James Rogers Tunnelvision

I was invited by the artist to write this essay earlier in the year, it will be published in the catalogue accompanying his survey show at the Drill Hall Gallery, Canberra from 31st July to 27th September 2020.


Plunged in the years

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Lotus 2012

James Rogers references the sea in his sculptures. The sea is present as the subject of titles and its fluxing energy is evident in the lines and rhythms of particular works, yet it never appears as seascape. His sculpture belongs to a tradition in which the body is a conduit, experiencing the environment and registering its effect by means of gestures. The sea, its currents, rips, frothing and languid tidal movements might register in the form of a turned profile cut from a steel tube, with the light polishing convex glints and cavernous shadows. To make hard, grainy steel approximate to the fluid smoothness of water requires an attitude that conceives inner and outer realms of experienceas linked by a permeable space.

My first memory of James was of him performing a work which had evolved from a domestic improvisation in his kitchen.1  Broom in hand, we see him sweeping a dot of light across a darkened floor with great physical attention, pushing the handle, gathering, turning and pulling towards the body. It was a kind of instructional piece enacting many of the directives of Richard Serra’s Verblist of 1968: to bend, to lift, to gather, to arrange, to encircle, to scatter, to collect. The emphasis on bodily action and scale in relation to the immediate environment was an awareness keenly promoted in the sculpture department in Toowoomba, where the performance took place.

As with many artists of his generation, Richard Serra was inspired by the traces of ancient civilizations ravaged by time and worn into the natural world, suggesting relationships with nature that are lost to contemporary society.

James recently sent me a book on the Polynesian seafarers, a history that segues into our own, with a common 18th-century moment of English naval involvement.2  There’s a sea chart discussed in the book, drawn by a Tahitian polymath on board the Endeavour, which presented a riddle to the European navigators. It confronted them with an alien conception of being-in-the-sea. Unlike European cartography which conceives a map from a bird’s-eye view, the ancient seafaring culture of the Polynesians saw a nuanced topography across the ocean, one relating to an environment of wind and water acting on bodily sensations.

James Rogers, 'Cunjevoi' 2011 160 x 110 x 60

Cunjevoi  2011


A ceaseless rhythm of the waves, a rising convection of swell, a breaking wave hollows into a tube section formed by a sliding water surface, dissipating in the churning sand, the leg of the surfer stands amid aqueous sand dragging back out to sea.


I met James the year he graduated, when I’d freshly arrived at the then-new art college in Toowoomba. He played drums in a band, the Sad Cases. He was reserved, yet with the contained energy which was, in part, attributable to the coastal surf culture he’d grown up with. I’d gone to school with boys who chased surf on weekends, distracting from the dullness of the school classroom with dramatic grazes down their arms, eyes looking across the teacher’s table and through the blackboard for the contour of a wave, conjuring its swell with the slow rocking of a school chair. His interests in music were diverse, from simple punk rock to the polyrhythms of Indonesian Gamelan which were then all-pervasive in the college’s music department.  The sharp-edged brightly coloured sculpture he was making at the time gave off a conspicuous, somewhat abrasive energy while rewarding the longer view with the thoughtfulness of its construction.

Soon James was making sculpture in his spare time while employed as a welder. Since then he’s constructed a journeyman identity that combines sophisticated artistry with a workmanlike attitude. He seems to have understood, since early days, the relationship between labour and the market. His work ethic hinges on an equation between effort and its return, and on an implicit contract between an artist and his public.

James Rogers_Moire Bay 001

Moiré Bay 2013


Over time the artist moves through a series of iterations as the sculpture grows: a series of selves circulating around a central void, or binaries switching reflexively.  Movements and transformations continually revolve the attributes of things and feelings.  In concerted practice the sculpture and the space it circumscribes unite, becoming a talisman, an emblem of feeling decisively positioned and shaped … in the world.

Moiré Bay is a sculpture weaving and blinking, emitting the sensation it creates via a pair of opposing elements. Two woven steel mining sieves, cut round and placed upright like two blank charts facing each other, are held up by a table-like structure which has a make-do quality, reminiscent of a furriner – a clandestine object made by a worker using his skills, tools, materials and workspace surreptitiously, for idiosyncratic personal ends.

The sculpture presents the woven elements in a seemingly straightforward manner, yet there is a subtle artistry which confers a kind of ceremonial quality to the physical relationship between the viewer and the artwork –suggesting a kind of altar, elevating the wondrous visual rhythms generated by thin vertical planes lyrically interacting in space. Remembering the riddle of the Tahitian chart –which was the flagrant opposite of the European geographer’s map – the moiré effect in this sculpture has a visceral immediacy and behaves like a living thing. It is a staged view, an invention across a classroom table, navigating through sea and air – a reality effect that hazes/separates itself from its surrounds.

