Psychic Staircase, 2016, cast hydrocal, SLS print, automotive lacquer, MDF, steel, plywood veneer, 55 x 21 x 28cm
Credit: Courtesy of the artist

On first viewing, Todd Robinson’s sculptures not only defy expectations, but appear to flout the rules of gravity itself.

The Sydney-based artist, who this evening was awarded the 2016 Woollahra Small Sculpture Prize for his work Psychic Staircase – an eight-kilogram plywood staircase atop which sits a listless orange balloon – excels at subverting both appearance and experience through biomorphic objects that (at first) appear to be rather quotidian, but on closer inspection resemble something entirely surreal – perhaps even sublime. 

Psychic Staircase is an extrapolation of an ongoing series of sculptural works inspired by balloons in which Robinson interrogates sculptural presence, materiality and the conditions surrounding audience reception. Vulnerability induced by the sensation of vertigo was one of the defining experiences that inspired Psychic Staircase, a piece that reinforces its unnerving psychological cues through the use of an architectural plinth that is also subjected to a similar distortion, one that’s achieved through the narrowing of its titular treads.

Robinson personally does not suffer from vertigo in any debilitating sense, but it’s one of those visceral sensations with which we’re all undoubtedly familiar, and which the artist hopes will be elicited on viewing his latest uncanny, candy-coloured work.

“It’s not so much the balloon, which has its own particular connotations around lightness and celebration,” Robinson told GRAZIA, “but how you could subvert that idea [so] it becomes something else. Now I’m more interested in how I can stage the balloon in architectural spaces that the works relate to. Within [Psychic Staircase], it’s about the stairs so the balloon becomes a stand in: it could be a figure, you could identify it as a balloon but it’s also anthropomorphic; it could be a person or a thing. They kind of have human attributes. You [could] encounter the works like they’re living.”  

An Unbelievably Heavy Pink Balloon Collapsing on a Rod, 2015, laminated fibreglass, SLS print, automotive lacquer, steel, automotive lacquer, 48 x 121cm, and at right, Oooh #3, 2013, hydrocal, polyester filler, paint, SLS print, 30 x 30 x 34 cm
Credit: Courtesy of the artist

Psychic Staircase is one of the 614 entries that were submitted to Australia’s 16th annual national award for small sculpture this year. A panel of esteemed judges comprised of visual arts patron Wendy Whiteley OAM, CEO and Group Fairs Director of Art Fairs Australia, Barry Keldoulis, and Senior Curator at Macquarie University Art Gallery, Rhonda Davis, were tasked with the unenviable job of narrowing down those entries to a selection of 46 finalists, with each freestanding submission measuring up to 80 centimetres in any dimension. Archibald Prize winner Del Kathryn Barton, noted contemporary artist Julie Rrap and former competition winner Louis Pratt were among the finalists vying for a share of the total $19,000 prize money awarded across six categories. 

After considerably deliberation, all three judges eventually came to a consensus, ultimately praising Robinson’s work for capitalising on the tension of its materiality and the push-pull dichotomy between the object, its viewers and the space between. Robinson says he was “shocked but humbled” on being told the news this week while driving to see the NGA’s Mike Parr retrospective.

That materiality, and the possibility for tension, is exactly what drew Robinson to his elastic subject matter in the first place, beginning with 2007’s exhibition The heaviness of something + other cartographic lines at MOP Projects, an artist run initiative in Sydney’s Chippendale arts precinct, and culminating most recently with Psychic Staircase and a group show Soft Core, also opening at the Casula Powerhouse this weekend.

“[There’s] something about the materiality of the way in which I make the balloon sculptures. I make them by filling balloons with wet plaster so they’re soft. It’s like playing with a water balloon. It’s very flexible. You’ve got a couple of minutes before it goes hard in the shape you want. It’s the directness of that. You kind of have the beginning of a work, and you know if it’s good. It’s quick and I do it physically rather than having to plan it out.” 

Clockwise from top: Oooh, 2013, installation view; at right, Untitled (red chevron), 2015, steel, rope, timber plinth, 30 x 94 x 45 cm; and Euipoise in yellow #1 and Equipoise in yellow #2, 2015, steel, rope
Credit: Courtesy of the artist

Although Psychic Staircase has particularly strong connotations around a sense of finitude or vulnerability, reinforced through the precarious staging of the balloon on the precipice of the stairs, the idea of an emotional register isn’t foremost on Robinson’s mind when he creates work out of his Marrickville home studio.

Instead, the artist (who also combines his art practice with academic work as a doctoral candidate and lecturer in fashion at the University of Technology) is interested in how each sculpture draws one’s body into an ambiguous encounter that’s coupled with a desire to understand the tactility of this seemingly familiar, yet totally alien, object.

“People want to touch them, and encounter them with [their] body,” says Robinson, who also cut his teeth as a menswear designer at his eponymous label from 1999 until 2004.

“Although you’re not meant touch the works, I’ve often encountered problems in a gallery context because people are so drawn to touch them to find out what it is that they feel like. I’m very interested in eliciting not overly cognitive thoughts or emotional responses to the work, but very direct responses where you desire to understand [the work] in an embodied way. Even the idea of the stairs – we understand the idea of being isolated, perhaps through a fear of heights, and we know that if we lose our balance then we fall. It’s that physiology or that embodied engagement with the world that the work plays on – our perceptions and understandings of our [place] in the world.”

Clockwise from top: Twice, 2008, sets of toy blocks, stainless steel wire; Living & Breathing, 2008, wooden beads, glass beads, paint and plastic beads, stainless steel wire; Karakish 5, 2009, wood, paint, stainless steel wire
Credit: Courtesy of the artist

Almost a decade into his relatively deeply involved relationship with balloons, and Robinson says he still remains interested in their inherent multitudes. He says he isn’t ready to drop them (an advisable course of action), and you can’t blame him for wanting to further probe their possibilities.

Despite their ostensibly simplicity, there are seemingly infinite permutations for the once humble decorative object, which in Robinson’s hands becomes something else entirely. They’re somehow both organic and yet wholly synthetic. They’re featherweight in appearance, yet leaden in reality – or Unbelievably heavy, as one piece is called. They’re seemingly inert, and yet at any moment are beholden to the whims of an inexorable force.

They’ll continue take on new meanings once they’re presented in different spatial contexts – amongst other small sculptures, at the Casula Powerhouse, or in public places outside the white walls of a gallery with their contextualising properties, where “people encounter them as a thing that happens to be there but shouldn’t be there. 

“That slippage or subversion,” says Robinson, “that’s how they interact with that space.”

The 16th annual Woollahra Small Sculpture Prize is on display from October 15–30 at the Woollahra Council. Entry is free. You can find out more information here.

Tile image: Supplied courtesy of the artist and the Woollahra Small Sculpture Prize
Cover image: Experiments in Natural Philosophy Installation view, courtesy of the artist