Margaret Roberts: performative architecture

Alan Schacher

In her catalogue essay, Ann Finegan examines Margaret Roberts’ work in terms of the deepest experiences of the body, of habit and forgetting, and of the nature of mind to seek in time-place-speed coordinates a method for grounding our consciousness in place. Roberts’ installation sets up an experience akin to what I would term “architectural theatre”.

The Mirror Room construction occupies, in the territorial, colonial sense of the word, the largest of Artspace’s three exhibition areas. The room is not, as one might first expect, full of mirrors, nor is it in any overtly apparent way a reflection or inversion of the containing room itself. It is a fantastically simple piece of work. An idea which can only be understood in the experiencing, and is therefore performative. Performative because it had to be built to be understood, performative because it forces the viewer into motion. Roberts’ statement that “the viewer…may see that it is their presence that completes the work” resonates with my own philosophy of practice: the work is also read in terms of the bodies present within it at any given time.

Walking the Mirror Room passageway is an experience that references the best in architecture and reminded me in some ways of architect Daniel Liebeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin. In both cases one is kept moving and fascinated by the sensation that something is askew.

In her room notes Roberts references the inside of the white cube (the purpose-designed gallery space) and the parallel, concealed spaces beyond this indeterminate absence. On the one side, a section of gallery floor and heavy timber pillars, on the other, actually beyond the display walls to the external structural boundary walls of The Gunnery building itself, moves the outside world of traffic, business, pedestrians. Roberts also references the arbitrary placement of gallery space within historical walls; The Gunnery building had a former life in the Australian Navy and a subsequently purposeful existence as an artists’ squat.

Roberts has set up a space that demands participation and ambulatory pondering, a pacing out. This necessary circumambulation is reminiscent of the ritual practice of walking around a buddhist stupa, always in a clockwise direction, whereas here the layout inclines one to the anti-clockwise. In buddhist practice the movement sets in motion the mantras/prayers being recited. In the gallery space it sets the work into motion.

The work is simply 4 huge white walls, floor to ceiling, constructed by contractors to Roberts’ design. The placement of this shape is deceptively simple. To create the footprint Roberts has marked the midpoint of the four prominent wall sections which enclose the rectangular space, and brought those 4 single points out from the wall by a doorway width. She then joined the dots, arriving not at a diamond configuration (which would occur if you simply took the measurements from each corner of the room) but at an irregular slewed shape.

As you walk around to inspect what is there, you discover what is not. Space advances and recedes, expands and contracts, it slowly revolves as a room within a room. It is a piece about the movement of architectural space. Anne Finegan notes that “The mirror reflection, which folds the very walls of the gallery back into this structure, ensures that there is no ‘outside’.”

Walking around the hollow monolith, we naturally search for a doorway, a way in, but the interior is not forbidden to us, rather, we are already inside. The viewer, in this reflected gallery space, is in a wanderland, contained behind walls, on the other side of which other-dimensional viewers may be looking back. Contained within the void and waiting exhibition-space, our eyes move behind living portraits.

It is a satisfying experience, taking only a minute or 2 to negotiate, yet leaving one perplexed, confused, unnerved. Four-walled everyday reality has somehow been upset. One has entered a matrix, the coordinates of which are both the gallery itself and the most basic pattern of our everyday life.

This is a subliminal experience.

Margaret Roberts, Mirror Room, Artspace, Sydney, March 7 – 30

RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 pg. web

© Alan Schacher; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2002