PRINT January 1998


TITLES ARE A TRICKY business. No matter how imprecise, the name you give a thing tends to stick. Perhaps no young artist understands this better than Liisa Roberts. But rather than resign herself to the failure of words to adequately describe their objects, Roberts has made it the basis of her work, almost as if to spite language for being such a shoddy tool to begin with. Take, for example, her 9 Minutes of Form: A Sculpture by Liisa Roberts and 3 Minutes of Desire, a pair of 16-mm films from 1993 to which Roberts attached the surprising label of “sculpture.”

By detaching the name sculpture from its material support, these works fundamentally recast Modernist debates regarding medium-specificity. For their aim is less an investigation of sculpture’s plastic vocabulary than what Roberts calls its “paradigm”—that is, its status as a discrete, three-dimensional form. But if the impossibility of considering sculpture apart from its setting has already been amply demonstrated, Roberts locates a residual longing that her work continues to mine—the desire for an experience and an object that, while palpably real, transcends the demands of space and time.

Although inspired by Richard Serra’s film Hand Catching Lead, 1971, 9 Minutes of Form takes as its subject the very yearning for narrative closure that Serra so definitively dispelled. The piece shows the artist’s hand as it writes on successive sheets of paper for the duration of three, three-minute-long rolls of film. And while one assumes from the valediction that the text is a letter, its contents remain illegible. The boredom of watching the action unfold in real time thus opens onto an awkward voyeurism, while the structural predetermination of Roberts’ repetitive gesture alludes to the potential futility of written communication. 9 Minutes of Form makes explicit the fact that, as with letters, the meaning of sculpture depends less on its presumed physicality than on its reaching a place where it can be properly read—and this, despite the implication of Roberts’ 3 Minutes of Desire (in which a series of cities and dates flash by in an oddly syncopated rhythm) that arriving at such a destination may be even harder than finding its proper name.

Movement is a constant in Roberts’ work—from the transcontinental itinerary of 3 Minutes of Desire to the camera pan across an empty room in the film installation betraying a portrait, 1995. These dislocations echo her own peripatetic life, spent in such far-flung places as Sri Lanka, Helsinki, Paris, and Buenos Aires. Perhaps this accounts for Roberts’ fascination with a particular paradigm of Modernist sculpture, which holds out the grace of a presentness that suspends the mundane awareness of space and time as a salve to the more familiar condition of simply feeling out of place. What the artist proposes, by way of a compromise, is the possibility for a renewed engagement with sculpture gained by combining a critique of representation with the category’s specifically spatial concerns.

Without a doubt, this is the achievement of her most recent work Trap Door, 1996, which creates a space the viewer can enter without truly ever being able to penetrate. But, perhaps for the first time, Roberts’ talent for titles seems to have failed her. A staple of B movies and gothic novels, trap doors are passageways that, once discovered, lead to a denouement—to the rescue of a princess or the capture of a monster in its lair. Yet precisely what Roberts’ piece resists is the redemptive pleasure of hidden truths and happy endings. Instead, Trap Door delivers the far more subtle pleasure of watching meaning move through a system as breath moves through a body, of realizing that, no matter how elusive and immaterial meaning may seem, it is wedded to the obdurant physicality of the forms it inhabits—even as one sees it straining over knots that will never be fully smoothed.

It’s almost impossible to overlook the structural rigor of Trap Door (which exhaustively reflects on the component parts of film installation). Screens, for example, can serve both as flat fields and, when assembled three-dimensionally (in this case, making up a triangular configuration), as sculptural elements. The light from the projector can either deny the viewer’s body or register its shadow. Cameras can pan across a stationary object or capture moving scenes in a static frame.

But despite the trappings, it would be a mistake to regard this abstract investigation of film, projector, and screen as a purely formal exercise. Four silent-film projections both reiterate and rebel against this hermetic enclosure. A shot of a nineteenth-century bronze statue of the three graces on the long CinemaScope screen is counterposed by three projections on the triangular grouping, each of which shows the torso of a woman slowly gesticulating in what may be sign language, but is more likely the physical accompaniment to her (absent) voice. Interspersed are shots of a landscape taken from a moving train. Once again, the structural oppositions readily emerge—three figures on one screen, one figure on three. But what all four figures share is their inability to reach each other or their beholder, a failure made still more poignant by the literal communion that occurs between the filmed image of the graces and the viewer’s shadow.

Roberts’ heartfelt regard for the attention Modernism paid to the precise signifying capacity of materials has led some to overemphasize the formalism of her work. But it is only by seeing how the content of the films in Trap Door coincides with the piece’s overall structure that one can appreciate the way Roberts exceeds Modernism’s legacy, and understand (as I finally did on completing this essay) the point of her title: that representation—whether in language, sculpture, or film—is always both a doorway and a trap.

Margaret Sundell is an editor of the journal Documents.