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Jeffrey Robb: Portraying the Otherworldly in 3D

Jeffrey Robb: Portraying the Otherworldly in 3D

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Updated: 7 October 2016
Jeffrey Robb is a London-based 3D photographic and holographic artist whose unique oeuvre has been critically acclaimed across the globe. The central theme in his work is the exploration of other worlds and the otherworldly. He has worked on a groundbreaking and large-scale installation at Gatwick Airport. Dr Kris Naudts went to meet Jeff Robb at his 2012 exhibition at the Hay Hill Gallery in London.

Kris: Thank you for your time and for not minding being interviewed by a psychiatrist. One of the reasons your work is so interesting, from my point of view, is that it profoundly challenges one’s perception. Consequently, I should think that people, whose perception is distorted, as is often the case in psychosis, would find some of it extremely challenging, especially the ‘Unnatural Causes’ series.

Jeff: That’s interesting. The feedback I’ve had on the boxes is that a lot of women feel that way. If you examine them more carefully, you’ll see that the positions they adopt are actually impossible positions, free of gravity and you could argue that, within the confinement, there’s a lot of freedom.


Kris: How do you find your models? What are you looking for in them?

Jeff: The lady I worked with on this series does a lot of work making shapes in boxes with her body. It’s what she does and I don’t think I would have done as many of those as I have if it wasn’t for working with her. She’s also a dancer. Hopefully one can see there is some kind of performance involved in a lot of my work, even when they ultimately end up as static 3D images. That kind of flexibility and creativeness in terms of adopting interesting shapes makes it easier for me. Some models are completely inflexible. They are like a plank of wood and it’s quite challenging to work with that. You tend to gravitate to those girls who give you a lot back.

Actually, I just shot another series with her, which is some kind of progression on the ones you’ve seen. Imagine perhaps a Mondrian painting where the segmentation is rectangular and square, not so geometric but they tessellate and the parts still fit together. On balance, I would also not have pursued them so much if they wouldn’t have been so commercially successful. Like Monet’s Haystacks perhaps, once you’ve got a winner, you tend to produce more of them! It would be good idea perhaps to get a whole, proper collection of those. I think there will be about 12 ultimately. Each one is effectively its own piece of work so they are between 7 and 19 times (the number of pieces, sic) more work than a traditional image. It is a big investment of my time.


Unnatural Causes

Kris: On a basic level, how much work goes into such a piece?

Jeff: Time-wise, several weeks. Sets have to be made, studio time booked, models found, etcetera. To produce one, it probably takes about 6 weeks. I had a solo show at the SWAB art fair in Barcelona just showing these pieces. Unfortunately, I didn’t go so I didn’t see them actually all in one place myself.


Kris: So you haven’t seen people’s responses to it for yourself?

Kath: I did and they were very positive. Also, when some of those were on show at the influential India Art Fair (formerly the India Art Summit, sic) in New Delhi earlier this year, there was a very good response from a journalist in the Sunday Guardian in New Delhi who said it was one of the centre pieces of the show.


Kris: They clearly have a very universal appeal.

Jeff: For the Indian art fair, the bodies were clothed with silk which obviously made them more modest but also, more interestingly, it put colour in what’s a kind of black and white image. A lot of my images are not black and white but they are not really colour either. They are kind of ‘drained of colour’ rather than black and white.


Kris: Are your models all Caucasian?

Jeff: I’m not saying they will always be but they have been so far. There is this theme of them being in another world and being other worldly. I was trying to make them slightly ghost-like and inhabiting this other sort of dimension. The bleached white skin seemed to make sense in that respect. Some of them I also painted white. In general, I am exploring other dimensions that don’t have the same physical properties as our world. It’s an overriding theme.


Jeff Robb

Kris: And that contributes to the sense of bewilderment some of your work would cause mentally ill people as it works at that very perceptual boundary.

Jeff: Yes, to me that domain is particularly interesting. I think that reality itself is not the way we perceive it. It’s just our lack of understanding rather than the way things are which makes us perceive the world the way we think it is. But the way it actually is, the truth if you like, I think is much more exotic and esoteric. And in that way, people that are perceived as mentally ill may have a perception that’s closer to the actual truth. I am talking about the possibility of other worlds, other dimensions, physical laws we don’t know about. And at a more fundamental level, we don’t know anything. We don’t know what things are made of. We don’t know what gravity is and how it works. In a very fundamental and deep way we don’t really know anything about the world at all.


