Watching Robbie Rowlands peel back the wall of a house like skin from a cadaver (or worse a living body) to show the bones – the underlying structure of nails, studs and noggins, insulation, dust, plaster – I felt a fear or anxiety travel along my vagus nerve to my brain, checking my own body’s complete state. Seeing a body with holes, the incision so precise, the removal of plasterboard section so clinical, the insides exposed. I guess Rowlands’ work is no less than ‘a flaying’ as one critic put it (while she beat a hasty retreat, the work too abject for her). Indeed, it did put in mind, Rembrandt’s portrait of Dr Tulp.
We have compared buildings to our bodies and spoken of the facade, the capital, and the pediment since Vitruvius. But Rowlands reveals the true insides, the viscera, the stuff between interior and exterior, what’s in a wall, or beneath the floorboards, like Dr Tulp raising tendons, muscles and veins with his forceps for others to see.
And like the much later Surgeon General, Gordon Matta-Clark, Rowlands ‘cuttings’ into the body of architecture reveal “how a uniform surface is established”, how the unity of all architecture and design is sustained (whether it’s high art or vernacular, corporate chic or faux colonial, Victorian, Edwardian, whatever).
“Not the work, but the worker” said Matta-Clark. And it’s the workers, the builders who know the truth. They have no illusions about the unity or purity of architectural form. They are paid to keep the secret of appearances and return the illusion in tact after completing their work. They are not squeamish about damage, or worried by the mess, or concerned by the fragility of appearances. They know that after the plasterers have been in we all forget about the chaos we have seen beneath. (And like surgeons, their best work is ‘neat’.)
Rowlands too shows us this truth behind the scenes – the stumps, the rough-hewn lintels, the old joists – but he attempts no repair, leaving a gaping incision to frame the view of the buildings prone internal structure. He exposes the integrity of tools and fixtures too by severing the key structural member in each case; one side of an A-frame ladder, the bed-frame, the leg of a chair. He cuts that very tendon which keeps a thing straight, strong, effective so that, once cut, it seems to stagger and fall.
But many of these buildings and objects have been discarded or decommissioned or are about to be demolished; a ship, a bus depot, a holiday house, a church, a community hall, a flagstaff, a light pole, or even a dead tree. Their obsolescence is already a sad fact, each dilapidated situation or thing charged with a melancholy, funereal air. Each object is outmoded, worse for wear. Each interior out-of-date. And it’s in this ruinous state that Rowlands finds and celebrates their deterioration, their passing.
“Oh the beautiful, the sublime ruins!” exclaimed Diderot, the first art historian. And ever since, ruins have poignantly embodied the fragile equilibrium between human endeavour and decay, between creation and entropy. Just as matter seems to gain an upper hand over form in ruination, we can also foresee our own returning to dust, which is why the sublime is always melancholic.
Rowlands’ buildings and objects are not grand, or monumental, but rather incidental in the context urban scapes, parks, gardens and yards. He is addressing the forgotten suburbs, not the ruins of civilization; a matter more of planned obsolescence than centuries of natural decline. Yet Rowlands’ work is characterized by the same melancholy sublime as he sends things on their way like a wake before the burial, a final act of ritual scarification that releases any remaining energy to the gods.
The long strips he flays from walls, floors and ceilings are cross-cut to form serpentine arabesques and curlicues. In effect, each of these small cuts – to an exact depth that severs the timber but not the tiles or carpet that keeps the segments together – reduces the greater surface tension, which had previously held things in place. The liberated building material writhes free of the rectangular geometry, and in its final dying throes, comes to rest, an exultant, coiling decoration.
Likewise, a bath, step-ladder, road sign, flag pole, lamp-post, all seem to stretch with arched spines to celebrate their release from confinement to the same shape over so many years. Each thing seems to have shucked off its physical carapace and surrendered its soul to heaven. Its physique slackens and collapses. Matter is released from form. Things curl up and die to be born again in some other state.
As the artist points out, it’s not a destructive process at all but a commemorative one, and the simple geometry of leftover shapes and holes celebrates the passing of material culture, part of the “search for discernable patterns to create new forms”. And yet, the retinue of places and objects suggests the pace of change, the rate of deterioration, is increasing – these are not antiques or historical buildings but things of our age. Which brings us closer to death and at high speed.