions are controlled by an electronic system that adapts open-source Arduino programming technology.
Systems Theory states that a master plan—no matter how much it tries to foresee and control its output through modelling, risk assessments and contingency measures—is only a blueprint. Try feeding an algorithm into a network of pendulums whose shapes are organic and asymmetrical. Input pulses of kinetic energy at steady intervals. Then observe the suspended objects performing to their own irregular schedule, one governed by a combination of Hooke’s law, force vectors and torque, tension and gravity, linear momentum, the elastic potential energy of the braided nylon fishing line, and the uneven weight distributions of the objects it suspends. Do not forget to factor in fluctuations in temperature and the gentle air currents generated by human bodies moving through the exhibition space. Then stand back and watch the quirks work their way through the system like kinks rippling themselves loose.
Of the forces that Robert Andrew’s art work brings into play, the ones that matter most are friction and resistance. He titled his most recent exhibition An Unforgetting (2018). Why choose this word, with its hint of a double-negative, and its suggestion of retrieval and reversal? At the very least, because the artist unleashes forces and counter-forces.
The motif of memory, and the threat of its loss, stalks our history, as it does that of all colonial countries. In Australia, it keeps two strangleholds. When Rudyard Kipling included ‘lest we forget’ in his poem ‘Recessional’ (1897), he spoke what later became the Anglophone world’s favourite phrase for commemorating the war dead.
Decades later, Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies used the slogan ‘The Forgotten People’ (1942) in one of this nation’s most famous political speeches. What group did he claim were overlooked by the rest of the nation? Not Indigenous people; he meant the white middle classes.1 Menzies said that through their children, these middle classes would contribute to the immortality of their race.2 His message is startling alongside the official policies of forced-removals and assimilation imposed on Aboriginal people before, during and after his two Prime Ministerial terms. While Robert Andrew’s exhibition touches on an electrified connection between race and liberty, it is not in the way that Menzies had in mind.
One of Andrew’s art works is a video projection in which we witness the vertical scrolling of archival documents on the screen. Each replaces the other too quickly to be read. We snatch only words and phrases. As it turns out, they are letters sent between the artist’s great-grandmother and the Englishman with maybe the poshest name in Australia’s history: Auber Octavius Neville. He had to go by his initials; otherwise Aussies might have crucified him for affectation. A.O. Neville held the official position of Chief Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia between the years of 1915 and 1940.3 The protection he offered included taking guardianship of children, arranging their removal from their mothers, putting them into institutions where they were locked up at night, compelling them into domestic and stock work around age fourteen, controlling the geographical movements of individuals and groups, and overseeing a system of non-payment or under-payment of Aboriginal workers’ wages.4 The documents in Andrew’s video reveal his great-grandmother applying and re-applying to Neville for citizenship of Australia. Their letters span two decades. Neville stymies her claims. His continued objection is that she is consorting with Aborigines. To be Australian, she must align herself only with white people and identify as such. She got her citizenship in the end. She stared him down for twenty years. Neville was the first to blink. The ceaseless scrolling of the video, like the seemingly endless torrent of letters, signals her tenacity. The persistence of her letters acted like a repetitive chafing, a slow wearing down of Neville’s resistance.
These symbolic abrasions and erosions find concrete expression throughout Andrew’s art practice. In some of his installations, pigmented materials rub themselves onto the gallery wall or the floor. Other works dissolve the surfaces of painted panels. Data Stratification, for example, comprises fragments of stone and burnt or ochred wood suspended on acrylic lines. They scrape themselves over the wall to leave a residue that records their own gestures. The marks accumulate and darken over the course of the exhibition. This artwork exists in order to draw itself.