Kris: What do you think of the experiments in CERN (Geneva)?

Jeff: We hear a lot about it now. I initially did a degree in science and I have always had a layman’s interested in the fundamentals of the universe and quantum physics. How many universes are there? How old they are? Those sorts of deep questions fascinate me. I am exploring these issues in a visual way. Figures are the bread and butter of the visual arts and doing something else with that hopefully makes people think about other issues rather than the figure itself. That’s the rationale for the figurative theme. Science fiction to me is always less interesting than the latest scientific discoveries.


Kris: It’s a rewarding yet challenging experience to look at your work. As said, it challenges your perception. Some though, challenge your emotions too. Do you intend to challenge the viewers at both levels?

Jeff: Absolutely. I heard people talk about the work in this sort of way, saying that they can almost ‘fall into’ some of the works which are sort of windows in that sense. The reactions range from fear to elation, which is as good as you can hope for. What’s also interesting is that people describe the work they like the most as the ‘definitive piece’. Of all the pictures, that’s the one for them. But of course, ten different people single out ten different definitive pieces, in that way.


Kris: That’s quite surprising, given that they are linked thematically.

Jeff: Exactly, yes, both by figure and by medium. Of course, for me it’s always very hard to put myself in their position because I’ve been doing this for so long but I think often for the viewer it’s the first time they’ve seen anything like this.



Kris: That’s exactly right, I think. And then, once you’ve seen it, you cannot go back to imagining never having seen it. Moreover, your work looks bespoke. It is art+, if you like.

Jeff: I like that. I did hologram making at the Royal College of Art. The issue with some of the new media is that, although they purport to represent the world in a realistic manner, they don’t at all – they are full of artefacts. This makes them interesting but real world images, they are not. Some people have a go at it, notably Paula Dawson in Australia. She is probably the only women there with an explosives’ licence and she does these huge experimental pieces. But no matter what, holograms always have that Lilliputian effect where everything is condensed. No matter how big you make them they always look smaller than the real world. In many ways, size is a bit of a dead end. With the media that I am using, perhaps people perceive them more in terms of the subject matter rather than the process because the holographic process is very alien. At least these can purport to show shades of grey and white and black in a way that you can read photographically which you can’t do with holography. I think the key is to strike a balance between other worldly, complete unknown but perhaps not so scary as with holography where people reject them because it is too much out of this world. Interestingly, children are drawn to holograms in a way that adults are not. Adults have learned to fear them.


Kris: It’s part of a neuro-developmental process when growing up to learn to separate what is within the perceptual norm and what is not. Once an adult, this process is rather complete and one loses a degree of flexibility.

Jeff: I do find it incredibly interesting how flexible a child’s brain is in seeing a 3-D representation of the world, which isn’t the world. I am fascinated by how children read things like a television picture. It’s not how adults read it. I remember going to the cinema when I was very young in the late 1960s. The next day at school, we had to draw a picture but I just couldn’t understand what I had seen: all these aeroplanes were flying around the room. In fact, it took years until I kind of really understood the spatial representation between the viewer and the screen and what that meant. At that time, one wasn’t exposed to screens as you are today where they are everywhere. Now, with holograms I had a similar kind of fascination. Maybe it’s a very Western middle class attitude that you’re scared of these things that you don’t understand. Maybe other cultures would be more accepting due to a different visual education.



Kris: Could you elaborate on the challenges that holograms pose to you as an artist?

Jeff: They are very expensive and hard to make, and very difficult to make big. There are issues with displaying and viewing them. It’s a much undeveloped aesthetic. If I had the team and the money, I would really like to explore this further but it’s a jump in terms of magnitude of difficulty and expense. Also people think that technology has moved on but that’s actually not correct when it comes to holograms. Those made in the 1970s are perhaps better than they are now because the skill level of the hologram creators was higher than it is now, with one or two exceptions like Inaki Beguiristain.


Kris: When looking at your work, I always think: where is the sound? Have you experimented with music?

