Tina Stolt, Karlsruhe june 2006
The tree’s slow growth over time and season can be deciphered from its rings, but can also be read in Roger Rigorth’s sculptures. An artist working in wood keeps his eye on this time factor. The presence of natural materials such as the wood he uses has all the more effect, the more the virtual and the artificial, in all areas of life, place themselves into our fleld of Vision.
The effect of wood is amplified, furthermore, by the symbolism of trees, long established in virtually all cultural settings, a symbolism that can be called archetypal (1). But Rigorth not only works with wood, but also with related materials such as coconut fibre and paper, both derived from trees. In addition, he uses clay and, for some time now, lead and iron. More recently he has also used steel in cone-shaped objects. These, however, do not have their ongins in the tree. These natural materials have their roots in the artist’s proximity to nature, in his encounters with nature and his life in it. lt begins with a forest tree he has himself sought out and felled. So it is worked on by the sculptor from the very beginning. His craft skilis then expand according to need to enable hirn to continue with the work.
The motif of the boat or boat-shaped objects plays an important role in Rigorth’s work. In addition, he has other series of works, for example some almost egg-shaped wooden sculptures (Flight of Stars). Then there are the so-called ,windspoons“ – high steles shaped like a long boat at their ends, often plaited with coconut twine, and initially cut from the wood. Recently there have been the above-mentioned ,,cones“ constructed out of steel funnels. At first these were fixed to a wooden block and are now planned as mobile figures.
Rigorth’s chosen boat form entails both a high level of craft skill and knowledge of its history as a symbol. Conceivably it served originally as a personal liberation from a style of working that was excessively craft-based in favour of the free sculptural object – Rigorth’s first freer works were masks. In his initial boats, he still adheres rather closely to the methods of constructing eskimo boats, of which he had read. lnitially, they are only altered here and there, with for instance the original entry hole tumed 90 degrees and thus emancipated into a free round form. The boats become model-like, partially covered, and cut open. The covering is not, as in the original, of birch bark, but of paper, which is indeed a product derived from wood, but which renders impossible the principal function of a boat, namely to float. This is henceforth an ever recumng feature, now determined by the material or gravity, now by form and execution. The next step in the development of Rigorth’s boats is a corpus of wood that is initially partially hollowed out and then becomes solid. lnterestingly, this prompts one to think in reverse sequence of the historical ethnology and spread of boats, since the wooden boats are a reminder of the hollowed out tree trunks that are found in many places the world over and represent one of the oldest types of boat.
Amongst other places they are to be found in Australia and Korea, locations that Rigorth has visited in the course of study trips and symposia. To pursue all the analogies would be excessive here and would require a more detailed analysis. Thus 1 enumerate below some that are especially salient. The relation of clay and wood that occurs in Rigorth’s older, 1997, work, ,,Oberer Totpunkt“ (,,Upper Death Point“) is found in ancient clay rafts in Australia and South-East Asia. (2) Additionally, edge elevations of coconut fibre are found on hollowed out tree-trunk boats in pirogues (3) in Sri Lanka and coracles in Vietnam. One Rigorth boat, developed from a Symposium in Finland, has such an extension in the middle, as do the so-called ,,wind spoons“, which display coconut fibre plaiting at the top of a split trunk. This is a technique likewise found in Vietnamese boats, but of course in a different form. (4) In any case the idea of using coconut fibre strands has its boatbuilding counterpart in areas where coconut palms are faund and coconut fibre rope is still used as weil as the ubiquitous plastic equivalent. (5) In Asia there are open-bowed junks, where the two sides of the wood are thus not joined together. This form is reminiscent of a small number of Rigorth wooden boats developed from the shape of a bean pod, whose bow is likewise open. (6)
lt is interesting to note these analogies and to speculate whether and where the artist might have seen them. How can these ones enter the vocabulary of forms, where others do not, and why are they boats? These are questions which cannot be answered in such a way. lt simply shows the artist’s ethnological rootedness and his fascination with old forms of working wood and, once again, the flowing in of (nature) observation and the use of natural materials in his work. Boats were and are above all symbols of travel, both of actual and imaginary movement. (7) Travel to the realm of the dead and the boat in the form of a coffin are special expressions of this notion. (8) Rigorth’s journey is also imaginary, especially as the boats have quite often, by dint of their material or gravity, noticeably forfeited their ability to flaat. Or through their design – wheels, for example, Gut vertically through the body of the boat. Nonetheless, the idea of the boat always dominates.
The location of some boats, or their photographic documentation, often depicts an extensive empty landscape. The artist’s true journey has already taken place. This is not to do with easily reached places such as a Korean beach or a piece of Namibian desert. An apparent sense of the dramatic in placing the work causes us, on merely seeing a photograph of it, to sense the wide open space, to cast our line of vision forward and to fill the infinitely distant horizon with our yeamings and projections. In some photographs the perspeotive is chosen so that the boat almost appears to hoyer just above the horizon.
