There’s a new game you can play just a stone’s throw from It’s Nice That headquarters, which involves watching passers-by double take at three billboards on which three strange, stark poems have been written. They are the work of artist Robert Montgomery, and form part of his new show opening tonight at KK Outlet. We went to meet him to talk about his work, the psychological space of a city, and why he thinks it’s time for artists to take socio-political engagement more seriously.
Robert Montgomery is a hugely engaging interviewee, who combines intelligent, robust and reasoned ideas with an infectious enthusiasm for the reactions his work provokes. His references and inspirations – to situationism, Joseph Beuys and concrete poetry – are highbrow but at its core his work is about reaching out to the man or woman in the street, literally.
“The billboards are the most important part for me because they communicate with people outside the gallery," he says. "My work comes from a conceptual art tradition but I am very dedicated to making work that can be read by a broader audience than that. The Litmus Test is always – ‘If I knew nothing about art history would I get this?’
“The messages are not always simple but people really get them – the average person is much more engaged, eager to learn and smarter than the mainstream press would make you think.”
His delight is obvious when he talks about the “touching” emails he gets several times a week from strangers who have seen his work and tracked him down– “a teacher in Melbourne, a bar tender in Chicago and a student in Amsterdam”– and he thinks people are relieved when they encounter billboards that are not trying to sell them anything.
“Who does the city belong to? Who do the streets belong to? Who owns the psychological space? Is it really brands trying to sell us cosmetics or Diet Coke through our own paranoia?”
The billboard pieces are always created on a black background (“to turn the billboard off”) with white lettering in a spiky adaptation of Futura spelling out the poems, attempts to capture the “collective conscious.” Robert also creates solar-powered light pieces which subvert the idea of neon installations, brightening or fading with the weather, plus the new show features some of his drawings.
The writing process actually begins with much longer poems which he condenses down into the 80/90 word final form. Listing John Ashbery, Philip Larkin and Sylvia Plath (“she’s so fucking good) as his inspirations, Robert employs lots of vowel repetition to give the finished pieces a rhythm and euphony which works both in the viewer’s head or out loud.
But with Robert Montgomery the poetic and the political often go hand-in hand, and the new Old Street installations are a response to the outpouring of righteous anger manifested in the various Occupy movements which have sprung up in recent months.
A longtime collaborator with the “humbling” Stop The War Coalition, Robert finds the Occupy movement “very encouraging” as a response to “the very narrow Reagan-omics reading of capitalism” which currently reigns, and as a rebuttal of the “bizarrely decadent” generation of “hipsters who don’t vote.”
And as an artist who has long used political themes in his work, Robert believes artists must react to this new spirit and rediscover their social voices.
He identifies the two key figures in 20th Century contemporary art as Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys and says: “I think the discourse for the past 10 or 20 years has been dominated by the Duchampian tradition, of ironic humour where the art objects are knowing, self-critical and existential jokes.
“I think the Beuysian tradition has been pushed to the side a little bit.”
He hopes questions of society, politics, ecology and spirituality (“authentic not ironic”) will be the touchstones of a new artistic movement and believes it is that rediscovery of Beuysian engagement that could bring together the post-YBA generation into some kind of cohesive whole.
“I really think it is time for that – I do not see artists of my generation having a clear idea of what they are doing as a community. If you have a generation as successful as the YBAs then the artists following them either feel they have to work in their shadows or they have to react to them. We have been a little bit lost collectively.”
The show runs until 25 February.