Jeff: It’s interesting you say that. I have actually produced musical albums. In fact, one got voted ‘Best Home Produced Album of the Millennium’ by Mojo magazine. I do have a bit of a history with music. I am not pretending to be a musician but a lot of the video I do I make the music to. I am slowly working on a project at the moment called Coming into Being. I recorded my first-born son, who is now 2.5, 3-4 times a day every day since he was born. There is a really interesting phase, I’m sure you’ll know, at about 1.5, where the child can put together sentences but they don’t make any sense. You can tell it’s English but they are just sounds. I am also working with an old friend of mine, John Was, a musician although I’d more call him an acoustic engineer. As people are modelling sounds in space so that they can predetermine acoustics in public spaces, I had this idea of creating shapes in space using sound which I ran by my friend. I wanted to know if you can close your eyes and hear a triangle, a line, a circle… So I was very interested in trying to draw shapes in space using sound. I reasoned that that if you can place a sound in a particular point in space, presumably you can place another sound in a place nearby and by extension draw a shape. However it is unresolved if this is possible. One thing we do know is that it would be expensive to do it. My studio has hundreds of speakers which are individually addressable and of course with modern technology you can have an infinite number of channels and feed the sounds to those. Speaker design is also an important issue here. Now, when I loaded up the wave forms of my son’s voice, there suddenly opened this sort of panacea of possibilities of manipulating these sounds which were really emotional. My friend had actually just done a PhD on the emotional responses to sounds and words like mummy and daddy are hugely powerful human response triggers. So when my son is saying daddy/mummy it immediately draws a picture, not only to me but also more general emotions of being lost and found, really quite deep primitive responses. I read you were born with very few innate responses. One of them was your sense of falling. The sense of falling is ingrained in humans.


Kris: It’s very interesting. There was this recent research on sounds that adults particularly respond to and the number 1 was the crying of a baby. Number 2 was the Intel chime when switching on a computer.

Jeff: I took out the changing nappy sounds and the slamming of doors and gave my friend these raw sound data. It opens up amazing possibilities of what you can do with it. It’s very interesting to hear his view on this and he is fascinated about what you can do with it, coming from a very academic background. We’re trying to put together some kind of installation piece where there is an immersive visual environment, combined with this manipulated audio. I think building environments using a medium which purports to occupy a different space from its physical space is perhaps unchartered territory but there are inherent cost and space challenges. The possibilities are huge though. You can imagine making a building using sounds.


Kris: What’s the background to the installation you’re working on for Gatwick airport?

Jeff: I am doing this pyramid installation for the airport, which is another interactive environment where the person can control the light and sound. There’s this academic paper I read that says that the average American consuming as much of the earth’s resources as an Egyptian pharaoh would get through over his entire life. It gives a sense of the enormity of the pressure on resources. If you think of what you go through life using, and it can’t be reused. Maybe an Egyptian pharaoh didn’t get through that much but it gives you a sense of the enormity of the pressure on resource (smiles). Think of it as 300 million pharaohs living in the States! The installation was originally proposed for the Eden Project in Cornwall, where I was offered an Artist in residence. They have moved the arts arm of it outside of the physical realm of the site in Cornwall and are doing something called Eden Labs, which is an experimental arts program. They are trying to take the ethos of Eden. So that idea of the pyramid and the resources kind of makes sense in this context of the Eden project and the airport seemed to me the ideal environment to bring this idea of resources home.


Watch a video about Robb’s Gatwick installation below:

Kris: On a different and more general note, what do you think you would have done in life if you had lived say 50 years ago?

Jeff: I think I’d have been a sculptor or a photographer, I suppose. I don’t see myself as a photographer at all though, but I was always very interested in photography, probably from the age of 12, and I had a teacher at school who taught me how to develop films. My father is an abstract landscape painter who was professor of fine art at Middlesex University, formerly known as Hornsey College of Art, which has quite a good history. Anish Kapoor attended there. My father is a bit older than David Hockney but they were at Art School at a similar time. There’s also Peter Blake, they know each other. So, I’ve always been exposed to art. In many ways I am kind of living 50 years ago with the kind of art I am drawn to, for example Ben Nicholson (and his abstract paintings) is a favourite of mine.


