‘We have not yet formulated a […] persuasive theory of the politics of touching and being touched. Touch touches issues of pleasure, power, historical lineage, trauma and ethics, making it an extraordinarily complicated gesture to formulate theoretically.’ 1
For the opening of his recent exhibition, ‘Figure de Style’, at London’s Cubitt gallery, Jimmy Robert staged a new, eponymously titled performance that situated itself directly in the uncertain area of the ‘politics of touching and being touched’. It took as its starting point Yoko Ono’s seminal Cut Piece (1964), but reworked the performance with a gender switch and a modification that changed it from a ‘cut’ piece to a ‘rip’ piece. Robert knelt on the floor clad in jeans and a ‘T-shirt’ made from torn lengths of masking tape stuck to his skin. Instead of the sharp tailor’s scissors Ono offered her audience to cut off her clothes, the spectators here were invited to rip a piece of tape off Robert’s torso. Their actions were reflected back at them through the historical prism of the original performance, as Robert read aloud fragments of reviews from its 1965 staging in New York, effecting a palpable redoubling of the audience’s self-consciousness: the words ‘the audience squirmed uncomfortably’, for instance, elicited an equivalent uncomfortable squirm. Most surprising, however, was the physical effect of peeling a piece of tape off the artist, as it not only revealed the skin underneath, but also pulled it up to allow an intimate encounter with the artist’s smooth brown skin – his own fragile surface.
Touch, surface and gesture occupy central roles in the fields of drawing, object-making, collage, text, film and performance that comprise Robert’s work. His films, often shot on super-8 without sound, are composed of images of quotidian scenes – views from a high-rise apartment or of a kitchen interior – in which unremarkable movements may be isolated and repeated until they accumulate an urgency and density of meaning: a mother’s hands stroking her son’s head; an arm running along the surface of a fence; fingers rubbing printed text. This inventory of mute gestures, punctuated by blank, rhythmic pauses, creates an iambic choreography of the everyday. The films luxuriate in their scratchy roughness, grainy texture and the autumnal palette particular to super-8 that casts them into an unknown time zone that could be anywhere between the 1960s and the present.
Robert’s paper works, meanwhile, move in two directions. They exaggerate the fragility of surface, its haptic qualities and its response to touch, while examining the tendency of the flat piece of paper towards objecthood. This concerns both the ‘touch’ of the artist – crumpling, folding, bending or slitting the paper, drawing on it, scanning it, sticking things to it – and that of the spectator, who is not able to actually touch the works, and therefore must rely instead on imagining the textures created by these complex layers of scanned imagery, edging, pleats, crumples and superficially applied collage, while spatially apprehending their three-dimensionality. In exhibitions, Robert carefully installs constellations of separate elements – a drawing, a collage, a line of masking tape stuck straight to the wall leading into an adjacent room, a photograph propped against the wall with a plank – which accumulate repeated textural and narrative reference points while also acknowledging the spatial aspect of the architecture around them, and the audience’s relation to them.
The circularity of reference that unites Robert’s cross-media works insists on the audience’s haptic, physical engagement. In his performances, the body, usually Robert’s own, assumes a material equivalence to a sheet of paper as it bends, turns and folds over. Robert repeats individual gestures or movements in what become fragile, tentative dances. Sometimes the body even becomes the surface itself as in the daily performances he staged for Art Basel Statements 2007, when he removed his T-shirt and a film was projected onto his naked back. But where the body makes an appearance, issues of identity are also raised, generating a messy attendant narrative of gender, race, sexuality, history and mortality. This push and pull between the narrative of the body and a carefully modulated formal abstraction creates a restless pendulum of meaning, wherein the tension in Robert’s work lies. In his films and paper works, the body is often seen from the back, cropped or obscured with other layers of imagery: identity is not revealed. So Robert invites a narrative, but denies it, as incidents of gesture or style become the focus instead. An uneasy relationship forms between the public and the private, in which we seem to be offered intimate details – is this naked figure a mother, a brother, a lover, the artist? – yet they remain elusive, maddeningly private.
In this light, Robert’s appropriation of structures from other artists or writers – a performance by Yvonne Rainer, films by Bas Jan Ader, words adopted from Marguerite Duras, a piece by Yoko Ono – becomes another layering technique. The words read aloud during his Cubitt performance seemed to form a protective layer of citation shielding his vulnerability. These are not so much Postmodern appropriation strategies as the borrowing of a favourite shirt from your best friend: it doesn’t change your identity but might elicit a double take. Haven’t I seen that somewhere before?
1 Peggy Phelan, ‘The Returns of Touch: Feminist Performances, 1960–80’ in WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2006, p. 359