Murray Robertson - Make Belief

Enter some marvellous and disconcerting worlds and prepare. Worlds in which the signs of knowledge and imagination live in each other like wetness inhabits water. Worlds where enigmatic meanings erupt from a volatile mixture of fact, fantasy, belief and superstition. Worlds where the associative free play of the mind creates uncharted lands and undocumented mythologies, uncanny rituals and bizarre practices, chimeras and martyrs, dread and delight.

The worlds conjured up by Murray Robertson’s art seem to be distant ancestors of our own; long lost but vaguely remembered places where the wild inventions unleashed by dreams stalk our waking consciousness. As in our dreams, time is telescoped as the past invades the present, and scenes unfold in exaggerated space. The images before us may seem t picture some other scene, some land of experience parallel to but different from that of our own, but are these visions so impossible, so distant from that which we often only dimly conceive of as ‘reality’?

For the ‘real’ does not have an unquestionable, independent existence of its own upon which we can all agree. It is not like those objects which we can measure, weigh, touch, count and so on. The ‘real’ is perhaps better understood as a complex and mobile system of symbolic representations. It is to these representations that we appeal in order to gain access to ‘reality’. And these representations do not so much reflect a pre-given ‘reality’, as they produce the only sense of ‘reality’ available to us as an effect of their operations.

Systems of representation, if you like, provide us with a conceptually structured apparatus through which sensory experiences are filtered and turned into meaningful patterns of knowledge. In other words, the function of representation is to process raw sensory data about the world ‘out there’ into conventional (and thus shared; and thus communicable) signs: (that is to say, to endow experience with significance).

The world does not make sense of itself; that is a job which is left up to us with the means available to us; and it is a task whose outcome is always provisional, tendentious and open to contest. What I am trying to suggest here has been expressed more pointedly by Bryan Magee:
“What we can experience, or perceive, or know, must of course depend on what there is to experience or perceive or know, but it must also depend on the apparatus we have for experiencing and perceiving and knowing … For us to be able to experience anything at all it has to be such as can be coped with by the apparatus we have. This is not to say that nothing else can exist, but it does mean that nothing else can be experienced or perceived or known by us.”

Although the preceding observations might seem unduly abstract or speculative, they may prove useful in providing a provisional point of entry to some of the more telling aspects of Murray Robertson’s work. (All that can be hoped for here is to offer some thoughts on Robertson’s attitudes, approaches and intellectual concerns. The ultimate interest of the work – what makes it successful as art – is beyond the written word).

So … Art does not innocently transcribe the ready-made meanings of a compliant world. Art is involved in a struggle to wrest potential meaning from a protean world. Thus the artist is not a receiver but a giver, not a dealer but a producer who figures for us a previously unavailable vision of reality.

Let me be more specific. What is immediately apparent in many of the works on display is a welter, a veritable maelstrom, of densely and intricately worked imagery and iconography. Snakes, heraldic devises, salamanders, dogs, satellite dishes, cartographic imagery, fish, scientific and technological illustrations, ancient musical instruments, sea shells and related spiral motifs, factories, masks, stylised sun motifs, barren trees, crosses, weapons, circles, curious buildings. Even this cursory list serves to suggest the proliferation and dynamic interplay which characterise the lives of the signs and symbols deployed by Robertson.

So many of these works seem to express a deep fascination with the virtual thesaurus of signs and symbols which cultures past and present, near and far, have composed to guide them through that treacherous labyrinth which is life on earth.

And what strikes us, perhaps, is a sense of entropy and semantic instability suffusing the whole enterprise. Signs and symbols which once guided and gave focus to a life, a culture, a society are now obscure and indecipherable. Yet they still come. These symbols which once illuminated the true path are in danger of becoming the detritus of history, empty tokens of long dead ways of living. Yet they survive in arcane traditions, they persist in transmuted forms, and they procreate alarmingly. They are a testament to – they are signs of – the seemingly limitless human capacity to invent and to invent.

In the worlds called forth in Robertson’s work, these signs and symbols echo down from the past and reverberate in the present. But this is a present which has been made strange. Nuclear power stations and flaming oil refineries share the same kind of densely populated and “oddly” constructed pictorial fields as warriors in armour and alchemical paraphernalia. The vaguely sensed apocalyptic dread of our millennial uncertainty is amplified by its incorporation into scenarios which are redolent with the suggestion of medieval anxieties and insecurities.

Densely worked surfaces or ambiguous pictorial space, obsessive attention to detail, complex and arcane iconographic programmes, the strategic use of gold and other sumptuous colour effects : these are some of the techniques, devises and materials used by Robertson to consciously evoke a modern counterpart to the art and spirit of that supposedly benighted age of our distant forebears.

And what seems to drive all of this is a desire to celebrate humanity’s eternal and universal quest for meaning in a seemingly intractable and unknowable world. Running throughout Robertson’s work are iconographic and metaphorical references to past attempts at systematically classifying the novelties and mysteries of the world, such as decorative map making, encyclopaedia illustration, representation of the ‘primitive natives’ made by artists who accompanied European explorers on their journeys to colonise unimaginable far and exotic lands, the symbolism of alchemy and religion.

All of these systems are evidence of a more or less compulsive urge to impose meaning upon the world, to turn the unknowable into the already known, the better to control it by incorporating it into existing and stable frameworks of the “real”. But if this makes it sound as if the whole enterprise of generating meaning in the world is characterised by an aggressive will to control and to regularise, then it is important to redress the balance by recognising another side to the process.

Our tendency to dismiss the pre-Renaissance past of Europe (and the whole history of other civilisations and cultures, such as the African and the Oriental) as primitive, barbaric, ‘dark’, uncivilised and inferior, blinds us to the fact that their cultural and imaginative lives were in many ways more vigorous and fertile than ours.

The triumph of Reason in the West since the eighteenth century has brought mixed blessings. The ‘rational’ management, control and subjugation of unruly nature has led to our current ecological crisis; the subjection of knowledge to the principles of rationality has led to a culture of specialisation and ‘experts’ in which each of us operates in an increasingly narrowed field of competence and experience; our ‘scientific’ and ‘rational’ management of society found the horrific expression of one of its destinies in the industrialisation of death at Auschwitz.

Alongside these erosions of human dignity, value and potential, the rule of Reason witnessed the banishment of the marvellous, the magical, the carnivalesque and the spiritual as sources of meaning and inspiration.

To see the world as vibrant with symbolic meanings, to see the glories of heaven mirrored on earth, to see every object as concealing a secret, to read ‘reality’ as a compelling allegory, to sense the very forces of creation embodied in a number of geometric figures, to divine destiny in a heavenly constellation, to believe that everything is transformable into something else. These are among our losses. These are no longer central concerns of our dominant version of ‘reality’.

In the etchings, woodcuts and paintings of Murray Robertson a sense of the alchemical conversion of brute experience into a poetry of the world is restored. The works are enigmatic, absurd, violent and melancholic in turns, yet they are vivid reminders to us of the irreducible strangeness and wonder which attend our place in this world. They offer us a vision of ‘reality’ which is many-layered; rationally disobedient and symbolically proliferous, thus is a reality in which the spirit and the imagination may live fuller lives.

John Calcutt
Glasgow School of Art