In another work, Information Transfer #3, water spurts from a repurposed car fuel-injector driven across a white surface by a plotter mechanism programmed with G-code. The spray clears gaps in the panel’s coating of chalk—gaps that reveal layers of ochre and oxide underneath, and a sheet of transparent acrylic below. Over time, the jets of liquid wear away more and more of the surface. The voids join up to spell out a word: BURU. It comes from the Yawuru language of Andrew’s great-grandmother. He tells me it refers partly to land, country, soil, time, and space. But no string of English words is an adequate stand-in. The word BURU is both legible and invisible, making a clearing in the perspex through which we see the street beyond the gallery. The blast of liquid, acted on by gravity, dribbles the ochre down. It forms drips, ridges and rivulets. Pigment banks up around and below the scraped-out letters. The art work converts surface into substance: it erodes a flat plane down into a ragged text. Conversely, it extrudes the word out into a dynamic topography. The word, BURU, emerges to perform its own landscape.
In a third work, one that is also titled Data Stratification, objects plunge and sway just in front of the gallery wall. They throw shifting shadows. Like most dancing, the movements leave no vestiges but are lost to memory immediately as they unfold. Pearl shell, short tree branches, cut sandstone and bluestone—from near Andrew’s studio or from his great-grandmother’s country near Broome—are raised, swung and lowered on nylon strings. Their complex choreography is reminiscent of marionettes and symphonic scores. Unlike two-dimensional depictions of landscape, the work represents the natural world as a vibrating assembly of metal, air, shell, wood and stone.
Tracing all the suspension lines to their origin reveals that these three works are governed by a single mechanism on the floor at the centre of the gallery. An aluminium carriage sliding over an axial track orchestrates all the movements around the perimeter. It tightens the strings on one work while slackening those of another.
Andrew reveals that the mechanical movements he programmed are sequences of handwriting strokes that form the English spellings of Yawuru words. But they are words the viewer can never apprehend. The script is dispersed through abstracted spatial translations. Yawuru language is a kind of hidden driver, but its words become forgotten and remembered through electronic and mechanical instructions that expose, blur, layer or disguise them. The software that tugs and slackens the artworks’ nylon strings is a code. So is spoken and written language. Language modifies and solidifies meaning. Language can suppress meaning too. And not only through ‘weasel words’ or Orwellian Newspeak. In all her dealings with Neville’s bureaucracy Andrew’s great-grandmother’s spoken Yawuru was smothered and silenced by written English.
Queensland academic, Patrick Nunn, refers to the tyranny of literacy that discredits deep historical knowledge transmitted across generations in oral cultures in Indigenous Australia and elsewhere.5 Societies that rely on oral transmission perform memory better. They are expert at recalling and retelling. They invest more in memory because more is at stake. Human memory, transmitted person-to-person, hedges against forgetting the lessons of the past or repeating its mistakes. In the absence of writing, memory is a perpetual performance and requires constant diffusion. Cultures that rely on writing need memory less because their information is easily outsourced for possible future retrieval. It is stored externally to humans in the form of records and data.
In Australia’s history, white men like Kipling and Menzies have monopolised the idea of remembrance. Robert Andrew’s art work whistles memory back from them. Or else, maybe it does not… not entirely. He descends from both Aboriginal people and white settlers. He does not seek to correct white history’s mistakes by replacing its narrative with an alternative, authoritative Aboriginal version. Instead, his work locates the places where the different impulses of his ancestries—black and white—create sink holes and eruptions, ridges and fault lines.
Andrew brings energies, words and materials into relation using electro-mechanical systems. Then he stands back to see what plays out: what and how movement occurs; what and how marks are left or erased; what and how words appear or disappear. From his Aboriginal ancestry, Andrew brings spoken Yawuru language and its representations of place, land and time. From his white culture, he brings writing and systems of software and mechanics. From a place where his Aboriginal and Western ancestries have smashed up against each other, he brings the letter-writing volley—serve-and-return—between one of these cultures and the other.6
In An Unforgetting, the sequence loops itself every six-minutes. But despite the core mechanics being regular, controlled and precise in their sequencing, the movements generated at the ends of the braided nylon strings vary surprisingly. For instance, over time, the repeated bobbing and swaying of one individual rock builds up a generalised smudge of grey by rubbing against the gallery wall. But a few stray dark lines emerge surprisingly from this smudge, as if a blip has invaded the system. In fact, these stark departures may be accounted for thus: periodically—but at intervals that are in no way predicted by the art work’s overall six-minute periodicity—any given nylon cable may twist to a point of maximum tension and the input of further kinetic energy can only snake back out through it, whipping-out its suspended object with unexpected force.
