Half ether, half dew mixed with sweat is from a body of work about boxing. It is also about material memory: can substances record and transmit anything of their history through their materiality alone?
I wondered about the metaphysical visibility of all the force that had been applied to this punching bag in its time, and how such a trace might appear. The bag is an absorbent object, a kind of filter or pad that stands in for the body it resembles, and it required some form of extraction or distillation to make visible the substances imbedded within it. I found a ‘formula’ for that process in a line from a poem by the American artist and illustrator Raymond Pettibon: half ether, half dew mixed with sweat.
Like the gradual planetary transformation in J.G. Ballard’s book The Crystal World, a crystalline carapace in copper-foil glasswork overtook the punching bag. To draw that structure, I looked to a tradition of window-making that epitomised the height of refinement: that by the famous early 20th-century American glassmaker, Louis Comfort Tiffany, whose work became synonymous in his time with good taste and class. His signature vocabulary of Arcadian wisteria and grapevines seemed to also be an evocation of crystalline growth.
The glass describes a new surface on the punching bag, one made visible from the energy and concentration applied to its canvas surface over years and years. I tried to produce a rarefied, dewy atmosphere that threw base substances like sweat and blood into sharp relief.
Neil Roberts 20021
1 This statement was submitted to the National Gallery on 28 February 2002, three weeks before Neil Roberts’s tragic death.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002