Catalog Essay by Laura A. Lindenberger:
Every time I see Robert Boland's video to float, I laugh out loud. Carefully sizing up the shrubs that support his attempted levitation, he tries a variety of methods to stay off the ground. He sneaks up on the shrubbery, sidling gently into it. He runs head on, launching himself into the shrubs, arms akimbo and legs flailing. Sometimes these appear to be sexual encounters. Other times, he looks as if he's fallen accidentally, literally head over feet. At times he appears to be looking for something he lost. He is unflagging in his efforts to float. He likes the idea of persistence, but the idea alone is not enough; he is persistent. Later, as we watched to push over together, Boland tells me, "It's a magic ritual. That building will fall over. Not right now, but it will."
Boland's reiterative actions are meditative by nature. Repeatedly trying to float or to push over an enormous building, Boland believes in the potential of his actions to translate into eventual change. He performs in an effort to leave a mark on his environment. His determination in the face of insurmountable odds (gravity, for example), far from being mere stubbornness, evokes the seriousness and honesty of ritual expressions of faith. In some ways, Boland reminds us that faith eventually manifests itself in our tangible, physical world; consider the labyrinthic designs of Tibetan monks over floors, markings that convey multiplicity, meditation, and infinity despite their temporality. For Boland, though these performances are often private events, the documentation of them on video allows them to be endlessly replayed. Through his work, then, he translates symbolic, repetitive, and highly personal actions into tangible documents.
Boland fostered his interest in religion through travels and studies in India, Nepal, Thailand, and Japan. In these travels, he explored how people live and react to life, how their day-to- day interactions with nature through the mind and the body translate into an understanding of "the One, the void, the Great Spirit, God, true reality." Boland is fascinated with the processes by which people prepare their bodies and minds to encompass an idea of a transcendental presence. Building and strengthening body, mind, and spirit to handle that kind of power happens through tradition and ritual, he says. Ritual, as Boland defines it, includes actions done with a specific purpose, repeated, often traditional and inter-generational.
Ritual, however, is not solely about serious meditative and philosophical thought. Rather, it can manifest in the ways we approach the world, simply, with a sense of wonder, amazement, and humor. While some of Boland's actions seem to border on the absurd, humor is a very intentional part of his project. He asks big questions, uncovers potential answers, and laughs with us as we watch him sink into the bushes one more time. His work is about a "blind, child-like exploration of seeing things new, not having fear and also, at the same time, you can get overwhelmed." He balances being overwhelmed with humor.
In wooden pieces, Boland conveys that child-like sense of wonder by creating a large wooden mechanism with moveable parts. A video documents his movements of the structure by pulling on one piece of it, the whole thing is transformed into another composition. The wooden structure bumps against the wall, leaving black marks from where Boland charred the wood's ends. These black streaks collapse drawing, performance, sculpture, and video documentation of a private performance. Whereas in to float and to push over, Boland used his own body to try and effect change either in his environment or in the laws of nature, the structure in wooden pieces makes the marks for him. These black lines and scratches illuminate what Boland has been doing all along: he points to change and how we see it. The construction he uses in wooden pieces is not seemingly made of pencils or drawing utensils but, literally becomes a drawing implement that requires Boland's body to complete its action. In to push over, Boland is part of the eventual demolition of a building. Though he's no bulldozer, his actions contribute to something that will happen. Intentionally suspending his disbelief (in to push over and to float) or pushing out the boundaries of his media (in wooden pieces), he encourages us, similarly, to imagine new answers to unanswerable questions. Viewing his work, I'm laughing out loud, but I would love to float, too.