Kris: Kandinsky too, I would imagine?

Jeff: Absolutely, and Malevich too. I actually did my dissertation (The Origins of Abstract Painting) on Kandinsky at the Royal College of Art. There are some artists who lived at a time of turmoil. Making art whilst you can hear the World War II guns from say 50 miles away must influence the way you work. In many ways, I haven’t got that political sensibility and I think that Britain has been relatively stable. When I was in university in Leeds, the miners’ strike was on and a lot of my mates were members of the socialist workers party, picketing. And, of course, Thatcher came and destroyed that whole chunk of England to the point where the repercussions are still there today. I am not saying she did the wrong thing. I just think she did it in the wrong way. She took away people’s lives and left them to rot, whilst champagne-guzzling, Porsche driving guys in the city were promoted to semi-god status. That was indefensible from a social justice point of view. So I was very exposed to all that. But coming back to your question on Kandinsky, a lot of people replicate these pictures out of context. It’s a trap that a lot of would-be artists fall in. I try not to do that. I think that most real key events for 20th century art as in, strangely, 20th century physics happened in the first 10 years of it. You know, the blank canvas was done. Einstein had written his papers. By the outbreak of World War I, those things that you see in galleries right now, their genesis, could clearly be traced to that first decade of the last century.


Kris: Is that conscious though?

Jeff: Well, I think there are some good ideas that are just reused. Whether you think that having a blank canvas is your idea or not, it’s been done and repeated every decade. When I was a child I was taken around to degree shows by my father and I couldn’t understand then why there were so many blank rooms with a light bulb in it and then Martin Creed won the Turner Prize not that long ago for that. I have difficulty with a lot of conceptual art. The concept is often not that very good or strong. I keep reading about people pushing the boundaries of what art can be. There’s got to be something to the art other than that – it just hasn’t been done. Some people do it very successfully though, and sensationally, like Carl Andre. But just this constantly rehashing of possibilities I find depressing in contemporary art. I really feel it’s due to a general lack of creativity because it’s hard to be genuinely different.


Kris: In many ways you are an archetype of an artist. I cannot see you would have been anything else, even if you lived 200 years ago. What do you think?

Jeff: Yes, I’d certainly always be making something. I might have been more of a craftsman in that time, like a boat builder.


Kris: And that would not apply to contemporary artists whose art is solely about pushing the boundaries. They seem to be artists by choice not necessity.

Jeff: They would have been selling vegetables 200 years ago! A lot of modern art isn’t very good but some of it is genius. When you see something where you think you can’t do that yet someone’s done it, that’s where it becomes the real thing. Think of Turning The Place Over by Richard Wilson. He just cut a hole of about 30 feet in a grey office block in Liverpool. It’s sitting on the face of the building and then hydraulically this thing comes out of the building and turns again, it’s amazing. I was reading a lot about public art and how its aims of engaging the public in creative endeavours to open their minds to new things are so rarely achieved. When the people were polled who were living around it they wished it wasn’t there. It’s interesting that it largely doesn’t actually function in the way it’s sold to the people ultimately paying for it. This Liverpool work seems for once to do the job though.


Watch a video of Richard Wilson’s ‘Turning The Place Over’ below:

Kris: Your work is an example of something that only you as a unique artist and with your very specific background and the particular skill level and creativity it requires could have brought about, no?

Jeff: Yes, however the process of it is the least interesting thing for me.


Kris: Because?

Jeff: In terms of talking about it. If you’re a cabinet maker, making a dovetailed joint beautifully is not something you want to talk about. It’s just something that you know how to do. The design is probably the more interesting aspect, as that’s what’s changing. The technique can be challenging but it is ultimately transparent. It’s difficult but I know how I do it because I’ve been doing it for so long. With a lot of techniques like holography people are happy to have made anything, to have created an image at all. It’s very difficult to get a decent image at all in a hologram. You have to acquire a high level of expertise to achieve anything good. It’s not like digital photography where you just press a button and there it is. I very much did an apprenticeship learning the technique, see what people had done, face challenges and learn to solve problems. People ask me why I did botany at university and it’s that same kind of logic, of problem solving. I always wanted to know how a plant as a physical system worked. I always go back to the basics of how things work and start from first principles for everything. It’s quite annoying in a way.