The longer the lines, and the greater the distance between the system’s hub and its periphery, the more extreme the anomalies that may emerge. The controlled centre contends with outliers who misbehave. Not unlike the way that A.O. Neville’s letters communicated an official position within a system that the artist’s great-grandmother gradually derailed. Neville pushed. Robert Andrew’s great-grandmother pushed back. Push and pull. Talk and torque. Friction and resistance. Force and counter-force.
Robert Andrew, Data Stratification - (re)scribing language, 2018. Detail of suspended components against wall: stone and oxide and binder on burnt wood, time-based, kinetic work, dimensions variable. Photograph Robert Andrew. Courtesy the artist.
Robert Andrew, Information transfer #3, 2015-2018. Detail of water jet dissolution of ochre, oxide and chalk on acrylic sheet, time-based, kinetic work, dimensions variable. Photograph Robert Andrew. Courtesy the artist.
Robert Andrew, Data Stratification, 2018. Plotter mechanism and moving components suspended on acrylic lines: ochre, oxides and binder on burnt wood, pearl shell, etched and cut sandstone and bluestone tiles, time-based, kinetic work, dimensions variable. Photograph Joanne Thies. Courtesy the artist.
Robert Andrew, an unforgetting, 2018. Installation view, detail of adapted plotter mechanism, time-based, kinetic work, dimensions variable. Photograph Robert Andrew. Courtesy the artist.
1. Middle class is a contested term but in mid-20th Century Australia, it was largely defined as white male white-collar workers, their spouses and their children. The category did not include Aboriginal people who were treated as an underclass regardless of their working status. It has been argued by some that numerous Indigenous Australians have filled the ranks of Australia’s middle classes over the last twenty years or so but even this claim is challenged. See for example, Chelsea Bond’s article for the ABC called ‘Class is the new Black: The Dangers of an obsession with the “Aboriginal middle class”’, 28 June 2017. Accessed at https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-06-28/opinion-class-is-the-new-black-ch...
2. Robert Gordon Menzies, ‘The Forgotten People’, speech delivered on Macquarie Radio on 22 May, 1942. Assessed 10 November 2018 at http://www.liberals.net/theforgottenpeople.htm
3. National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families (Australia), Bringing them home, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Sydney, 1997.
4. ibid, Chapter 7. This report goes on to say of Western Australia, ‘In the early 1930s allegations of slavery, mistreatment of Aborigines and abuse of Aboriginal women appeared in the local and international press… The pressure of this publicity forced the government to establish a Royal Commission into the conditions of Aborigines, headed by a Perth magistrate, H D Moseley.’ One piece of oral evidence given by Mary Bennett to this Royal Commission of Enquiry said of Aboriginal people under this regime, ‘they are not safe until they are dead’, Pat Jacobs, Mister Neville: A Biography, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Perth, 1990, p.234.
5. Patrick Nunn, The Edge of Memory: Ancient Stories, Oral Tradition and the Post-Glacial World, Bloomsbury, London, 2018.
6. Not all these statements are quite true. Andrew brings speech and a feeling of place from his white ancestry too, and technologies from his Aboriginal heritage. So, you must not trust everything I write. Robert Andrew makes art from an Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspective. But unlike him, I am not Aboriginal; I write only from white.
Andrew brings energies, words and materials into relation … Then he stands back to see what plays out: what and how movement occurs; what and how marks are left or erased; what and how words appear or disappear.
Christine Morrow is an Australian artist and writer currently undertaking a PhD in Geneva, Switzerland.