War in the sunshine

Interview with Keith Roberts

Keith Roberts, Distant Voices, or Caporetto, 2016-17, Plaster, acrylic paint, timber
Keith Roberts, Distant Voices, or Caporetto, 2016-17, Plaster, acrylic paint, timber
12 MAR 2017
by

Keith Roberts is an English artist, he was invited by the Estorick Collection of London in order to interact with his works thanks to the current show: War in the Sunshine. The British in Italy 1917-1918. The interest on Keith was born from a small talk with a friend who has immediately appreciated his works, by comparing ourselves to modern and contemporary art and by understanding similar and historically different languages. Keith has placed himself with great balance between the story proposed by the works of War in the Sunshine and his education and elegance have incite us to the desire to go deeper. Keith Roberts, through his poetry, investigates lightly on the memory with an accurate exploration of materials and facts. He usually uses rough materials, such as sheets of iron, timber, chalk, discovered objects such as bells and panels of cardboard. Roberts conjugates cleverly heaviness and lightness through an aesthetic, humble and poor low profile and he usually uses this dichotomy in order to introduce ourselves in a strong poetic vision. It's impossible not to think about the gentleness and the precarious beauty of our beloved Claudio Parmeggiani and about the installation composed of a series of stretched bells Distant Voices, or Caporetto, 2016-17. Thin lines link stories and different perceptions: this is possibile thanks to the quiet and eternal language of the art.

Flying Machine, Post Office, Distant Voice or Caporetto are three works included in the exposition War in the sunshine at the Estorick Collection in London. Can you tell us how your works were born and how did your collaboration start with an important exhibition space as the Estorick?

The Estorick Collection was already aware that I was making work connected to WW1 and while preparing the current exhibition War in the Sunshine: The British in Italy 1917-1918 I was invited to contribute a contemporary response to the exhibition. It was a challenge that I gladly undertook. Of the three war artists in the show it was the photographs by William Joseph Brunell that allowed me a way into the exhibition. Brunell although an official war photographer remained essentially a civilian. The concerns and issues of warfare and its effects are universal and current, so there was no sense that I was making work out of my own time.

The first piece Caporetto or Distant Voices was a natural progression from an earlier piece that I made in 2015 for the DepfordX Festival in London. There at the base of an ancient bell tower stood five large bells painted to resemble lead. In turn this was an expression of my interest in how bells and their sound weave through our lives. Ringing out in time of celebration or danger or simply to toll the hours. I liken the sound of bells to an individual voice that has now fallen silent. The Estorick piece was developed from this except now the bells are laid out upon their sides on a simple platform. Caporetto refers to the brutal battle in autumn 1917 thus linking it to the exhibition. Distant Voices reminds us of the universality of hurt and loss. The flying machine came from my interest in making paper kites. Also out of my delight in making paper aeroplanes and flying them across my studio. Here I have made a large aeroplane out of string and bamboo and paper that reflects the fragility and menace of the early aircraft. The final piece Post Office is a free standing wall that represents the claustrophobia of the trench warfare and often static nature of the conflict. At its centre there is a post box made from an anti personnel mine case. This reflects on the nature and importance of postal communications during this conflict. I saw the wall as very much like a painting, a flat surface that can be moved around and worked upon.

As an artist, I ask you, how would you define the figure of the artist and which is the role that he plays in the modern society?

This is difficult. The figure of the artist changes constantly and often retrospectively taking on a greater or lesser importance depending on who is asking. I would think that an artist should engage with and comment upon the age in which they live. But there should be a subtlety to that engagement, a process of thought and production that goes deeper than the surface, that reaches into the past as well as projecting into the future. A linking of arms with what has been and will be. The work then has to exist in its own terms. An undeniable presence (thing???), and people will take from it what they will.

Have you been inspired by someone or something (for instance a work, a teacher or a play) during your years of studies in Newcastle, London and Rome?

As a student at Newcastle Polytechnic it was believed that inspiration didn’t exist. Work was made through work. A deliberately tough position by the tutors there. I think you gather things to you from sometimes surprising, sometimes absurd sources and use them to fuel your work. The flight of a paper aeroplane moving slowly across a room. A piece of music that reminds you that your work must be better. I am thinking that it is the mood of things that has more pushed me to work. Seeing Josef Beuys’s piece: The End of the 20th Century (1983-85), staggered me when I first saw it. A figure crouched at the edge of an execution pit. The heartbreak of Allegri’s Miserere heard for the first time. An act of bravery that pricks your eyes. I think inspiration comes from being open and observant.

How would you define the environment related to the artistic education, such as universities and academies in today's modern world?

I am no longer sure. I was lucky enough to go through the education system when it was believed that an arts education was as valid as any other and funded accordingly. Now I see the demographic in this country of arts education favouring the wealthy or those unconcerned by leaving with a sizable debt. Places of education are taking on greater numbers of students and reducing the length of their courses. Art education should be as tough as any other field and instill a sense of self knowledge and discipline to continue to work when things get hard. I wonder if the academies will eventually be swamped and then bypassed by those who want to create.

Any future plans?

A similar piece in scale to Caporetto is to be shown in London during October as part of the continuing 14-18 project to commemorate the Great War. I am going to push my research into the flying machines and take them into a more abstract direction. Parallel to this I am continuing my painting and a couple of works are going to be on display later in spring.

What do you want me to ask you as a last question?

Interesting! "Sculpture seems to have become an important part of your practise: how this did come about?" "Does your painting feed your sculptural pieces or the other way round?"