Margaret Roberts: From Illusion to Delirium
Elizabeth Ashburn

Margaret Roberts

Margaret Roberts, Red
square with tail
, from
Institute of
Art, 1994

Margaret Roberts

Margaret Roberts, Red
square with tail
from PICABOANS, Perth
Institute of
Contemporary Art,

On the ground before you is drawn what appears to be a red square. The edges are straight and reassuringly geometric, but by moving a few steps to one side it becomes clear that nothing is as it appears. Because you have moved your position, the shape appears to have changed and now it has a wonderful red tail which trails back into the distance. Only when it is viewed from that previous point can the shape successfully masquerade as a square. From any other position it has different dimensions and other identities. This is how you confront Margaret Roberts' Red square with tail; a visual experiment which examines the issue of abstraction and "the way we can unconditionally and uncritically accept the world as perceived by the senses".1

Having a fixed point of view usually suggests an inability to see more than what lies directly in front of one's nose. For Roberts, however, the fixed point of view can be the opposite. These revelations open up spaces which are usually hidden from view by habits of recognition, and invite the audience into the poetics of illusionistic forms. While the appearance of Roberts' work could suggest a cool minimalism based on purely formal concerns, the systems and processes which underlie the work are strongly kinaesthetic and physical.

These works can be unsettling because they confuse our familiarity and habitual awareness of three dimensional space, as we experience it everyday. While we may all see the same illusion of a cube in a perspectival diagram, generally we know that it is not the same as a cube which exists in existential space. But when we find it difficult to make this distinction there is a perceptual crisis of sorts.2 Roberts describes such disruptive encounters as:

Part of the game I am playing is to speculate that we can actually exist in abstraction or lose our sense of scale and orientation in three-dimensional space - but without having to develop brain disorders, elaborate technology or other ways of deleting concrete existence in the process. It is partly an exercise in cognitive dissonance between viewers' conscious will and their commonsense, where the challenge comes from finding a balance between seeing things abstractly and recognising them as familiar and real - in being able to acknowledge one without negating the other.3

The challenge for the viewer is to discern their place in a confusion between the categories of two and three dimensionality. The posing of this problem has developed through her curiosity to see what happens when three dimensional space is treated as if it were flat and if the space in which each of us stands were used as a ground for another drawing.4 Still image documentation of Roberts' works give a sense of the strength of visual form and illusion in her art, but these reproductions fail to evoke their physical presence.

While the still images suggest a degree of distortion between viewpoints, the experience of viewing these works involves a more unsettling process. For example, in What things might look like if you could see them, the truncated corridors adjacent to the wall, and the sense of being able to see through a solid structure, suggests a maze or hall of mirrors. The installation // , uses newspaper slashes to destabilise and visually turn the room. In a chalk drawing from PICABOANS, a two dimensional drawing on the ground suddenly becomes three dimensional with a shift of viewing position. This shift pivots on a fixed set-up point where the work can flip from two dimensions to three dimensions, and perhaps back again.

The fixed set-up point is a means of triggering an active engagement from the viewer. A proposed public work, to be cut into the footpath for Manly Council and based on a similar design to the drawing in PICABOANS, will have its fixed set-up point on a nearby garden seat. At the stage when the viewer gives up trying to make sense of the abstract pattern and sits down, the two/three-dimensional illusion will be revealed.

Roberts deals with issues of both freedom and limitation. To create a series of drawings in PURL , at the Fifth Australian Sculpture Triennial in 1993, she took a single viewing position in several of the rooms (in what was previously the West Melbourne Primary School) and imagined that the interior walls and ceilings were transparent. This allowed her to calculate the size and shape of walls in adjoining spaces, which she drew inside other rooms. One of these drawings in green oxide delineates the outer wall of the principal's office and provided the viewer with the freedom to look beyond architectural restrictions and participate in discovering spaces which exist beyond the wall on which they are diagrammed; spaces which are implicit in the environment although they can't be seen. Only one viewpoint yields a "sensible" dimensionality, while the others give a distorted and false view.

Roberts' purpose is to move beyond physical limitations to reveal how normally concealed spaces would look if the materiality of the walls and ceilings could be dissolved. The installation Drawing on Rooms worked from a similar premise, using two rooms to reveal the entire plan of the seven room gallery space. The work was made using red and yellow oxide powder and as the viewer moved through the space the point of view dutifully transferred the plan of the gallery back into all the other rooms. Flānerie, the 19th century practice of promenading, persists in the process of walking through and viewing installation art.5 In Drawing on Rooms, the viewers' promenading is the vehicle used to blur the separation between the "revealed" projection of the room and the real existence of this room. The oxide powder moved from being part of an abstract representation of a space, back into the floor of the "real" room it depicted.

Five Plaster Polyhedrons is built around the notion that forms can change in accordance with different viewpoints, and the imperative of the work is to explore all positions in order to uncover the differences and possibilities. In other installations, like Two Squares, the fixed viewpoint reveals illusory forms which can easily be lost in a slight movement away from the fixed viewing position. While these drawings of hidden rooms are carefully estimated and become an accurate representation of spaces which could be seen if the walls did not exist, they rely on the viewer occupying a relatively arbitrary point in space.6 The randomness of the view point is in contrast to the delineation of "real" spaces in the contours of the work.

Roberts explains that the purposeless aspect of her work often surprises her, producing something that she would not have thought of directly.7 In this respect, she has been interested in Sol LeWitt's notion that "illogical judgments lead to new experience" or enable a "leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach."8 This speculative procedure is clearly apparent in Ground Games, installed at Watch this Space in Alice Springs earlier this year. Making an intervention in the gallery complex as a whole, Roberts explored ways of altering perceptions of the horizon line and a sense of ground level. Focusing on the space between the ceiling and roof - an unnoticed area of the gallery - Roberts repeated its form in newspaper throughout the building. She was not anticipating a particular result in carrying out this tedious and repetitive project. Even extending this to the gallery's store room, the process is like an apprenticeship, where the tasks are carried out in a disciplined way regardless of their relationship to an end product.

