On visiting Lon Robbé's studio

Michael Wright

On entering Lon's studio, which sits opposite the Amsterdam Zoo, my gaze was first drawn to shelves of domestic objects which were both familiar and unfamiliar, every one blackened and transformed by being dipped in molten wax. These forms registered quotes from Susan Sontag and Rosalind Krauss on the nature of photography, being akin to the process of sculpture in that both art forms are a cast of a form, both asserting an indexical trace of an original form and both asserting by its presence the absence of the original form. These domestic forms, now made sculptural forms, had been arrested and transformed by their submersion. They had become a kind of photograph and intuitively I sensed the correspondence between photograph and sculpture. The work prompted questions as to what a sculpture/photograph could or could not hold.

These sculptural pieces are part of a complex weave of language and intension. There is a residue of the romantic in the work, that feeling of intense personal attachment which resists reduction, a rebellious need to liberate forms from the tyranny of the prosaic taxonomy that lists and categorises and eventually dismisses the poetic… the work collectively bespeaks Lon's poetic desire to lift forms from their normative state of pragmatic reduction to function. The photographic and the sculptural process Lon applies to her work is both an act of resistance and a provocation to the consuming gaze. The strategy in her work both invites and requires you to engage and relate to the world of her work via the human channel of imaginative projection. The work prompts the imagination into action, why else would an artist cover forms in black wax? The application of the wax both amplifies the otherness of the object, pulling it out of the orbit of domestic consumption and asserting the object as form. This is an act of defiance to the consuming gaze, only allowing access to potential meaning via the poetic gaze, the gaze that relates to the world as a reverie on the nature of phenomenon. Lon is a phenomenological artist, she deals in phenomenon (Bachelarde, 'The poetics of space'). Bachelarde explains how the qualities of a space are more than the sum of its parts, that the true life of spaces resides in their poetic resonance, that spaces and forms resonate with associations.

Looking at Lon's photographs there is also a knowing referencing in photographs of arranged objects that tangentially reference the Dutch still life traditions and particularly Vermeer's interiors. What is being mined here is the way attributes of an image can exist in the memory and be recalled by minimal levels of association with a real lightness of touch.
There is also the desire to play with the associative readings of landscape and the mischievous misreading of scale which she exploits in her landscape images. One image in particular suggested a vast sublime vista, on closer examination was really made of prosaic and small scale material. In this image I was reminded of the British landscape painter Gainsborough. He bemoaned the fact that he had of financial necessity to paint boring patrons portraits when his real artist need and intention was to lose himself in the imaginative reconstruction of landscape space. His landscapes were not direct translations or impressions but were constructed first as physical microcosms, from twigs and branches gathered from walking the landscape and then arranged and set in clay to form a miniature constructed landscape. Positioned to catch the light and cast shadows, these constructed scenes were a distillation and imaginative reconstruction, a gathering of the traces of experience of moving through a landscape space condensed into an imaginative construct to act as a poetic prompt to memory rather than topographical description of a particular view. Lon similarly has the desire to process experience rather than simply record appearance. By  deconstructing and reconstructing experience the work also engenders a process of understanding of the synthetic nature of language as working not solely through description but as a process of evocation and association, language as equivalence. Lon's photographs are elaborate constructions which evoke and provoke associative readings, the images are constructs rather than impressions.

There were also large format digital prints which are so heavily pixelated that they can only be read as a landscape image from a distance. Similar to Monet's water lilies which collapse to a harmonic weave of paint only Lon's monotone/monochrome digital prints are more severe, there is no sensuality of matter, or the consoling performative residue of touch, rather the work is suspended between a reading as atomic particles, the world reduced to a digital stream, highly abstracted and containing the ghost of an image of a sublime landscape space of mountains. Lon explained that the original image was taken by her parents in their youth, and seeing the original image it became clear that there was a dialogue in the work between then and now, between an analogue and a digital age, between an analogue and a digital language.
An analogue image is a physical and chemical trace. There is in the analogue process the sense of a succession of touches, the photons of light emanating from the original subject at a precise point in time focused by a lens like the eye and streamed onto a light sensitive surface to be chemically held and bound in the negative as a trace of that moment in time. Transposed to a physical print, the print now held a precise chemical as well as visual trace of a moment in time, and the physical surface of the print through the passage of time accreting its own history becomes more than a simple indexical trace, it carried the desire and intent from that time to this amplifying the passage of time, being a trace and a contact back to that moment of perception, a precious point of contact but also a present reminder of the irretrievable loss of that time. The very fabric of the photograph carries traces of touches, is an accretion of the passage of time.

In contrast the digital photograph is an abstracted image, the links of touch are broken, the patterns of light are interpolated and translated to a digitised stream of code which is then printed to pixelated squares. The digital process defies rather than fixes a time, suspended, stored as code it becomes an image in stasis defying accretion. Lon has amplified and calls attention to this process. It is both a loss of the original and a new thing which is created.
It is no accident that Lon is working with an image from another time, a time when the sublime was experienced as a confrontation with the physical scale of nature. When light and touch were synonymous, The transposition of the original photograph is a record of that cultural difference and perhaps of an irretrievable cultural innocence in relation to the sublime. If the physical sublime pertained to the infinite and in so doing amplifies the sense of our own brevity of life and fragile limitation one can now consider that the digital image pertains to a different kind of sublime. Our optical ability to focus is extremely limited compared to the technological power we have created. An electron microscope can visualise atomic and sub atomic particles. Our telescopes can now visualise stellar formations across immense spans of time and space. We now have a mental picture of a universe made of dark matter.  This digital data now constitutes our contemporary sense of scale and has generated a digitally enhanced form of awe. It is this digitised sense of scale which the contemporary mind measures its existence against. It is this sense of a digitised translation of scale which is made present in Lon's digital translations of her parents analogue prints. The original image has been transposed to a digital matrix which amplifies the polarities of the macro and the micro, pointing to a potential macro and micro infinity.  Her translations are not an homage to, or a sentimental desire to retreat to a previous past but an assertion of the distance between her parents analogue and our digital perceptions, between their cultural and metaphysical sense of the sublime and our emergent technologically enhanced sense of the sublime. Perhaps theirs was a more innocent relationship.  Our sense of the sublime is bound to technology, we live in complex symbiosis, mediating the world digitally, suspended  between spheres of language which both reveal and obscure the world, irrevocably mediating our experience both from a phenomenological and cultural perspective. Yet the poetic instinct remains a constant, the desire to register the perrenial fact that as human we need to mediate the world above all else via our imaginative abilities, that is the world mediated by the inner life of the imagination which is both an emotional and intellectual necessity.    

London, September 2010