All he needs is a plug

Rhonda Dredge

A failed robot, circa 2007, lies on the floor. He’s carved out of wood and is human-like, with arms, legs, a torso, wooden blocks for feet and hands and an opening for a mouth and eyes.

He is a seeing and speaking robot but the other senses are missing. He has become obsolete.

Even a computer these days can respond to the human voice.

There have been huge advances since 2007. You can utter a command and have a robot deal with finances, security and vacuum cleaning. Feelings are another matter.

The spectre of the human imagination and its failings is the subject of the Ronnie van Hout retrospective at Buxton Contemporary, recently opened at the University of Melbourne to show the works of a private collector.

The gallery was open on the Grand Final holiday when most humans were away for a long weekend or living it up with their mates but there were robots, heads with missing noses and other strange creatures ready to mingle.

Dark humour does not shy away from the lonely and bereft. It invites you to partake.

The 21st century global citizen takes dreamscapes and moonscapes in its stride. “No-one is watching you” is the catchline for the exhibition, on for another month, and that is a disturbing, yet strangely liberating, thought.

After an encounter with the first failed robot, you enter an interrogation room for creatures that try and pretend they are human. An imaginary door opens in the electronically-sealed room, depicting an alternative reality in lurid lights that gradually fades into the distance.

The sound of an electric power station replaces the philosophical discussion of the original installation upon which the robot interrogation room was based.

Melissa Keys has curated the show and she has worked with items in the Buxton collection plus shipped others in for the duration.

Van Hout is a well-known New Zealand artist and, even though he has spoken to Keys in an interview for the catalogue, an exhibition leaves a lot unsaid. Often, subtle characters are being introduced.

Van Hout’s embroideries on canvas are exquisite, particularly the profile of a man in a cap with stubble and a pipe.

How happy he seems, to be used in something important at last. He has a role, one that is revered within culture.

An artist who picks up on the pathos of those left behind by the dominant culture is at work here.

The old-fashioned robot is making its presence felt. It was naïve to think that a mere simulacrum could be taken seriously by humans. They are far too smart.

There is an obsolete banana man and a shack man as well. A more life-like replica of a human is pinned to the wall and is called End Doll 2007.

Humans and their expectations. Humans and their social mores. Tit for tat. Weddings. Divorce. Mates. They are not for this robot. All he needs is a plug.

No-one is Watching You, Ronnie van Hout, Buxton Contemporary, Southbank until October 21.

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