Roberts further explains that these procedures are carried out in a controlled way to prevent any "imaginings about what might be produced."9 Consequently, the dimensions of her shapes are calculated visually, rather than through projection or measurement. To develop the four coloured squares in Room Drawing, the artist walked back and forth from the point of viewing to the corners of the walls, constantly adjusting the markings until the outline of the illusionistic squares was in place.

This haptic experimentation is also apparent in her use of pigments, which are painted on but then rubbed back after they have dried, leaving hand prints and powdery traces on the wall. Unlike Sol LeWitt, Roberts does not remove traces of the artist's hand.10 The oxides are fine, powdery and impermanent. Like domestic labour, these installations are site specific and involve repeated processes. Roberts comments that there is a pleasure in these processes which remind her of house cleaning; endless rubbing of walls with cheap materials to produce a transient effect.

The strong sense of physicality in Roberts' work was noted by Libby Tulip in her review of the exhibition Sculpture, at the Performance Space in 1990.11 In her work for this show, Roberts used the positive and negative characteristics of plaster moulds to contrapose geometric shapes with sections of her own body. When Tulip remarked that this interest in the body and kinaesthetic responses had a correspondence with feminist theory, Margaret Roberts stressed that aspects of theory should not come before the visual nature of her work. Similarly, while Roberts has an interest in feminism, it is something that she would pursue through writing or direct political action rather than her art practice. She does not want her work to function as a metaphor or reference, because it is based on experimentation with perceptions of the physical world.12

However, the integration of the viewer into Roberts' installations does transform them from passive observers into active performers. The works produce a crisis of subjectivity which presents the viewer with the problem of how to act and make sense of the world. Roberts describes this as simultaneously "a paralysing and a pleasurable experience". She suggests that if you are sufficiently lost in this confusion there is also a loss of the single viewpoint which frees you "into a type of delirium".13 It is necessary to see from multiple viewpoints in order have a more complete experience and, in a sense, collect a memory which encompasses the whole installation .

Some works are specifically and perversely designed to frustrate this totality of vision. In Two Room Drawings in Red Oxide, an early installation at First Draft West Gallery, the large circular shape on the first floor of the gallery is projected into the space below. The viewer cannot simultaneously see the two halves of the circle and must retain the memory of each segment to complete the shape. In the Viaduct Project for the Federal Park in Annandale, none but the most determined viewer is able to reach the fixed view point to see the simple straight diagonals which constitute the work. From all other positions the segments appear curved.14

Through Roberts' work we find our sense of the order of the perceived world shaken by her illusions, the tension between what is 2 and 3 dimensional and the lack of distinction between what is visible and what remains obscured. Categories become deliberately confused so that in experiencing these works the mind becomes able to enter a state of dis-order. It is only through physically entering her installations that we might find that wild excitement of delirium which she seeks to reveal.

Margaret Roberts' work will be installed at the Next Wave Festival in Melbourne and at the Canberra Sculpture Forum.

1. This comment is from the documentation of Drawing on Rooms, submitted by Roberts as part of a Master of Fine Art at the College of Fine Arts, the University of New South Wales, 1996, p30.
2. ibid., , 1996, p.24.
3. ibid., 1996, p.25.
4. Ashburn, E., Lesbian Art: An Encounter with Power , Craftsman House, Sydney, 1996, p.120.
5. Davidson, K., & Desmond, M., Islands: Contemporary Installations from Australia, Asia, Europe and America, National Gallery of Australia, Thames and Hudson, 1996, p.5.
6. Roberts explains in correspondence that her set-up points are most usually in the centre of the room, because "that seems less arbitrary or having less 'hidden' meaning". An exception is the installation for the Chimera Conference in the New South Wales Parliament House Gallery in 1995. In this instance, the set-up point is ironically assimilated with the viewpoint of the Queen, whose portrait remained hanging within the exhibition.
7. Roberts, M., Unavailable Space, exhibition statement, Performance Space, Sydney
8. Sol LeWitt, quoted by Margaret Roberts in Drawing on Rooms , p.23.
9. Roberts, Drawing on Rooms, p.23.
10. Roberts' has remarked that Sol LeWitt's objection may have been to representational images from a trained artist's hand and, as few artists of her generation have a tradition of craft, there is little reason today to remove traces of a "crafting virtuosity". She also notes that anyone's hand could be visible in these markings, not only that of the artist. (Roberts, Drawing on Rooms, , p.15).
11. Libby Tulip, "Subjective Minimalism", Agenda, no.12, August 1990, p.28.
12. However, she accepts Lucy Lippard's view that the experiences of artists do inform their art and consequently her political views are implicated in her work.
13. Margaret Roberts Drawing on Rooms, exhibition catalogue, ARDT Gallery, Sydney, 1996, p.12.
14. In this case the obstruction was caused accidentally by rain which formed a pool under the arch of the viaduct, but the artist has indicated in conversation that she enjoyed the fact that this point of view was lost to the spectator. She explains that this was not from a desire to keep information secret or be obscurantist but because she considers other viewpoints to be more interesting and evocative.

Margaret Roberts

Margaret Roberts, What
things might look
like if you could
see them,

Margaret Roberts

Margaret Roberts, PURL,
Fifth Australian
Sculpture Triennial,
Melbourne, West
Melbourne Primary
School, 1993

Margaret Roberts

Margaret Roberts,
Five plaster
polyhedrons, 1990

Margaret Roberts

Margaret Roberts, Two
room drawing in red
First Draft
West Gallery, Sydney