If you were cast away to a desert island, what work of art would you choose to take with you? Perhaps Robert Rauschenberg’s Monogram, “for one thing, it looks like it might have actually been made with getting ashore in mind” says Harland Miller.
I’ve often fantasised about waking up on a desert island, specifically the waking up part; the coming to, which usually plays out the same way: the sun rises on the horizon revealing you, face down on the shore, waves gently lapping around, teasing out strands of hair and bits of torn clothing as they run up the beach, then fizzle back; you are no more aware of it all than a piece of ship’s debris washed up close by. The difference being that shortly you will revive, and while the piece of debris goes on idly bobbing in the surf, you will likely undergo a dizzying welter of emotions, perhaps commensurate only to the storm on which you were swept ashore in the first place.
This fantasy, which owes much to the television adaptation of Robinson Crusoe I watched so avidly as a kid, never really develops beyond these first moments of waking, which Crusoe himself described [in Daniel Defoe’s original story] as being ultimately indescribable. “I walked about on the shore”, he begins, “lifting up my hands… my whole being wrapt up in the contemplation of my deliverance, making a thousand gestures and motions which I cannot describe.”
The affirmation, here, appears to be in the recognition of starting anew – a celebration of life which seems to me to be at the heart of Robert Rauschenberg’s approach to making art; and its this sense of freedom that draws me to the idea and aesthetic of being a castaway. It has nothing to do with the bearded months and years that lie ahead or even to later on that day, to fixing dinner!, but just the moment in which the imagery and symbolism of the island come together to create the aforementioned sense of freedom. I’ve always had something of an escapist streak – something my doctor has warned against – but the appeal is in having nothing, and creating something out of what is available in an immediate, fresh and unexpected way.
Rauschenberg had something of a beachcomber approach, gathering detritus not from shipwrecks but from the sidewalks of Manhattan. He would rescue all manner of things that had been pitched into the trash by people moving in or out of apartments – regular occurrences in the transient scene of 1960s New York City.
For me, the piece that seems to most embody this approach is ‘Monogram’ (mixed media with taxidermy goat, rubber tire and tennis ball) – the description is better than the title. I met Rauschenberg in Paris, in the early ‘90s, and though we drank a bottle of whiskey together, he was still able to speak eloquently, if less guardedly, about his work – saying, roughly, that it didn’t necessarily mean anything but reflected the freedom he had enjoyed in making it. He also talked about how when he would get stuck for an idea, he would walk around the block and in these aimless but now famous walks, he’d have the time and space to notice things he might not have done otherwise – like a stuffed goat, for instance. Dragging these finds back to the studio and introducing them into his work would really free things up for him. Perhaps this was one of the reasons he was able to be so prolific.
If I had to select just one piece from Rauschenberg’s huge body of work, however, I think it would have to be ‘Monogram’. It would be particularly apt on my desert island; for one thing, it looks like it might have actually been made with getting ashore in mind. Looked at in this context there is an almost childlike narrative of shipwreck about it – the canvas becomes the raft and the goat its captain, adrift with a tyre round his middle, serving as a makeshift Mae West.
Even though my fantasy of being marooned is to get away from it all, I imagine the desire for human company would become acute – I might even begin to talk to the goat, giving it a name like the character played by Tom Hanks in the film Castaway, in which he befriends a ‘Wilson’ basket ball that had come down with him in the plane crash. He draws a face on it and, naturally enough, names it Wilson. Coincidentally, ‘Monogram’ also incorporates a ball (of the tennis variety), which might come in handy if I ever fell out with the goat.
This, however is not an eventuality I could ever imagine. I would never fall out of love with this sculpture. “Whenever I moved, my work became radically different”, Rauschenberg once declared. I don’t think he had a desert island in mind, but I think this quote could also apply to the work itself. How “radically different” would it appear under a coconut tree in the south seas, as opposed to a museum in Sweden or a NYC loft apartment? I think it would look great anywhere.
(reproduced courtesy of HIX magazine) www.hixrestaurants.co.uk