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Rooney, Robert - 1990.21

Robert Rooney

Holden Park 1 & 2 1970
colour photographs mounted on card
19 parts, each: 8.9 x 8.9 cm
Purchased 1990

Born in suburban Melbourne in 1937, Robert Rooney went on to produce art grounded in the idea of suburbia and the everyday. The series of houses and streets, the rhythmic design of knitting patterns and the habits of eating the same breakfast cereal day after day all form a social, cultural and structural background to Rooney’s practice. Holden Park 1 & 2 is testament to this preoccupation. The straightforward production and presentation of these photographs demonstrates a kind of systematic ordinariness employed by many artists in the 1960s and ’70s.

Rooney was influenced by the serial photography of North American artist Ed Ruscha, whose self-published book 26 Gasoline Stations (1963) Rooney had ordered by post. This book presents what its title promises: twenty-six deadpan photos of gasoline stations in Los Angeles. Like Ruscha, Rooney considered the camera a ‘dumb recording device’ rather than an artistic tool. This complete lack of artistry can be seen in the bland commercially printed photographs of the Holden car, as ideas about art as something ‘beautiful’ and ‘skilful’ are put aside.

Alongside the vernacular photography, Holden Park 1 & 2 uses a simple governing idea to structure the work. After choosing locations through the street directory, Rooney drove to the locations and photographed his friend’s car. This simple, systematic and straightforward process became another characteristic of the art of the 1960s and ’70s, most clearly articulated in the work and process of Sol LeWitt. LeWitt wrote that the idea or concept used by the artist is a kind of machine, and to make the art is to follow the idea almost like a series of instructions. For him, this kind of conceptual art meant the idea took on more importance than the execution or production of the work.

Holden Park 1 & 2 is part of this broader shift away from the material and aesthetic aspects of art that previously dominated the way artists understood their role. In Rooney’s work, the focus on the idea structures his artistic process and seems to control and even predict the outcome. By using a set of instructions or pre-set parameters, Rooney participates in the shift towards ideas and processes. In addition, the way the camera is used as a ‘simple’ recording mechanism reinforces the sense that the artist and the artwork are each some kind of machine.

Holden Park 1 & 2 is not only a key point in a sequence of art history; it touches on important aspects of cultural and social criticism, while reflecting on material culture and its distribution. The calm and docile exterior of the suburbs – ever the place of mind-numbing ennui and middle-class normativity – becomes a place that seems to mask a seething underbelly of weirdness and repression. Like Rooney’s mechanistic idea, the apparently normal facade of the suburbs draws attention most clearly to that which it excludes. The Holden operates as a hieroglyph of material culture within this racially and socially harmonious exterior; while the houses and streets change, the car remains the same. The repetition of the car on a changing background is like a time machine around which the world changes, condensing the almost erotic fixation on the commodity, either as spectacle, image or work of art.

David Wlazlo is a writer and artist, and is currently completing a PhD at Monash University that focuses on conceptual art’s historiography and the role chronology plays within it.