A Different Kind of Billboard
Robert Montgomery’s Words of Wisdom
The artist, the subject of a sweeping new exhibition in New York this month, talks to Amelia Martyn-Hemphill.
Woven in electric lights, plastered on billboards, and even written in fire, Robert Montgomery’s installations have a tendency to burn, fade—even disintegrate. But once seen, his words are unforgettable.
Inspired by the situationist text-art movement of the 1960s, the artist’s poetic pieces present a subversive take on advertising culture and explore the unstable spectacle of modern urban life.
From September 12 to October 26, New York’s C24 gallery will present an in-depth show of the last four years of Montgomery’s work: a distilled concoction of poetry, philosophy, and street art. The collection will bring together graphic poems (which have appeared on billboards in Berlin, London, and Paris) as well as major new light works, called Recycled Sunlight Pieces, and a large-scale Fire Poem. Montgomery will also install a series of pieces on the city streets, placing his works back into the communal, urban environments that generated them.
“We’re a culture dominated by images and spectacle and a culture that has, overall, increasingly less depth,” the 41-year-old Scottish artist told The Daily Beast. “I think words can be in some sense a nice antidote to the image. The idea of turning off the discourse of advertising for a moment and giving you a bit of rest, that is something that I really like.”
Dressed in a plain black T-shirt and jeans, Montgomery cuts a sharp silhouette against the white walls of his Shoreditch studio in East London. Sick of being assaulted by “meaningless and idiotic” consumer ads, he hijacked his first billboard in 2004. From then on, he never looked back. “I was thinking about how you could make a space in the city where we can just pause and reflect on how we live now and what that means,” he said.
Building on the works of Jenny Holzer and Guy Debord, Montgomery’s narratives are simultaneously triumphant and tragic. “I try to tune in to a collective unconscious, as close as I can get at it,” he said. His poems cut straight to the flesh of modern anxiety, exploring what it means to be rich in material wealth but poor in time, increasingly physically connected, and yet evermore spiritually isolated. “We’re at a point in history where we have to reconsider if the big systems that we run things with are working,” he said. “I’m not saying I have the answers on this, but I think it’s important to ask the questions.”
Along with the poems of John Ashbery, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and Philip Larkin, Montgomery credits Celtic mythology as early inspiration. “I think that stuff’s slightly in my bones,” he said with a smile. “I come from the west coast of Scotland, and you can see the islands from the beach. You really get a sense of that mystical world from growing up there.” Having both trained and studied at the Edinburgh College of Art, being selected as one of the public commissions for this year’s Edinburgh Festival was a particularly personal achievement for Montgomery. The fire piece he constructed for the occasion read:
RATHER THE RAIN ON THE WINDOW OF THE CASTLE THAN THE CASTLE ITSELF
RATHER THE FLIGHT OF THE BIRD, RATHER BURNED THAN CAPTURED
“I wanted the piece to be a simple poem about choosing freedom rather than chasing power,” he explained. By chance, the poem’s burning took place on the ancient Wicca festival of Lugh, the Pagan god of light. “I like those coincidences, reaching into the poetic history of a place and pulling those things out,” he said.
Tapping into the historical dimensions of the spaces they adorn adds a particularly resonant, emotional charge to Montgomery’s works. Last July his ECHOES OF VOICES IN THE HIGH TOWERS exhibition in Berlin was constructed around the unfinished Tempelhof airport, a site initially used as a German Army training ground during World War II. Representing the U.K. for India’s first Biennale di Kochi-Muziris presented another complex historical dialogue. His installation adorned the façade of Aspinwall House, an old colonial warehouse used by Scottish and British Empire traders. Facing out toward the sea, Montgomery’s two lines of glowing text read:
THE STRANGE NEW MUSIC OF THE CRYING SONGS OF THE PEOPLE WE LEFT BEHIND MIXING
AS YOUR BOAT TOUCHES STONE HERE AS MY NEW BONES TOUCH YOUR BONES
The spiritual imagery of Montgomery’s poems is hard to miss, but it doesn’t stem from any particularly religious viewpoint, he explained. “I think I just grew up searching for an idea of God that I could believe in,” he said. “I don’t know that I ever really found it.”
Despite his anti-capitalist slant, Montgomery’s pieces have managed to span both sides of the political divide. His guerrilla billboards became the mantra of London’s anti-capitalist Occupy movement back in 2012. In the same year, his 2009 light piece, WHENEVER YOU SEE THE SUN REFLECTED IN THE WINDOW OF A BUILDING IT IS AN ANGEL, was selected by Dior menswear designer Kris van Assche to front the new pop-up Dior Homme store in SoHo, New York. “I just want the work to reach as large a cross-section of people as possible,” Montgomery said. “I mean, what does Jenny Holtzer say on it? Use what is dominant in a culture to change it quickly.”
Critics have compared Montgomery to both Banksy and Tracey Emin, but the artist says he’s most intrigued by the part the Internet has played in generating his following. “My work has gotten a big audience online, sort of by accident,” he said. Most of the time, his name is not even attached to the pieces, allowing them to forge their own independent stories. An Internet search on one of his first light pieces registers over 4 million hits. It reads simply: THE PEOPLE YOU LOVE BECOME GHOSTS INSIDE OF YOU AND THIS WAY YOU KEEP THEM ALIVE. The iridescent image is scattered over blogs and shared on social media all over the Internet, with many people even getting the words tattooed. “It’s the highest compliment!” Montgomery says with a laugh.
He also receives frequent emails from his online audience, striking a chord with people from all walks of life. “They might be students in Amsterdam or art teachers in Melbourne or chefs in New York, just saying, ‘I read this piece, and it really touched me, thank you and keep going.’” Montgomery said, pausing for a moment before he continued: “That’s the nicest kind of encouragement. Just because it makes you realize that your work is doing something real in the world. I always thought the whole point of art was to touch the hearts of strangers. And I think that’s a pretty good litmus test.”