Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Bumpy old road only way forward for artist
A passion for the life-clutter of a town drives Richard Goodwin, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
How, in the face of death and destruction, can art possibly matter? Can it, now, be other than insultingly trivial?
It is precisely at such times that art matters most and that its role as soothsayer, not decorator, is most valid.
The skyscraper itself will no doubt survive the current crisis. A more probable casualty, in our congested, contested free-world cities is public urban space.
There is a tendency in times of crisis to reinforce boundaries, battening hatches for emotional as much as physical safety. For an artist like Richard Goodwin, who has devoted almost 30 years to exploring and blurring those boundaries in-out, self-world, public-private such reinforcement has special significance.
Goodwin trained as an architect in the ’70s and his work maintains an experimental and subversive quality all but lost to architecture since that time. As a child, whose primary loves were drawing, numbers and motorbikes, he would probably have studied art, not architecture, but for a high-school vocational guidance evening.
There, finding himself in Harry Seidler’s group, Goodwin was ferried by the obligatory Citroen to Seidler’s Australia Square building site and Milsons Point office, replete with models and drawing boards and people who were “interesting and groovy”. It was 1971. The young Goodwin fell wholeheartedly for Seidler’s seductive exposition on the Bauhaus theory of architecture-mother-of-the-arts and the process of persuading artistic vision into built form.
The plan was to do a year and drop out, but it wasn’t till the end of third year that Goodwin took time off, principally in London where he came under the spell of the Architecture Association (AA). Dominated by the techno-urban fantasies of the Peter Cook’s Archigram Group, the AA spawned a whole generation of consequent gurus, including (now Lord) Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano, Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid.
The AA has a long tradition of commingling architecture and art, but its fees traditionally render it a playground for the wealthy. Goodwin diverted his energies into arte povera and experimental performance works deeply antithetical to “the functional endgame of modernism” such as giving birth in 1975 in Queen’s Park to a doll made from masking tape and a pair of old pants singed while drying on a heater.
Dolls, with their silent commentary on human life, have long fascinated European thinkers. Lotte Pritzel, Berlin’s inter-war bohemia queen, made them; Rilke elegised them; Kokoschka shared his complex life with one; surrealist Hans Bellmer created his own, ruthlessly rearranging her parts like a dada poem.
Goodwin’s rag effigies, though they became something of a theme in his work, were less personal. Faceless, genderless, boneless, they signified the “total vulnerability” of the flesh. Their fraudulence was also important. “I was so sceptical about truth,” says Goodwin, “I thought, I’ll just work from lies.”
The dolls’ other essential quality was their resistance to control; Goodwin was attracted to the unstructured cloth.
A return to the modernist strictures of architecture school in Sydney was a depressing sequel, but Goodwin sustained his obsessions. One day Clive Evatt came to Goodwin’s Lavender Bay flat and on inspection pronounced: “You can draw. But you can’t paint. You gotta go to art school to paint.” Seeing the dolls lying in the hallway, he continued: “But I like these dolls. I’ll show them in three months.”
“He was telling me,” reflects Goodwin, “that your art is not always where you want to find it. You’ve got to kill your darlings.”
By 1978, having graduated with honours and spent a year in practice, Goodwin had shown three times, all at Evatt’s Hogarth Galleries. He had also found the second enduring theme of his work foil to the naked cloth in the daily life and trajectory of a long-term Sydney nomad.
Joseph Cindric, whose name Goodwin discovered in 1994 after Cindric’s death, was for him and many Sydneysiders as faceless and unprotected as one of the dolls. Cindric’s only protection was the homemade trolley, with four odd wheels and a large padlocked tin box, that preceded him in his quotidian peripatetics.
Goodwin was intrigued by the trolley, a “prosthetic architecture” which made life possible when all other shelter, both real and metaphorical, had been removed. He made his first trolley in 1977 and, in 1980, a film which, tracking Cindric, involved his permission but not his name.