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Inside Reef 2016


A beacon, the uncertain shadowy afterimage in relation to its lights, searching vectors across the sky its beam delineates the position of source and destination, a cone of vision – then a meltdown of glinting, angled moments.


The sculpture’s armature, which was once a core of rods and wire buried inside a mass of modelled clay or plaster, was laid bare during the modernist era, and it became, for some, the essential architecture of the sculpted figure. This emergent figure was always in the process of turning towards or away from compelling vision, oblique as the glance to a face, the glimpse of a person’s gait, experienced for a moment, unreliably remembered –as if one were searching to sum up the impression of bodily form from scratch.

The calligraphic presence in James Rogers’ cylinder sections comes by way of shaping empty space.The pitched angles are established by the use of scaffolds and platforms which are now absent but might still be implied, defining the relation to gravity in Lotus, or determining the hang of elements in Tableau or Sage.  Fluid lines burnt through steel plate follow the arc of an arm movement and the motion of a body. They yield long, sharply ripped lines, gently elongated and turned fingers of steel, dished circles, dots and dashes – simple coded groups that make up a graphic vocabulary. And like a well designed font these elements hold and pass on attention to the next in line, as repetitive rhythms which encourage a reading of pattern through a series of exchanges between shapes and the spaces they interact with. These shell-like constructions do not strive for spatial unity, but call themselves into being through flow and interruption.


Sage 2017


James Rogers’ sculpture relates to the flow of water as a temporal entity, a glinting wave constantly changing shape; it bends, lifts, gathers and arranges, encircles, collects and scatters.  I feel the sculpture presents, as a measure of Time rather than a spatial entity, the body woven in water – like the being-in of the Tahitian chart. As such, the sculptor is in accord with Proust’s notion of those who live, “occupying in Time a much greater place than so sparingly conceded to them in Space, a place extended beyond measure, because, like giants plunged in the years, they touch at once those periods of their lives – separated by so many days – so far apart in Time.”3


  1. John Gillies: Sweepings, 13 minute video loop, 1980.
  2. Christina Thompson: Sea People, William Collins, London, 2019.
  3. Samuel Beckett: Proust, Grove Press, New York, 1931.



Nameer Davis

January 2020



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Parallel Lives

Mezzanine 2019 synthetic polymer on canvas

20 years ago duo Massive Attack brought out the album Mezzanine crackling with cached sounds of heartbeats and musical interludes that haunt the weave of its fabric for emotional focus.

Seamstress 2019 synthetic polymer on canvas

The modernist idea of always undoing what you did before in order to discover something new to look at … replaying … going over it again … a distrust of memory seen as unreliable compared to the moment of seeing into

Angel 2019 synthetic polymer on burlap

the visual puzzle … elements from diverse sources … bricolage, the repurposing of old signs … an exercise in cognition as opposed to recognition.

Colony 2019 synthetic polymer on Linen

Formats for the human Figure originating in fashion plates and security footage such as grids and colour progressions are systems and rules, the ties that bind limits and opportunities within systemic fields.

Exchange 2019 synthetic polymer on linen

Hannah Arendt, as discussed in a previous post, presents a nuanced view of the vita activa, the active life, not just the heartbeat of the gym, fitness and exercise, nor simply the labour paid for in wages, but also the experience of work as a skilled process and of action into a social situation whose consequences reverberate and transform.

Bromide 2019 synthetic polymer on canvas

Humans generally have too complex a brain for the life they live. A large part of their brain capacity isn’t used. And one life isn’t enough. You need to have parallel lives or you can’t resist. (Michel Houllebecq)

Dissolve 2019 synthetic polymer on aluminium

In the Mid 1990s at the height of the Yugoslav war when race and religion displaced many people who had to take up their lives I was traveling on a train in Central Europe, stopped in the night between stations. Border police ushered out a distraught young couple and their two infant children onto the rail tracks. This stays in my mind, I was with my mother whose own life has been crossed by the lines of exile and displacement that run forward and backward in time.

Diver 2019 synthetic polymer on canvas

Risingson 2019 synthetic polymer on burlap

.. and his senses were as doubled,
Because his sight, like a dog, ran ahead of him,
Turned around, came back to him and stood
Waiting for him at the next roadbend
Rainer Maria Rilke: Orpheus

Summer Nights 2019 synthetic polymer on linen

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My Phantom Africa

I left for the airport from the apartment after three days without power or water. In the neighbourhood diesel generators work round-the-clock and each morning Olufela and Taiwo bucket water from an adjoining street and up two flights.


