Interview: Robin Rhode
By Selina TIng
Playing with abstraction illusionism, Robin Rhode (*1976, Cape Town, South Africa) hijacks public space and transforms it into a personal dreamscape where flat renderings of daily objects becomes 3-dimensional ones. Through a precise physical interaction with his drawn objects which Rhode then registers by photography and composes into digital animations, simple abstract shapes are transformed into elements of narratives, often highlighting moments of conflicts and possible failure. In Board (2003), for example, the persona (played by the artist himself) attempts get hold of all the commodities fallen from heaven like in a video game. However, beyond than an individual's capacity, these objects (TV, table, chair, cars, etc) all crashed into the persona and finally killed him, evoking a shared desire for urban property and success among his generation.
In the interview, Robin Rhode shares with us his concepts of art, his growing up in South Africa, his insecurity and uncertainty as a young artist migrating into the centre of the art world from a periphery region.
Robin Rhode's work is currently showing in Framed, Indianapolis Museum of Art – IMA, until 06 March 2011; The Dissolve, SITE Santa Fe Biennial 2010, Santa Fe, NM , until 06 Feb 2011. Rhode will also participate in 21st Century: Art in the First Decade, Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, starting on 19 Dec 2010; Staging Action: Performance in Photography Since 1960 in MoMA - Museum of Modern Art, New York, opening on 28 Jan 2011.
On Claiming Space in Street Art
ST: You have been living in Berlin since 2001. Are you now doing work in Berlin as well?
Robin Rhode: No, not in Berlin. I tried but it doesn’t work. There are always alerted police observing me, curious neighbors watching me. It’s too much. Whereas in South Africa, the city is more losing, wild, the space is undefined, opened, free for everyone to claim. When you do street art in Johannesburg, you feel like you have to take the space now, it’s yours now. Maybe tomorrow someone will take over your work, but there is this new democracy that allows individuals to see and understand public space and the self differently. There is a room for you to create for yourself.
ST: It’s also to do with the concept of public and private sphere, which is the politics of street art. But I wonder it’s also part of the lifestyle in Africa where the habit of carrying out part of the private life in the public space is very common.
Robin Rhode: Definitely! Life in South Africa is more community-oriented and the sense of society is more conscious to the people – everyone is involved in the public community life. Europe is so dense, so closed that you have mental block. People tend to keep a distance. That’s why sometimes I struggle to work in the streets here. Berlin is a place for me to contemplate, to devise strategies of working. My studio is also an interesting place where I do all the drawing process. So when I go to the street, I execute my work very fast. I know what I have to do, the rhythm, the image, the composition, the movements, etc. I go to the street very well-prepared.
ST: Can we say that your Berlin studio gives you a context for analytical thinking, and out in the street, it’s the spontaneity that rules?
Robin Rhode: Yes, exactly! And I use the analytic position to adjust myself to a point so that when I enter a public context, I am able to allow my spirit to release and to be absorbed by the particular space. For example, the new work with Berlin Chair [Requiem for a Pavilion of Silence (2010)] that I have just showed you, when we were on the site, my performer looked at me after we sprayed the drawing, and said, “now what?” I was thinking what we were going to do. The preparation was up to this point, and now we had to be inspired and just do what we felt from the space. It was very organic; just let the process come to you. You know, we had all these graphic forms, now we had to allow the space, the situation to take us to the final destination.
ST: Which means, though you prepared well in your studio, you don’t come to the spot with all the sequences on papers or in your head.
Robin Rhode: No. We don’t prepare the drawings, because you can’t find exactly what you want in a single space. You have to adapt to the situation, and there is the outside influences that force me not to do the images in a certain way.
ST: So, just the framework and then improvise.
Robin Rhode: Yes. We prepare the idea but we allow all the elements from the space to influence us. We allow risks to emerge and find solutions to the problems.
ST: Most of your works are highly choreographed, and you actually filmed them from an aerial angle, how did you manage to have the precise bodily position?
Robin Rhode: The physicality is being choreographed… Maybe I have a physical narrative that offset by the drawing narrative. The drawing is dictating other physical aspects and I am often confronting the physical aspect of my working process.
ST: Is this sense of physicality, of choreographed positioning a gift or a trial-and-error training process?
Robin Rhode: I won’t say it’s a gift otherwise I would be thinking too much about myself. But I think it has something to do with my childhood. The society where I grew up was very gestural, very performative, very storytelling. People love making jokes and creating situations, manipulating everything into something gestural and funny. I still remember all the jokes and how they turned silly situations into some entertaining. It also has to do with the social situation. I think it was almost a way to cope with the political dramas. When I was a student, I realized this kind of very unique situation, how the body devised a way to transcend the socio-political situation. I had a lot of fun in observing all these. But of course, I had very strong memories of violence, of political instability. But at the same time, there was freedom; it was a moment for wild creativity and fun.
