The Poetics of Robert Montgomery

There is something pacifying about Robert Montgomery’s text-based artwork. The poems he composes suggest a steady faith that humanity can heal the ecological and emotional trauma of our times, with a lyricism that recalls poets like Philip Larkin and Sylvia Plath. When he reads them aloud, as he’ll often do prefacing further explanation, he breathes a calm, steady hum into the verse–a haunting effect that’s inherently intimate.

Yet Montgomery’s focus lies in broadcasting his message to a wider audience. His preferred installation format is co-opted billboards: his own text, replacing the billboards’, subverts their intended purpose of disseminating ads. Light poems are another major part of his work. Similar in size to billboards, they are instead made of environmentally friendly LED solar-powered lights that brighten and dim with changing weather. Softer and more quiet are his watercolors and woodcut monochrome canvases.

Montgomery’s art has graced the cityscapes of Paris, Berlin, and London, where he is based. His first solo exhibition in New York opened last week at C24 Gallery, comprising the largest collection of his works gathered together to date.

Born in Scotland in 1972, Montgomery was raised as a Christian. His early spirituality, he shares, still motivates him to create poems as a means of divine solace. After graduating from the Edinburgh College of Art, he studied at the core program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. All Palaces are Temporary Palaces was featured at the 2011 Venice Biennale, and his work was also featured at the first Indian Biennale in 2012.

We visited Montgomery at C24 gallery while he was installing, starting the interview with a tour. Walking in the entrance with blaring words of lights ahead and on either side felt like entering a cathedral.

RACHEL SMALL: This piece, Echoes of Voices in High Towers, you were saying is by an airport in Berlin.

ROBERT MONTGOMERY: It’s been there since last summer. The location is called Tempelhof Airport, and it has this intense history. It was the airport where the German army made Luftwaffes, the airplanes in the Second World War. This is the original airport. When the Red Army took Berlin at the end of the war, there was still a hardcore S.S. command in the basement of the building, and they couldn’t shoot them. So they flooded the basement and locked it with the German soldiers inside. It then became a U.S. Air Force base in the 1950s in the Cold War. The structures that I worked on are the baseball scoreboards, so it has the scoreboard on the back.

SMALL: And this piece, Piece for the Stop the War Coalition?

MONTGOMERY: This comes from an anti-war piece I did in 2004 when the war in Iraq started. It was actually my first billboard piece. “When we are sleeping, airplanes carry memories of the horrors we have given silent consent to into the night sky of our cities, and leave them there to gather like clouds and condense into our dreams before morning.” It’s the idea that if we allow something to become inhumane, even if it feels really far away and it’s just on TV, it has some kind of effect on us anyway. It somehow invades our subconscious mind and it gets into our dreams. It’s not like there’s no effect on the psyche.

SMALL: How do you write the poems?

MONTGOMERY: It’s funny. They’ve kind of recently been adopted by this poetry world. I’m really happy to be adopted by the poetry community, but I didn’t set out to do that. What I set out to do kind of was to make work in a post-conceptual tradition–text-art that comes from people like Jenny Holzer and Lawrence Wiener–but then just try to make the tone one step closer to poetry. When I was a kid, like 13, 14, I read Philip Larkin, who was this really interesting mid-century English poet. My high-school English teacher gave me a book of Larkin’s poetry called High Windows. There’s this amazing last verse that says: “Rather than words comes the thought of high windows: / The sun-comprehending glass, / And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows/ Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.” The image is poetry. Philip Larkin is always in the back of my mind.

SMALL: What about visual artists who inspired you?

MONTGOMERY: Jenny Holzer, big time. When I was maybe 18 or 19, I loved her work. I still find her really inspiring, and kind of like my art-mother.

SMALL: Have you met her?

MONTGOMERY: No. I saw her once at the gallery opening, but I didn’t talk to her. Sometimes if you love someone’s work so much and you speak to them, it’s better to keep the myth.

SMALL: Cities play a big part in your work. What were your first impressions of New York, the first time you came?

MONTGOMERY: I came here with Alison de Lima Greene, the curator of contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. We went for dinner at her friend’s house in the Village. I was so surprised that the bathroom is in the kitchen. That’s a really New York thing. But I think New York is magical. My basic apprehension of cities is that they are magical sculptures that we live in. I write quite a lot about landscape in the city, and the way that when you’re in the city you can still feel the land. That exercise of like remembering the magic of a city and trying to uncover that sense of the sacred and the everyday, or a sense of God in the mundane, is a big part of my work, I think. It’s just to make myself feel better.

SMALL: Why do you think that’s important to do?