Kris: I imagine it’s a particularly time-consuming approach?

Jeff: Yes, I am always trying to get back to the real root of the thing. When I read about the ideas that are behind some of the Turner Prize works, it’s sometimes so convoluted and derivative and without any real thread as to why. I am not talking about necessarily the winners here but I’ve seen one show where they plundered an archive and reinterpreted it through Freudian psychology. Why? Why would you want to do that? It’s an intellectual dead end. What came out of it was incredibly dull, I thought. When you see something in that context that is dull visually you intuitively think it must have some interesting background. But actually when you look into it that’s often just boring as well. And I just don’t want to be like that, where you become wrapped up in your own zeitgeist of what you believe to be the flavour of the month.


Kris: Where/what would you be in 50 years time, you think (if you forget technological limitations)?

Jeff: I think you’d plant chips in people’s brains and have them experience whatever you wanted.


Kris: Is that something you would conceptually integrate into your art given no ethical or medical constraints?

Jeff: In 50 years I’d love to mess with people’s perception that way – where you could do anything at all. RL Gregory’s seminal work, Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing (1966) is a touchstone for me. I am very interested in the fundamental level at which the brain works, the fundamental way in which we see, how we process information. My overall concern is the exploration of that other world and I am trying to make work that people experience so it has to be quite accessible. I perhaps tend to be someone that lets things come to the surface rather than spend 5 years researching how we experience the colour red, so in that sense my future art is not predetermined or predictable.



Kris: What is the major theme in the Macrolandworks?

Jeff:I’d say it is about exploring the relationship between colours in space. A lot of my work is chromatic and spatial driven. A lot of blues in the background and a lot of reds is in the front to enhance the spatial in a painterly and sculptural way.


Kris: What would you say is the major difference in the responses to the ‘Macroland works’ when compared to the ‘Unnatural Causes’ images?

Jeff: Well, viewers don’t feel threatened by the abstract work. People have a canon they can draw on. They are quite soft. There’s a lot of Asian and Middle Eastern interest because colours and patterns are the ingredients of the visual imagery in those regions. A lot of painters talk about surface and texture but, of course, there isn’t any of that. The perception is that it is there but it actually isn’t in my work, due to the technique.


Kris: Are you limited by the materials you use?

Jeff: The material itself is very unforgiving. You could argue that holography is also that way but then it has its own issues and so the ability to experiment and produce work on relatively large scale economically is very important. In terms of cost, it’s similar to making bronze sculpture rather than trying to put up buildings. To do the sort of projects I’d like to do holographically would cost millions and millions of pounds. The one plus is that lasers have become much cheaper and the ability to illuminate holograms with lasers opens all sorts of possibilities. I did a project in the Roppongi Hills in Tokyo (Japan) around 2003 where I illuminated holograms permanently using laser light under water. There was a myriad of issues and challenges to that project. For instance for health and safety reasons we were only allowed 5 mWatt light bulbs in a public space, which is not very bright I think we broke all those rules by a factor of 10,000 just so we could make it work. It’s just one example but there were so many that the issues to overcome were becoming bigger than the actual creation of the work. That’s not really what I want to do with my life. Ultimately I am a one-man band. Everything you see on the walls of the gallery here is made by me.



Kris: Finally, as I’m sure our readers would be keen to know, are there are any fiction books and films you would recommend that may not have influenced you?

Jeff: It is difficult to tell whether they all have or have not influenced me, but here with a few I certainly like: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. The most important corrections of the book are the sudden impingements of truth or reality on characters who are expending ever larger sums of energy on self-deception or denial. And also, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. One book that was hugely influential on me and my work is the already mentioned Eye and Brain by Richard L Gregory. In terms of films there’s the French film Delicatessen and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Also, a film called If. It is a satire on Britain’s private and won the Palme d’Or in 1969. And perhaps another great 1960s film called Blow-up by Michelangelo Antonioni. The film was inspired by a short story of the Argentinian author Julio Cortazar.



By Dr. Kris Naudts

Images courtesy of Jeffrey Robb