Members of the festival team and resident artists met the previous night at ‘the wall’, venue for Kris’s installation. A huddle of benches under a yellow circle inviting discussion between community figures opposing the blockade of a longstanding thoroughfare that restricts essential service from several thousand inhabitants.


At a point on the boardwalk between house walls is a deep space where Benin children’s voices echo ja wohl (white person) in a rising chant that stays with me till I reach the workstation on the shore of the lagoon.

Marshal is there with Farouk, Taiwo, Simiat and Olufela, team members assembled by Aderemi to work the festival. It’s very humid, most are in the doorway catching the breeze off the water. Marshal, shirtless is up a ladder securing windows after the recent break-in.


Olufela led me through the mud alleys to a school in the Iwaya ghetto to deliver drawing lessons. The processes developed there evolved into a collaborative installation with the children in a building above the Iwaya market, an open space reverberating with the noise below, twenty square columns occupy the space; blank figures, children traced each other’s profiles concealed and revealed across the angled planes and reflective of existence within the ghetto. In view of the Kings Palace across the divide.


I’ve spent almost three months reading, drawing, writing into my copy of Phantom Africa, Michel Leiris’ account of 1932 Pan-African expedition. The text provides a kind of dreamlike content to the drawings; these posts are initially handwritten notes between the text lines. Stuck for ways to express my experience I begin to transcribe, loosely glancing between pencil and print looking for a form reflective of my search for memory here in Lagos as well as a valency that might measure better to the complex energies flowing in the situations encountered.

I left the apartment this morning, set up camp in the consulate ground, no power or water, more rain, dinner. The other resident artists and I, the consul and the wireless telegrapher last night (and right away there is news) met at the wall. A trader blockade separating ordinary people and elected politics (a bullet in the abdomen).


At night the wall, constructed across an unknown person who raised the side of his tent, through a long standing thoroughfare. The body was taken. The only access to (Roux’s camp a community of 2,000 people) essential services. In touch with the Consul to report as I left for the airport. He had given it as “an apartment” which for several days (is definitely the rumour) no power or water as dignified a burial as possible. The man killed is a member of our diminishing presence, a mission of diesel generators, the aviator attests.
This quality perished with those who took part in the battle. Olufela, self-styled Shakara is a mocking friend and was himself an airman in the time of unrest and with the story of the bullet in the abdomen.


Olufela (rumour did not spread), a sound performance under house arrest on Lagos Island in a state of semi dress grace (black polythene), condemned to solitary confinement, using various hooters he stood as the traffic flow replaced him as its horns and movement. There is heavy noise in the slave traffic of Lagos, his subject if we need convincing is the Lagos diesel generator (what Griaule intends to do) when electric power is off. His work is a homage (2nd July) to his late mother who operated a pepper grinder.


First close contact with the ruins of one in the market below saw three churches as I worked on the installation each, entangled in the machinery, is a constant rhythmic accompaniment to the remains of the forest people whose voices reach what is left of the royal palace on a regular basis.

Tree shelters indicating a miraculous spring, subtle shifts from the normal banter of (the second and third churches) St John, stall holders, the occasional fighter that takes the rhythm to a different graze: the random (church surrounded by a huge ditch) timing a sunken esplanade once a baptismal pool (now dried-up) in Lagos noise for the ritual immersion of street energy (raised up from the waters) via diesel generators these places of worship are dunghills or vocal rhythms – worse than the Dogon echo Chambers.


A gorgeous stage set of silhouettes or a shirt white on blue, small motifs of drowned trees with mules harnessed. A theoretical timelessness punctuated by the beat of drums, we come upon the ruins, a vast area bristling with walls, old palaces with dungeons, time, moments wrap things in events, the key to their original purpose lost. Crumbling staircases rising up to the ruins inseparable from the flow of time .
There’s an ordering, something goes before something else, to the future from the present. Figures with one face, two profiles and three horns reminiscent of Janus, time is fundamental – not emergent.

Somewhere in this is a basis, we will offer it to the church and try to get a fresco in exchange. The history of the colonizing and the colonized and of native intuition… Great alarm this evening: gunshots and Italian horns.
In Iwaya in chains, many churches with only the chief of police to keep an eye on an improvised theatre. Discovered in the church ceremony: two speakers, Griaule and Roux are continuing with microphones to act out, to remove the paintings in the church – a relationship, devious and slowly sharpening this work into relayed questions removing responsibility from the head of the church.