MONTGOMERY: For therapy, really. I mean, I think on the wider scale, our generation—what are we, two generations in?—in the West, is a world without God, right? Probably. Having logically thought our way beyond God, [my work] is trying to find a kind of poetics, or a kind of language to replace that.

SMALL: I feel like you’re looking ahead.

MONTGOMERY: Hopefully. A lot of the work deals with ecological questions. I think that’s the biggest question of our age. It’s as much a moral question as a physical question. To be the generation who knew this and did nothing would be a tragic curse on us. It’s like we have to do the little things that we can. Not that I’m the most ecologically responsible person that I know, but it’s the awareness of that crisis is really important.

SMALL: You address capitalism in your work, sort of indirectly through referencing sustainability.

MONTGOMERY: I’m quite frankly on Occupy’s side. I had an interesting experience in London, February 2012. I did three billboards which kind of talked about Occupy, bleakly. The text of this piece is going to be the big, giant silk flag that we have downstairs. “There are wooden houses on land in far away places that don’t cost much money and strings of lights that make paths to them gently, and do not turn off the stars. And 100 black flags of anarchists held up 100 miles apart/ 10,000 miles of flags and a row of tents in front of a cathedral guard our future.” When I did that piece, I got a really, quite formal email from Occupy London asking if they could use a line of the piece as a banner. I found it quite charming that they’d be so formal, and then of course I said yes. After that I worked with them on a couple of projects. I spent two months going to Occupy meetings trying to write shorts for billboards with them that would kind of be collective statements. It was an interesting process. It’s very hard to get an Occupy meeting to agree on something.

SMALL: How long does it take you to write texts?

MONTGOMERY: It’s funny, because I do them in the back of my head all the time. Just as easily, I can sit and write one in a notebook at my desk. Or I can send it to myself as an email through my phone in a taxi at the way home from a party at 2am.

SMALL: There are a lot of great things that happen at that time.

MONTGOMERY: That can really work. You go back the next day, slightly more leveled frame of mind, and edit it a little bit, but they can really come then. Also if you go to sleep thinking about one, you can kind of work on it when you’re asleep. That sounds really weird.


MONTGOMERY: You can kind of reflect on it in that point that’s sort of like pre- or post-dream state, that semi-conscious state. You can get some work done then, too.

SMALL: That’s the thing. You have to empty everything out, and if that’s the thing you’re thinking about when you go to sleep, your brain has to toss it around.

MONTGOMERY: It is, right? Completely makes sense.

SMALL: Never foolproof, though.

MONTGOMERY: You should always read your drafts when you’re awake, just to check.

SMALL: That would help, maybe edit for grammar.

MONTGOMERY: When you’re awake.

SMALL: How does your work function in a city?

MONTGOMERY: I think the billboard work functions as a bit of respite from the discourse of advertising that is, annoyingly, very stupid. I think advertisers treat us as much more stupid than we really are. So if you come across a billboard, it should just first of all be a break from that noisy, shouting ad about cheap diet Coke. It should be a moment of pause and an opportunity to go into more reflective space.

SMALL: How did you decide that you wanted your work to be tied to this eco-friendly element?

MONTGOMERY: I think it is part of our responsibility as artists. We need to be engaged with questions of politics and society. If I was going to identify myself with an avant-garde tradition, I’d say it’d be the avant-garde of Joseph Beuys more than the avant-garde of Marcel Duchamp. I think Duchamp creates a kind of cult of ego. But, if, by contrast, you looked at the Boycian idea of the avant-garde, in 1970, Joseph Boyce, at the same time as making his work, is one of the four founding members of the Green party. I don’t see any reason why, as an artist, you shouldn’t be engaged with questions of politics and society, and give some time to the sort of causes you believe in.

SMALL: What are some of the reactions you’ve gotten personally to your art that maybe surprised you, or maybe made you see your own art in a new way?

MONTGOMERY: The nicest thing is from about five years ago, I start getting emails on a weekly basis from just random people who would see the work, find my website, hit  “contact,” and just send a note. That happened way before I had any big shows. It was sort of the encouragement of strangers, and that was the point at which I knew that the work was kind of working. I really like that about the Internet. It’s really nice thing. Once people started getting tattoos of some pieces, I’m like, “Okay, fuck.” You’ve said something that’s kind of going to stay in a culture. It’s deeply flattering.

SMALL: What do you want people to take away from it?

MONTGOMERY: I think a kind of awareness, if anything. If we’re talking about the issues no one speaks about like questions of peace versus war, or questions of ecology versus environmental crisis, just the knowledge that collectively we are in charge of these things. With a collective effort we can change them and make things better. Understanding that we have much more power than we think, collectively, I think, would be the one thing.