Robin Rhode: Having Been There
By: Ysabelle Cheung
Conceptual artist Robin Rhode considers his work through two different contexts – the street and the gallery – ahead of his new solo show at Lehmann Maupin, writes Ysabelle Cheung.
Robin Rhode has terrific diction. Even over the cracked connection of our phone call, ahead of his show at Lehmann Maupin, his enunciated vowels zing with the kinetic energy of a ball gathering speed. It’s a fitting reflection of the work he’s best known for. Rhode’s street acts, in which he chalks or paints stationary objects on walls, and then engages with said objects, are energetic narratives, aggregates of Rhode’s scholarly references to early performance, action and street-influenced art – Vito Acconci, Jean-Michel Basquiat, the Japanese movement gutai – and to his own specific upbringing in post-apartheid South Africa. In high school, for instance, Rhode and his classmates participated in a hazing process that forced them to interact with static drawings on a wall. Up until Rhode enrolled in tertiary education in the arts, he says the act was ‘my singular creative outlet at the time of my youth’.
These references manifested early in his oeuvre and have continued to influence him. One of his first works in Johannesburg, Classic Bike (1998), saw Rhode attempting to mount, push, lean on and steal a chalked up bicycle on a wall (Rhode and his classmates could not afford such luxuries in high school). At Lehmann Maupin, he presents Birdman, a photograph showing him holding a saxophone while attached to a painted wing on the wall. The shadow behind him and the position of his feet – half tiptoed – are a trick of the eye, suggesting that he’s floating. This way of presenting the 2D, viewed through the world of 3D, creates an image rooted in both illusion and reality. “The medium of art is transformed through the physical act of engagement,” says Rhode. “As a young student exposed to mural culture, I began to see the street as a context for political activation, as a means to change the role of the audience. I began realising that the street itself could transform into another context, another world, another imagination.”
Another dimension is added to this when Rhode photographs these theatrical acts, often frame by frame. The title of his Lehmann Maupin show, Having Been There, exemplifies this process, and is taken from the Roland Barthes quote: ‘photography set up, [is] not a perception of the being there of an object... but a perception of it having been there’. The images are then physical memories of a spectacular illusion act once performed, subsequently shown in museums, private collections and galleries worldwide. Rhode on the street becomes Rhode in the gallery.
But the artist lets us in on a little confession. “For me, the exhibition is the boring part of my practice,” he admits, with a small sound of resignation. “It’s the process that has all the memories, and the process influences the nature of the artwork and the tempo and the vibe of it. The reactions and responses of the people on the street, the conditions pervading that particular process – that’s the part that has narrative.”
But unless you’re lucky enough to be privy to his ephemeral performances on the street, you’re unlikely to spot Rhode’s work in an environment set apart from the white cube space. His consideration of this, though, of access and his parallel audiences – the kids on the street playing ball, stopping to watch him catch a sketched chair on the wall, and the contemporary art critics of gallery hour – is something that he takes into account, especially with his upcoming solo show in Hong Kong.
At Lehmann Maupin, Rhode presents his photograph series accompanied by a wall drawing in oil crayon and vinyl, an installation setup he has only attempted once before in Switzerland. This, he mentions, is a new methodical approach – he’s trying to separate his work from the idea of a white cube space by transforming the four white walls into a conceptual landscape much like the streets he hijacks. “This is a new step in my practice, it’s a way for me to activate the space more,” he says. “The walls have a kind of anti-commercial aspect to them, because it’s difficult to sell wall drawings. I hope this kind of act, along with commercial photographic work, will begin to question the role of the gallery.” A new animation influenced by Eastern aesthetics is also shown, featuring a young boy interacting with a drawing of a koi on a wall.
And will we see one of his fleeting performances on the streets of Hong Kong? Rhode pauses for a while before answering. “I might be inspired, but over the years, I’ve curbed my enthusiasm because of authorities,” he says, a little wryly. “I don’t want to be a bad boy.”