1883 Magazine

Focusing on the dynamics of contemporary society and the arts’ response to the latter, Preposterous – at La Scatola gallery until January 18th – features a well selected group of artists whose work has provided a highly critical insight into our modern times. Curated by Valentina Fois, the show includes: Stephane Blumer; Ludovica Goscia, Rebecca Griffiths; Tina Hage; Geoff Diego Litherland; Robert Montgomery; littlewhitehead; Ben Woodeson and Jonas St. Michael.

1883 caught up with Robert to know more about his work. Born in Scotland in 1972 and currently based in London, he studied at Edinburgh College of Art and then in the core program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Working with poetic texts as the basis of his art, Robert makes billboard pieces, light pieces (recycled sunlight poems), woodcut pieces and watercolour; he showed in Orientale* at the 2011 Venice Biennale and he was the British artist selected for the first biennale in India, The Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which opened in December 2012. 


You are defined as a “urban poetry artist”, somewhere in between street art and academia; I wondered, how did the idea of making art on billboards come about?

I think I’ve just always been oversensitive to billboards, I’m susceptible to the medium. I find that advertising billboards scream at me and drive me a bit mad so I just wanted to try to change them and make a different kind of billboard. I wanted to discover an antidote.

Also working on billboards came from a lot of things that I’d grown up studying, like post-structuralist theory, Baudrillard and Roland Barthes, and Guy Debord’s ideas of The Spectacle, and trying to actually find a way to put some of those theories into practice. The anonymity of the billboards is important, when you find them in the street you shouldn’t know its art, they should appear like they could be the strange rantings of a madman, you should never be sure.

Have you ever got in any trouble hanging your billboards?

No, I do them in a sensitive way I think. I’m not trying to sell chemicals or high interest loans or get politicians elected.

Placing yourself in a post-Marxist and post Situationist tradition, Guy Debord is one of your favourite thinkers; in this regard would you describe your art as somehow “political”?

Well from the kind of aesthetic theory I grew up reading (Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault, Baudrillard) a key point that I took from post-modern theory is that all style and decisions in art making are political, and to make work that does not argue in some way against the status quo is a political statement- to make work that does not argue in some way against the status quo in those terms would be a positive support of the status quo, and I think its our responsibility as artists to argue for positive social change and enlightenment, civilisation, fairness in society, where we can. But my work is as much poetic as it is political, its about trees, lights, sky, buildings, memories, dreams, love, sadness, places, weather, as much as it is about anything else. At the same time I’d hope some of my political positions are quite clear. I work quite actively with the anti war movement in London as everyone knows.


Thinkers and essayists aside, what artists inspire you the mosts?

I really admire Jenny Holzer obviously and her work is a big inspiration to me. I also have a quieter side to my work though than the billboards and public light works which people know best, which are the watercolours I make which are very quiet and meditative in their process, and when I’m making the watercolours I’m thinking much more about artists like Agnes Martin and the drawings of Eva Hesse and what I’d call a kind of tradition of romantic minimalism which I feel close to for some reason. I’ve always really really loved Agnes Martin for that idea of meditation and transcendence, and of finding a kind of sublime in the everyday, beauty in the mundane.

Your work at La Scatola is of great impact and deeply evocative; where do you get your inspiration from for your artworks? Can you walk us a bit trough your “creative process”?

Well the text of the piece in the La Scatola show, “AND THE TREES ARE SENTINELS OF SOMETHING, STANDING THERE BETWEEN THE BUILDINGS, BREATHING LIKE HORSES ALL NIGHT” comes first of all, like a lot of my light pieces from a longer unpublished poem, what I call my "Notebook poems". Actually 2 of the notebooks poems have just been published for the first time in their full length in the literary journal Black & Blue, but their primary purpose for me so far has been to work out ideas, and craft phrases I can pull out to make light poems from. This particular text comes from thinking about what trees represent to us in the city, where they seem to represent another world in a way, the natural world, and I was thinking about how when we see trees in the city it seems to be a reassuring presence to us and why, and about maybe some mystical connection we have with trees.

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Out of curiosity, did you create the typeface for your artworks?

No not entirely, actually I just kind of hacked into Futura, which is a classic modernist font – I like how its based on perfect circles- and altered it to make it more spiky and bit more angular. I gave it spiky Ns and Ms and Ws, but it basically classic Futura underneath. The new fonts shapes I make seem to be the right mix of classic and twisted for me.

As a last question, what’s next for you? What are you currently working on?

Well I just got back from the Kochi-Muziris Biennale where I was one of the British artists for the first Biennale in India and I made a big light poem about diaspora and exile on a semi-ruined Empire building. I’m going to Edinburgh this week to visit some sites and begin to work on a piece for the Edinburgh Art Festival this summer, that will be nice as I went to University and Art College in Edinburgh, and then the week after I’m going to New York to do meetings for my first big New York show which should be at C24 Gallery in September. Oh and I’m also working on drawings for a piece for my friend Jen Charles de Castelbajac’s building in Paris, and on text for another piece I might do for Jean Charles which will be a memorial piece for our mutual friend Malcolm McLaren. A piece about love and loss and memory, but also a piece about leaving something behind to inspire the next generation, which is what Malcolm did

For Printspace 50 x 70 KK BILLBOARD WOODEN HOUSES ON LAND no people.jpg

Preposterous will be running until January 18th at La Scatola gallery, 1 Snowden Street, EC2A 2DQ London.

More information on La Scatola can be found here.

Further information on Robert Montgomery can be found here.


Words by Jacopo Nuvolari

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