Aderemi, the daughter of the patronne came to life as a public figure – to art as a pastor is to his church. With a sooty complexion, constantly lodged in our camp revolving questions of social responsibility ( …I feel a certain sympathy for the….) repeatedly dissapointed because of her crinkly, short team intitiative and the unkempt hair of community leaders to see his project with round-eyed value.


Yesterday Suraia and Rafaelle, Abba Jerome was admiring a round metal placemat hunting for material to fill the story line of film about food among our tableware, living cultural rituals pierced with holes to create a decorative rosette. Today he asks Roux to draw him Sabo at a street bar so that he can meet a couple, inscribe on it , he works for UNICEF. He is preoccupied with the logistics of supply chain, very stressed, a container forever present – of original sin , the whole container of mosquito nets vanished between ship and shore.


I feel increasingly as if i am dead. I don’t care at all about the representations, which once would have gotten me so excited…. the children in the school crowd into their pews. These are meagre ruses, the head, the emptiness within me, teacher Zachary has a quiet but effective way, only one, of developing La Croix copies of drawing and pattern. Among other things he wears plastic slip-ons like some bishop or arch-bishop, one anticipating with three letters HUN , a slide to the right TER ‘to pray for the elections’.


Sunday. Headache. Aderemi’s friend lies – no mass, fortunately! little sleep – on the floor in the dormitory hallway, haunted by succubi, with a dripbag attached to his arm. He struggles painfully to rise, an impromptu visit from the zar lady. Aderemi starts in like some old honorable gentleman on the woman administering the drip, she is wearing a toga with a wide red band – the man is suffering: the princess with the pure – a bout of malaria and deepening typhoid.


As sullen as ever Lagos works its way in looking more and more like some worthless little … , its diesel generators, hair well braided and oiled, burning plastic, voices raised in quick agitated emotion, perhaps because of her humble position, mood that presses, she gives herself fewer airs. Manic rhythms, doesn’t act the sibyl and try to show off her flashy family connections.

Despite my occasional bouts I am fond of these precarious timber boardwalks, the old zarine rules me like a mother over the lagoon waters whether they know it or not at the Iwaya shanty like the falseness of their possessions and these dear girls, we enter a boarding house, a little tinsel fantasy under a doorway sign “no smoking of Indian hemp here” , a plane of unreality that makes them forget the crushing weight of customary stupidities… The narrow hallway has a floor of black plastic, Aderemi stops yesterday’s interrogation over a man prostrate in a suit. A woman, (her former husband left her because she slept away from home) trying unsuccessfully to secure a bag of orange liquid to a nail that bends under its weight, at present she is the “bed-servant” of the camp orderly, she is Christian, he Muslim, he’s dressed in a nigerian patterned suit of orange and purple cloth, the old healer tries to look respectable while it is she who is obviously in pain. Free of charge Aderemi speaks brusquely to the woman after checking the dance meetings to cure the possessed. We leave the old woman’s house, ‘did you notice he was crying?’ to prepare the coffee, the woman, she doesnt understand the timing for the infusion, he says the man is suffering from malaria and typhoid, it must be given constantly for a couple of days, Aderemi himself was infused yesterday for his condition.


Ibadan, she is too busy, the Yoruba king’s palace in addition to her job, a household of griots, her own troubadours start up but it works out in the end, a seeded calabash, talking drum, iron castanets and a trumpet (camp of her own accord). First three develop a rhythm that’s intermittently, though in all liklihood instructed to do so arrested (renders her incapable of being of service) by a two or three note trumpet blast. Counting in time and shaping space to make her testimony purer and more vivid – then its complete fragmentation. Please, a sign of appreciation.

Iwaya, an unpleasant scene with the lame informant, the suburb fringed by a lagoon and settled on the amount due by Benin fisher people, tidal flats a manuscript of mud tracks and timber walkways at the end of my tether, shopkeepers, so I spell it out for him, net menders, boat builders, hemp smokers. and (He can stop quibbling over the agreed price or he can leave) Aderemi’s Vernacular Art Laboratory calms down and ends up perhaps waiting for a unicorn on the shores of the lagoon. In fact he casts some substantial light on the brotherhood , children’s drawing lessons, the guenda is a sort of altar as well as a measurement of proportions the sign of commandment conferred by a muslim hermit.


Nearby Makoko, possessed by several spirits who went on a pilgrimage , between stilt houses with his blessing. On the boat we were sung by Daio and Olufela through the waterways made famous as an example of self-organization by Rem Koolhas, he gives them the right to keep the coffee tray and, in turn to cure the possessed.

Photo Credits:

> Kris Russo

* Yusuf Durodola

# Rafaele Fortunati

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