Robbie Rowlands steps into the single-story church to find the flooring completely gone. Beneath his feet, there’s just dirt and overgrown weeds, along with random wood stumps, a car battery, and empty bottles. This structure, built in 1904 and apparently long forgotten, will be Robbie’s studio for the month.
“I had an opportunity to create a temporary installation before the church’s demolition for a new, four-lane road,” explains the Melbourne-based artist. As such, The Offering was made entirely using materials on-site, and was only open to the public for 11 days.
Fortunately, Robbie’s no stranger to working with what’s at hand. He started doing site interventions as a student in New York, initially as a way to escape the studio.
“I suppose it was also a way for me to get a sense and understanding of a new place,” he says. “With site interventions, there is a great challenge of not making the space appear like an incomplete demolition. There are also aspects of occupational health and safety. But the beauty is that sites are both studio and material in one—you can really bunk down and sink into the work.”
Let’s start at the beginning… Describe how it was for you growing up in Melbourne. Were you brought up in a creative environment?
I grew up in the far eastern suburbs of Melbourne. I suppose I was lucky to have access to a fair amount of freedom, endless suburbs, and beautiful bushlands to explore. My family life was quite disjointed with split parenting, second marriages, and full-, step-, and half-siblings.
You sort of had to be creative to survive and escape the everyday. So I took to exploring and observing, finding secret places that had been forgotten or overlooked. Really, the idea of art was a kind of escape for me. It wasn’t at all very advanced. I never really thought a career as an artist existed—I don’t think I even entered a gallery until the age of 18.
In my first immersive art course, I was suddenly surrounded by a crazy crew of young artists and some fantastic, inspiring teachers, who introduced me to an incredible depth of art, film, and music. I was bombarded with films, like Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky, and an early Melbourne art scene with artist like Imants Tillers and Stelarc. This was the big eye-opener.
But even after this, art and sculpting wasn’t always a clear-cut career for you.
I did spend a few years tracking through a career as a music producer and engineer. I really enjoyed the creativeness of sound, but it was primarily in service of someone else’s art form. Having to rely on musicians—that industry and their art form—to make things happen kind of got a bit tiring. I got to a certain point where I realized I wasn’t really satisfying my own artistic needs, so in my late twenties, I made the move to sculpture.
This was when you made the move up to New York?
The education system while I was in Victorian College of Arts had been ripped of a lot of funding. The universities were only a shadow of their former glory. But I was able to exchange to New York for part of my second year, and decided to really dig down and see what I was made of.
I found a rubbish skip filled with all this timber from a demolition site. I dragged a whole load of it back to my studio and decided it was all the material I was going to work with for the first half year. I just worked with an old Black & Decker circular saw—cutting, joining, and stacking—all while attempting this concentrated thought process and hoping it would infect the work. I suppose I was trying to see if whatever you are thinking of at the time of creation has the power to change the outcome, even when the action is just to determine at what point to cut a length of wood.
What led you to work with existing objects and sites as opposed to oh, say… painting?
Brooklyn was the definitive point when I began to use abandoned furniture and sites as raw material for work. There was always something dumped on the street, and I suppose using these was a way for me to get a sense and understanding of the place. It’s sort of anthropological study—an attempt to sit with an object or site, and kind of find a place where we communicate together and can define a way forward towards something new. Not introducing any other material—just the singular object or site, my thoughts, and many possibilities.
And these ‘experiments’ helped to create your own style?
Cutting became an icebreaker for my process of working. I suppose as soon as this action happened, I knew there is no turning back. It rejuvenated material that seemed tired and useless. Yes, I know the idea of cutting a leg of a chair doesn’t sound like a rejuvenating idea, but in a way, it liberates the objects from being used for their originally conceived purpose and opens them to new possibilities.
My actual craftsmanship is not all that incredible. I kind of cut a few corners and use tools for things that you aren’t meant to, like an angle grinder on wood and chisels for screwdrivers. But using tools that potentially can take your arm off, I do tend to pour an exhausting amount of concentration into each cut.
So, after this life-changing time in New York, you were back in your hometown. How were these first few years back as an artist?
I really felt I connected with something when I was in New York; but when I came back to Australia, it was kind of silent. I did have an option to stay in NY but chose, primarily due to a lack of income, to return to Australia for my last year. I found the art department kind of at a loss with my work. When I left art school, it was even worse. I was in a ghost town because I thought I was onto something important, but not many around me could see what I saw. The art scene, especially sculpture, was caught up in a kind of ‘multi-media’ adrenalin burst, which sort of left my practice lumped as some sort of old school scene that had supposedly been moved on from.
So I attempted to soldier on. But the silence was killing me, so I experimented with a few other paths, and slowly my practice dwindled away to nothing, with the final ironic moment of me ordering a rubbish skip so I could clear my studio out and close shop.
I was saved a few years later by a couple of young architecture students, Campbell Drake and James Carey, who had seen my third year show at the VCA and wanted me to help launch their new gallery and studio space with a show called Capsized. Plus, I applied for an emerging artist grant with images of the work from NY; and lo and behold, I was back and haven’t stopped since. Of course, there are always times that the silence still creeps in. I’ve learned to navigate through these and keep going.
Another group project of yours is the series of “site interventions” on soon-to-be-demolished structures, like Merrick’s Beach House and Glenda’s Bus Station. How did this come about?
