Peter Robinson: Cultural Castaway - Art Collector

Issue 49, July - September 2009

Download PDF

New Zealander Peter Robinson takes issue with the sanitised symbols of cultural identity, writes Edward Colless. Instead of despair, he responds to this cultural flotsam with Robinson Crusoe-like resourcefulness, recycling the wreckage into corrupt new forms of meaning.

Castaway on his deserted Caribbean island, Robinson Crusoe made the most of the flotsam and jetsam washed up from the wreckage of distant colonial trade and traffic. Along with exploiting the island’s natural resources and the occasional stray indigenous inhabitant of the region, the offshore bric-a-brac started him off and kept him going, in what the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau lauded as exemplary self-reliance, for 28 years of remote isolation. It’s hard to resist drawing a comparison, opportunistic as it may sound, with Peter Robinson’s artistic methods, if not also with the sense of artistic destiny, or at least plight, that his work has repeatedly staged.

New Zealand is, of course, hardly an uncharted island and Peter Robinson, who lives and works in Auckland, is anything but shipwrecked. He has a solid footprint in the place, with Maori ancestry mixed in with his European genealogy. This was the subject of much of his work throughout the 1990s, appropriating, often with bitter irony, traditional Maori motifs that had been taken and redesigned for corporate and government cultural logos, and which had been commodified and enervated by the very process of their political validation. In Robinson’s acerbic critical perspective on New Zealand cultural identity, the signs of self-possession, territory and heritage are displayed as if they’ve been denuded and denaturalised rather than corrupted, as if they have irreversibly lost their native, authentic meanings and become flotsam on the waves of a global cultural current. Washed up – that is, as sanitised icons as well as tidal debris – they are the residue of a cultural wreckage.

Robinson’s strategy is to treat this material to a kind of recycling that returns it in a corrupt form, flinging back political and cultural correctness in what the Rastas once called a “rude” tongue: illiterate, pugnacious, spirited with an unholy vengeance we might call it, doing a sort of dumpster dive. The style of his work is thus a mode of graffiti, whether in a precise sense of writing placards, tags and slogans (twisting, for instance, Colin McCahon’s anxious spirituality of Boy am I scared into the emotive brag and self-lacerating celebration of Boy am I scarred), or in a more figurative way with large scale, densely compacted sculptural installations. Point of Infinite Density (1999) was an unfurled tarpaulin carrying a ramshackle circuit diagram of swarming litter: images and phrases downloaded from the internet, scavenged from contemporary cosmological theories and philosophical texts, and infused with a fierce taste for the rhetorical protestations of doomsday cults. It was a floating world, an island built up from castaway information as if it were both land reclamation and a garbage dump.

The vision in work like this is titanic, both in the scale of its references as well as in the destiny implied by its historical connotation. Culture is a mighty ship, believed to be unsinkable, but relentlessly going down with no lifeboats. In a strange way, though, this fabulous wreckage unleashes so much noise and detritus it acquires a perverse sort of beauty. Snow Ball Blind Time was an immense sculptural installation, filling the entire, almost 600 square metre floorspace at New Plymouth’s Govett-Brewster Gallery in 2008. Built entirely from polystyrene foam, it was a gigantic and fantastic architecture of floating rocks and chains: a Babylonian utopia of hanging gardens as encompassing as Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s satanic prisons and just as beautiful, with its snowy confection made from such a deliciously toxic material.

Share this page: