‘Queer assembly’ – writing by Hugo Robinson on ‘I’m glad you’re here, just the way you are’

“The world is full of strange and queer textures. Bits and strings and piles of matter that we feel with our hands and our eyes and our ears. The closer we get to them, and the more willing we are to feel those expressions, the more likely we are to have a lasting connection.” – Hugo Robinson

I always think of an exhibition as an offering. An open hand. As with any offer, you are welcome to say yes or no, or I’d like to know more. Or I’d like more time to think about it. Often people don’t respond right away. When I see art that affects me, it leaves me wordless for a while. It’s good to just be together and let it sink in. People also offer back to me; feedback, cups of tea, hugs, their own art or poetry, help installing, and car rides. Sometimes someone writes a thing. Thank-you Hugo, for writing this beautiful piece about ‘I’m glad you’re here, just the way you are’, which was at Toi Pōneke this year, right after our first lockdown lifted in Aotearoa.

Queer Assembly – Hugo Robinson

I’m glad you’re here, just the way you are, detail of small sculptures- image credit Amos Mann

Kia ora Siân! I’ve been spending the last month trying to figure out how to best address you all in a piece of writing that would reveal even a shade of the colour you make me feel. A normal piece of writing could not possibly do justice to our relationships and the squiggly singing waves you emit. It seems that the best way to do that is to describe what I’ve learnt from you all through the social world you immersed me in. So, I write this letter to you to share some secrets that you pressed into my hands.  

For me, I can only see your art practice as an inseparable part of your social practice. The way you extend your care and love to people, and to non-living beings, reflects a set of values and aspirations that actively work against the dominant ways of whiteness. When I interact with your artwork, there is an ethics of how to relate to the world that is so radical and so gentle – that prioritises consent, growth and attentiveness to the process of growth. It’s an ethics that trusts that people and things know how they want to be and urges us to help each other express that. As you said to me, it’s not ‘how do you bend something into a shape that I want?’, it’s ‘how do you figure out what something wants to be?’ Just as it is evident in the bunchings of fabric and clustered crayon assemblies that you make (and that make you), you hold and gently invite others into a worldview that strives to have no centre, no individual, no fixed categories assigned by power. Rather, it is a world where everything takes meaning from everything else. You help me imagine structures that find their strength in their ability to be soft, and their willingness to be reassembled with and for others.    

This makes me think immediately of Sling, which feels like the embodiment of community building. Every piece rests on another and links to another. Each strand and strap has to work with each other, but not every piece is working all the time and that’s ok – they’re there just as they are. Bits dangle, fabric is soft and taught, and together they draw the eye around and around a general gravitational field, from which echoes vital energy. 

Sling, (foreground), Image credit – Amos Mann

To me you are a healer, because you and your works are a bridge for transmitting that thing that Pākehā don’t have a word for, but which we could call life force (could Bridge be the highway of the soul?). I think we need people working to define our own understanding of life force as we continue to shed the lifeworlds that alienate us from the world and each other, and that is what I see in you and your work: The manifestation of skills and intentions you’ve learned and honed, and latent capacities passed down to you from your Welsh ancestors; capacities that you harness to nurture and channel life force in people and materials alike. You’ve taught me that the skill of a healer is the ability to strike the balance of listening and speaking, holding and letting be. It’s like how you say you felt a trans-ness about the works, a feeling of “I don’t know what you are, but I know you’re not this.”

Nest, 400mm x 400mm, pastel and pencil on paper, 2020

Or that understanding that when a work is finished it will say it is finished. Or how you knew the works felt wrong after being locked away during the COVID lockdown. These structures that look weak are strong, precisely because they’ve undergone that process of being held and let be, of being listened to and being breathed upon.

But as you are so clear in articulating, the structures we currently have to inhabit are not so conducive to the transmission of life force. They don’t make most people feel safe enough to give or receive it, let alone to allow themselves to consider its existence in the world. So another important thing about the show, outside of the works themselves, is the protocols and interventions you and your partner Creek improvised to bless the space and kiss the walls all pink-yellow. It was during the beautiful performance-cum-talk when you talked about nurturing the life force in these artworks. This acknowledges that artworks come into the world as beings, as assemblages of beings and relationships, which give them their own personalities and characteristics. As such, it takes more to get to know them than just looking at them, just as with any other being. You’ve got to put in work. You’ve got to be sensitive to who they want to be and the conditions under which they will reveal themselves, and then you have to intervene in the material and social space to activate their connecting potential.

And that’s what deeply resonates with me. You say that a main interest of yours is the hard work of sticking together and the structures we build to do so. Like you, I’m interested in the structures we build to stick together. Specifically, I’m interested in what Pākehā need to do in order to dismantle the Crown and rebuild something that honours te Tiriti and ensures tino rangatiratanga and mana Māori motuhake flourish – and I think that whatever that looks like, it will also connect us to our ancestors, to the earth and to other peoples in an enhancing, sustainable way. We need good and just relationships that are part of a cosmology and ethics that irrefutably places us in the web. For me this is a dual process of unearthing existing Pākehā social structures while imagining new ones. It means a profound shift in the emphasis we place on relationships, both structural and interpersonal, which is of the utmost urgency in a time when our interdependency is made so clear. It all comes back to relationships, and again that is what you practice and teach in the most humble and assured way. You and your work teach me about the gentler, queerer world-building we have to do; for me, your work models that world! 

The world is full of strange and queer textures. Bits and strings and piles of matter that we feel with our hands and our eyes and our ears. The closer we get to them, and the more willing we are to feel those expressions, the more likely we are to have a lasting connection. We then must meet them with our own hands and delicately draw out another etching from the infinite, fragrant light of the world. It is that sense of the needs and possibilities of the materials we encounter (which inherently links to the needs and possibilities of the people we encounter), that makes my body surge with emotion when I greet your work. It is clear that the relationship between you is a considered and balanced one. You can feel that by the care you put into holding the works, with soft interventions into the hard, harsh gallery. And even more so in trying to offer people the space and peace to give and exchange breath in comfort. 

That’s the practice of a guider of life force. That’s the work of a healer, in the facilitation of assembly, in togethering and sticking back together. You inspire me to keep laying down soft things in hard spaces while they exist and making nests way outside them for the revolutionary life that keeps on going regardless of whatever gets thrown at white walls, in white skin, and on white paper (to which we must continually be accountable). Art has the capacity to change the world because it bridges between the material and the social. It transfers feeling and, given the right conditions, helps people figure out how to stick together softer, stronger, for longer. 

Thank you for your guidance and expression.

All my love,

Hugo  

Hugo (he/they) is Pākehā, living in the rohe of Te Āti Awa. They are committed to helping bring about the Aotearoa envisaged by Te Tiriti o Waitangi. He is invested in existing and re-imagined genealogical connections that help transform Pākehātanga away from colonialism and capitalism, towards a social world aligned with tikanga and just, balanced relationships with people and the world.

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