A Hyde Park performance work, also in 1980, put the artist inside a full-height walking frame, not unlike a hospital drip frame, with two humans attached. Titled Exoskeleton Monument to Nomadism, it paid clear homage to Cindric, who may or may not have witnessed the show, Hyde Park being a regular part of his beat.
Since then, Goodwin’s work has followed what he describes as “the journey of the artist, from subjectivity to objectivity in the effort to communicate”. This has brought abstraction: the dolls’ flesh survives as cloth waving or draped, taut, strung, strapped, pendant or bunched and the occasional nude. The trolley (its original now in the Powerhouse Museum) has become carapace or exoskeleton or, appearing as winged and wheeled forms, hybridised basket-trolley-awning-car-bike-helicopter.
All make the same essential point: unshelled, deprostheticised, we are cicadas without skins. Unattached, we are the dispossessed.
Deploying gallery as laboratory, Goodwin has made the exoskeleton his abiding interest. The taxi-derms, heli-cabs and winged trolleys are touching but adrenaline-steeped objects, eternally poised for fight or flight. Goodwin’s Leichhardt studio is tangled with just such lovable creatures, including a deeply anthro/arthro-pomorphic 1958 Messerschmitt K200, car-from-plan.
On a larger scale, where Goodwin is most architecturally familiar, the work is just as engaging and more subversive.
There are echoes of other architects-artists, not only Archigram’s elaborate designs for nomadic cities and disposable, wearable architecture, but the guerilla architecture of Vienna’s Coop Himmelb(l)au.
There are shades too of New Yorkers Lebbeus Woods, Gordon Matta-Clark, who literally de-faced buildings to expose their ephemerality years before the Deconstruction vogue, and former poet/performer Vito Acconci, determinedly de-monumentalising public
Goodwin is refreshingly subversive on architecture as-it-is-done. He argues the “true communion in the city as an organism is via the sewer. The public toilet is not just a toilet. It’s a place to pause and replenish. The place of dispossession and reconnection.” Joseph Cindric used the Museum station toilet every morning, in just such a way.
Goodwin cherishes the implied notion of the body docking with its architecture. Cities, he says, must strive to be permeable to all humans. “Public art needs to perforate architecture, to create more porosity. That’s a political act. Art should be thinking about the future of space, driving architecture, not just signalling history. You might as well do a statue of Captain Cook … architecture is just the armature, an interesting first proposition. We allow some architects licence, like Renzo Piano. The rest have to do crap, fenestrating prepackaged developments. And they’re still obsessed with building pedestal objects.”
Like American architect/intellectual Elizabeth Diller, whose remarkable Blur building for the Swiss Expo dissolved its own boundaries, Goodwin aims to penetrate the skin, messing with architecture’s all-too-sacred edge condition, divider of public from private.
His para/site works attempt precisely this from his recent crowning pavilion atop the Cracknell Lonergan revamp of Sid Ancher’s Union Hotel in North Sydney to the bridge projects (one in Homebush, one in Leichhardt) which recall the cloth-wrapped umbilicus, Exoskeleton Chord, he stretched against all bureaucratic odds between the art gallery and the Woolloomooloo finger wharf in 1992.
At a practical level, this translates into an interest in signs, scaffolding, rail systems, motorways, bus shelters, pedestrian bridges and awnings the life-clutter of a town.
It’s a bumpy old road, but Goodwin is unrepentant and undeterred.
“They always told me I’d struggle and starve,” he reflects. “But I had no alternative. I wasn’t interested in anything else. Art has always really excited me. I use technology: all this stuff is built from computer drawings. But technology’s just a tool. As Renzo says, architecture is poetry. That’s all it’s about.”
Exoskeleton: a Survey is at Boutwell Draper gallery, Redfern until October 27.
ILLUS: Metal skin …
Richard Goodwin and an exoskeleton in the making.Photo: Quentin Jones