I had done similar site-specific work back in Brooklyn in this abandoned warehouse. I would go there on Sundays as kind of a ritual and escape from the boundaries of the university. After about three months, I had created this floor work that had a fan-like form, very close to a swastika. There were a couple of mattresses on the floor that would always be in different positions when I returned to the space. Nothing else changed, only the mattresses and maybe a piece of clothing would appear. I never touched them and whoever was moving them and sleeping there didn’t touch my work.
One time, I arrived at the site, and there was a couple sitting on one of the mattresses. I was sort of thrown by this… I felt sort of completely wrong for being there. For me, this place was a choice and I could return to the comfort of my apartment, but for these people, it was their home. I felt I had invaded a sacred space. I didn’t return for a while, and only then to take some photos of the work. The site eventually was boarded up with my work still intact inside, and years later turned into luxury apartments.
It seems that a lot of what you do is temporary or in a state of movement. Some pieces, like the ones for Moving Galleries and your site interventions, don’t even exist anymore! I take it you’re the type who gets bored easily?
Actually, I don’t bore easily at all. Surprisingly, I worry sometimes that I’m not pushing for ‘the new’ enough. I really like the idea of ‘slow burn’ and just slowly stepping forward with a full sense of everything around me. I hope that idea of a kind of slowness comes through with the work. Taking time to clear the muck from your head and allow your emotions to guide the way you feel about your work.
So out of everything you’ve done so far, which ones have been the most memorable? The site or object work?
I think the most memorable was the Lamppost in Brooklyn, NY. I happened across the pole already cut down and about to be replaced with the new antique looking ones, and asked if I could have it. The guy obviously thought this could save him a trip and gladly handed it over. So I carted it up to the metal shop and sat on this metal saw for a couple of days, cutting into it and welding it into a curled form, all the time planning to reposition it back on the pedestal from where it came.
It was such a fluid sculpture. I acted on pure instinct all the way. When I finished and carted it over to the site, this crowd gathered around to check out what was going on. I sensed they recognized the pole and were mesmerized by its transformation.
Let’s go back to your studio for a bit. Tell us what kind of things we can find in there.
I’m pretty lucky to have found a large warehouse with way too much space and cheap rent. I’m terrible at keeping my spaces clean and always forget to eat when I’m in action mode. I still use very basic electric tools, such as a circular saw and angle grinders. I’m totally into my battery angle grinder, which allows me to go anywhere for work.
I don’t really listen to music while I’m working—I sort of like the sound of my brain buzzing around and the surround sounds of the studio or environment I’m working in. But music in preparation for entering the studio is important to me, getting into a mood that fits with my work. Musicians, such as Bon Iver, Bonnie Prince Billy, Bright Black Morning Light… maybe The Drones when its time to hit hard.
I’m guessing it must be a bit tricky, immersing yourself in such exhaustive work while still being a family man.
I remember one of my art lecturers telling me that starting a family would mean the last of my art career. I love a challenge! It has been a challenge to run an art career with a family, especially on a financial level. But I’m coming up to 11 years of parenting three children, and it has been incredibly rewarding. I would be hard pressed to say that my family hasn’t inspired or been part of my work. The process and responsibility of raising a family has ignited and tapped into many underlying issues of my own childhood.
The time limitations create a kind of spontaneous practice, with creative time being jammed into hours, not days. You tend to cut to the chase and ditch any loose baggage. I also realize how lucky I am to have what I have. Maybe my arts practice is a bit like a fourth child.
Do you think your work attracts a certain type of person or market?
This is hard to define with my work. I do feel uneasy at times, when some pieces are isolated within the arts industry. I’m doing what I do, and it just so happens that it fits into the arts industry. It’s not a case of changing my work to fit these dimensions, but allowing it to expand its parameters to a broader audience. I really enjoy creating work on the peripheral and respect the conversation of the public, who may not necessarily go to the main galleries.
I pushed for an online existence quite early on as a way to fight off the disengagement for the physical art scene. It kept me motivated and excited about wanting to create new work to feature. In hindsight, it was great preparation for the greater access I now have to an incredible international following, built through the many blog and webzine sites.
Last year, you gave a series of lectures at the College of Creative Studies in Detroit. What kind of things did you talk about?
The Detroit trip was incredibly full on and inspiring. I was kind of struck silent with the landscape—due to the depopulation, it was very silent and had an incredible beauty about it. But I am kind of attracted to ruins, so I suppose I’m a little biased. Really, I could have based myself there a whole year, especially since you can buy a house for $200.
When I’m home, the work is kind of a hint at the possibility of losing the structures that support us. But in Detroit, you are faced with it every day. I was able to create one work there with a fallen light pole, titled Fallen—Only 30 Detroit, as a kind of memorial for the loss of the city. A place that seemed so strong and vibrant and young.
You sort of have to accept that work is going to be around you 24/7. Art is something that you are kind of infected by. You have to tend to it, yet not let it overtake you. I tend to spend a lot of time with ideas floating around in my head, waiting for a time when I can get back into the studio or onto a site and create.
I don’t really pick up every thing I see on the street. I’m quite discerning. It’s often materials that have had a relationship with humans, which of course covers anything humanity has constructed. A lot of people actually offer up this and that; and at times, I think the objects find me.