ST: Because it was a moment of vacuum, a moment of unforeseeable changes that one has to be very alert and flexible. Also, body language is something that can be easily passed on from one to another. I am now influenced by the way your talk, the way you move your body. So I can imagine you as a kid imitating the politician’s talk show on the TV, for example. Through these, you develop an understanding of how the body and gestures work.
Robin Rhode: It’s a whole system of science!! [Laugh…]
ST: Are you a good dancer? Sorry for the stereotyping, but it seems like every African in sneakers will do a hip-hop and every African in black suit and white gloves will start tap dancing, like in Promenade…
Robin Rhode: well, that’s me! [Laugh…] I don’t dance a lot now but I was a break dancer, dancing in the streets. I am very much into street art. But I am not a graffiti artist.
ST: Your work is more conceptual than graffiti…
Robin Rhode: Yes. Some graffiti artists reject my work but some like it a lot, and find it very flexible. Because it can be shown in a contemporary art context, but can be just be out there in the street. I like to keep this flexibility. I don’t reject the white cube, I don’t give priority.
On the Aesthetics of the Desire
ST: What kind of graffiti art did you see in Johannesburg when you were young?
Robin Rhode: Actually there wasn’t that much graffiti art, it was mainly mural paintings. They were closer to official mural art with an educational purpose, even religious symbols, cityscapes of New York, of Venice, lakes of swans, images of African bourgeois life, etc.
ST: Sounds like they all referred to another kind of aesthetics which was not available in the daily life.
Robin Rhode: Absolutely! It was fascinating, I loved them so much. It was almost like a dreamscape for me. The murals were not done by skillful artists, but people with passions for beautiful life... Let’s paint the skyline of Manhattan, because that’s the shortest way to New York. Or let’s paint the Venetian canal… it was very fascinating because the desire is very authentic. But aesthetically I couldn’t really relate to it because of the lack of technique. So I said to myself “I could do it better than this”. It’s funny, I didn’t realize until now that what I am doing is in fact influenced by what I saw at that time!
ST: It’s like a fixed physical space that allows you to travel to your dreamland.
Robin Rhode: Yes, I love the idea of taking a public space and transforming it into another world. Now all the images are coming back to me!! I remember there is a mural in a very dangerous area, lots of gangster and drug addicts there. But on the mural, you saw ballroom dancers under the moonlit sky! I thought it was so real and so unreal at the same time. It was wonderful to me because I understood the motivation, why these images existed there. Here in Berlin graffiti art is highly stylized, just super graphic tags. I am not interested in working in this kind of context.
ST: Your work is full of fantasy as well, all the minimal geometrical forms make them elegant and poetic.
Robin Rhode: Now I am thinking that maybe I am too poetic! Perhaps I should be very rough and edging.
ST: You don’t feel comfortable with the term “poetic”? Because it contradicts your interests in popular cultural forms?
Robin Rhode: Because I didn’t start with the idea of being “poetic”. I was trying to be rough, quick and cool, that’s why they are just marks, sprays, and charcoal. At this phrase, I am more abstract, but if a drawing shift to becoming poetic, I can’t escape it.
ST: But it has also to do with the music, the colour, the mood, as well… How did you choose the music?
Robin Rhode: I worked with a musician friend from Berlin and we just brainstorm on it.
ST: Why piano?
Robin Rhode: It’s just recently. I did a world tour with the pianist Leif Ove Andsnes last year. What I tried to do is to deconstruct the notion of the piano and I became very influenced by the object. That’s why there is Promenade (2008), it was inspired by Modest Mussorgsky’s piano music (1864). So there is this kind of poetic journey…
ST: Let’s talk about the idea of the journey… What an image can create? Like the mural paintings in your youth, they project a desire, a dream and fantasy onto the onlookers and took them onto a journey towards a better future. That’s also what your works are about.
Robin Rhode: Yes. I guess it’s a very central theme. But at the very beginning, I didn’t see that. It was about taking the space and creating an imaginary world, giving the space a power, and making public our shared dreams.
ST: Do your works stay where they were created?
Robin Rhode: Sometimes. It depends on the landlord. If it’s not a commission, then I would get myself into troubles if I didn’t have the permission. At the very beginning, I was even beaten for that. Now I negotiate for the permission. Sometimes my work would get bombed by the other graffiti artists, but I don’t care since my work is the photograph and the video. Recently, when I returned to Johannesburg, I found my works actually stayed. I think they started to like this kind of abstract drawings. But you know, sometimes the older generation would ask me “please leave us a message, please tell the youth to say no to crime!”