Simultaneously, the view of the landscape is altered and accentuated, to strong effect, by just a few means. If the boat has disappeared again, the effeot is to make the expanse seem emptier… So the landscape is not background stage scenery for the work, but part of the statement and becomes a personal moment despite all the exoticism and broad expanse. Another interesting aspect of the outdoors setting is that the natural cycle is completed, with what was once a tree once again placed back in its former context. (9) lts alteration is clear and unavoidable, but its proximity is still visible, as Rigorth not only does not conceive in colour~ but also does not fully plane the wood, so that signs of work and grain remain. Exhibiting in interior settings has by contrast a very sobering effect, with the absurd sense of the craft’s unnavigability being much clearer. In addition, Rigorth does not emphasise movement – the very essence of a vehicle. The objects are still, unmoving. When they are hung, they can often at best only tum upon their centre of gravity. The wheel in some boats, while it emphasises the circular form, at the same time completely prevents all movement. (10)
Boats in the dry, on frames, ready to sail? Strengthened sometimes by devices such as a mixture of sail and wing which almost tum them into ,,airships“ (*11) The more painful the impossibility of this kind winged flight becomes, because of its being anchored to the frame beneath, the less clear becomes the joumey’s destination. The movement is in the mmd of the viewer. One thing, however, has been left out of the boats of more recent years – space for a passenger. The hatches of the early work have gone. This is a clear sign that we are not confronted with miniature copies of ethnological objects – despite the formal analogies. lnstead these are solid bodies of wood taking the form of a boat amongst other things. So it is more that thoughts are being despatched on a joumey rather than physical bodies. Some recent works have been given a round bonnet of plaiting or lead which not only fails to be inviting, but actually seems hermetic and denying. More like submarines than hollowed out tree boats, they clearly have more to do with contrasts of form, such as round (the attachment) versus long (the boat), and horizontal (the boat) versus vertical (the attachment). This was also the case with the earlier boats on wooden frames which had a plaster and gold Govering placed on top. Observe Rigorth’s work from this perspective and one notices that he always favours the rigour of the contrast between the horizontal and the vertical. There are no diagonals in the objects, except perhaps in the exhibition installation, as though Rigorth wanted to counter the all too poetic interpretation of the object with the rigour of its presentation.#
Thus they have lost their function as boats, so that they could not float, even if they were allowed onto the water. On the other hand, as symbols of boats they function magnificently, with evidently only a few features required to activate the archetype in the viewer’s mi. But it is too easy to confine oneself to romanticised interpretations, which would have us merely see a boat and then immediately direct our thoughts to the predetermined journey. Eliade describes this with great accuracy, ,,Everyone saw only the picture they had brought with them“. (12) Initially, Rigorth made his pieces for himself and not for others. Only he is acquainted with the process of growth that links the tree and the completed work, while the viewer’s starting point is the flnished product. Fantasies of boats, all too romantic or poetic, rebound 0ff the rather tacitum works and the viewer is thrown back on his or her own resources. But precisely that is the attraction of these boats – only if we take the time to reflect on our own perceptions, if we allow our thoughts to fly, or indeed float, beyond our first impressions, will we amve at new ideas about travel, the need to travel and the yearning for ethnological and ecological experiences.
And like the tiny paper or leaf boats carrying people’s wishes, launched every November in a Thai festival, Rigorth’s boats are the start of a communication, not its end.
(Translated by Michael Bloom)
1: Dieter Brunner, p.1 1 if in ,,Der ausgehöhlte Stamm“,(„The Hollowed Trunk“) Städtische Museen Heilbronn, ed. Andreas Pfeiffer, Heilbronn 1998
2: Source for the following analogies: B.Spranz (Ed.) ,,Boote, Technik und Symbolik“ (,,Boats, Technology and Symbolism“), Städt.Museen Freiburg, Museum für Völkerkunde
3: Pirogues are tree trunks with superstructures or extensions
4: Spranz p.31 ff and S.43ff
5: Spranz p. 83
6: Spranz p.74
7: Boat and ships functioning as coffins and graves are found in all cultures that have ships, both in Asia and in Scandinavian and North Germanic tribes.
8: Spranz p. 205 In particular, boats, ships and rafts, speciflcally constructed for this purpose, were used for the practice of magic. As they vary from conveyances in daily use in materials, shape, size and equipment, they could not be used as normal transport.
9: Unlike David Nash, who does not fell the tree, but works on it in situ and leaves it there.
10: An exception were the boats in the Darmstädter Kunsthalle, which could be moved on rails, of course not freely, only ahead and back.
11: W.Behringer + C.Ott-Koptschalijski (Ed.) ,,Der Traum vom Fliegen“ (,,The Dream of Flight“), p.305 … Boats travelling through the air was part of mythology of many seafaring peoples.
12: Mircea Eliade, ,,Ewige Bilder und Sinnbilder“(„Eternal Images and Symbols“, Frankfurt 1986, S.12