ST: Haha… they want you to become a traitor in your street art community!! Are you a missionary now?!
Robin Rhode: These are the community people, drawing on wall for them are that kind of murals which should have a message. Now, as I continue to work in South Africa, the younger generation there start to see this as another escape. Someone is doing something on wall which is about the act of doing, about constructing false imaginations on the wall for the pure pleasure of doing, and not controlling or dictating certain kind of social values. Maybe I should create this freedom in the community for people to do things for their own great spirit. Maybe I should try to do this!
ST: Another kind of missionary, sir!
On Becoming an artist
ST: Why did you choose to settle down in Berlin?
Robin Rhode: It was for love, not for art. I moved to Berlin for the woman I love who is now my wife.
ST: Romantic love story! How did you feel at the beginning?
Robin Rhode: It was very difficult at the beginning, I never feel myself part of the Berlin art scene. It has to do with my identity. Berlin is very international but still it’s a very white scene, very European. I was always the only black in the events and I was easily marked out by people.
ST: You felt insecure when you just moved Berlin? Like uncertain with your work?
Robin Rhode: Yes!
Robin Rhode: I think yes! It’s the ambivalence of being in and out. You know, when I first arrived, I found works of artists by my generation highly conceptual, grounded on Western modernity, and I felt very insecure because I didn’t feel that I had the same grounding, the same foundation of ideas, of influences, and the same accessibility to theory, history, literature, philosophy, etc. They were so advanced in theory and I didn’t have the same level of education. All these created a distance and an insecure sense about my work.
ST: How did you overcome all these?
Robin Rhode: I became a scholar! I did research, I picked up knowledge and information. My artist friend Moshekwa Langa felt the same, so we worked very hard together to inform us with all kind of information. In my formative years in Johannesburg, we learnt only the skills not the theories. When I saw a European artist making art about a particular philosopher, it was a complete luxury to me. So, I have been accumulating knowledge and keep growing. Now I have developed my skill, I have developed my knowledge, and now I would claim my situation!
ST: You are ready, so you don’t need to feel insecure anymore!
Robin Rhode: Well… I do! But it can be a kind of motivation! Now I like to think that even I am from a particular geographical periphery, I don’t need to be associated with that, my work can touch on other aspects. That’s what I am doing every time when I go back to Johannesburg, I talk a lot about how our work can be related to something else and not necessarily always be referred to its geographical cultural position… how our work can also have impact on other aspects of art, etc.
ST: It’s also about the ambivalent attitude of assimilation and alienation in the global art market for contemporary art. An artist from the periphery regions is expected to produce recognizable cultural symbols in order to be catalogued into a marketable group.
Robin Rhode: Yes… but the market shifts and speculates on short term basis, at a moment, African artists were hot, then Chinese artists were hot, then it was South American artists’ turn, now Indian artists are hot, etc.
ST: Still remember your first solo show? Was it in Berlin or Johannesburg?
Robin Rhode: My first solo show was in a public art space in Johannesburg, and 50% of my works was stolen. I made an installation with old shoes stuck inside the wall, you can imagine an invisible being climbing the wall, and at the end of the show, all the shoes were stolen by homeless people.
ST: Oh, they really needed the shoes!!
Robin Rhode: Yeah, I just found it very poetic!
ST: It’s a very nice Act as well… from the artistic, aesthetic dimensions to the functionality of the work!!
Robin Rhode: This kind of situations interest me and also allow me to develop certain concepts, such as the idea of the different formalities of object and art… should it be interactive? Should a sculpture become a tool that allows public to interact so it won’t be isolated? Etc. I remember one time I did a performance in Johannesburg where I draw a bike on the wall and tried to ride it. Then a security guard came, I thought he was going to catch us all, but then he said, “wait, let me help you on the bike”…
ST: … in his uniform!
Robin Rhode: Exactly!
ST: He has a good sense of humour which turns a dangerous situation into something constructive.
Robin Rhode: Yes, and again, this is typically a South African situation. So I started to work on the idea of audience participation. Later, I initiated the concept of Drawing Field, where I reversed the role of the voyeurs and got them to do the performance. Most of my recent performances adapted this format, i.e. I initiate the performance and then throw it over onto the audience.
ST: At the same time the topic or subject you chose do have an echo in the audience, they are always about the desirable commodity, pop culture, such as the bicycle, the furniture, the sport, etc.
Robin Rhode: Yes, I take familiar situations into my work. The objects imply games… I like the idea of inclusion and exclusion in the games that you want to be involved, to contribute. This is very much the participatory format of my performance.
ST: Thank you very much!