Sign us up: the world of Bob and Roberta
The visual art of Bob and Roberta Smith – aka Patrick Brill – is political, humorous and all about empowering the spectator
He has two sisters; the Roberta in Bob and Roberta is one of them. “We collaborated for a short while as artists, then she got fed up and decided the art world was too elitist. She’s doing something else now. A lot of our collaboration was based on the idea that art does you good. The aim was to get peripheral aspects of the gallery programme, like education, and jam them right into the centre of things. So we’d present materials in galleries and get people to work with them. A bit like gardening: give people the stuff and see what they manage to grow.”
So Roberta is there in spirit, so to speak. She can be quite critical of him, Smith says, pointing out, for example, that he just seems to write the first thing that comes into his head and call it art. And, to be fair to her, he does this on occasion. “A lot of what I do is about writing in one way or another.”
Currently, 42 flags emblazoned with mottos by him fly over the South Bank in London. There are banners along the river Nore in Kilkenny (“What is a bank for?” asks one, provocatively) and a great many more text-based pieces.
He reckons he was mildly dyslexic, growing up, which led to him being dismissed as academically lazy. “I’d get a headache looking at a page of text, it just sort of swam before my eyes.”
But now he likes text very much. He likes the process of lettering, the weight and meaning of words, and writing signs, which is a large part of what he does.
“When I first visited Kilkenny I was struck by all the shop signs, and I thought it seemed almost quaint and old-fashioned, all that fine sign writing. Very quickly I realised that it’s not sort of left over, they’ve consciously preserved it, which is brilliant. It stands out because we’ve ruined so much in England, every town centre looks exactly the same because you just have these identical brand names everywhere.”
Why Hannah Arendt, though? She died in 1975 and remains a controversial figure, largely because of her coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961, when, struck by the incongruity between the enormity of his crimes and his mediocrity as a human being, she coined the famous term “the banality of evil”. Margaretha von Trotta’s recently released film Hannah Arendt presents a fictionalised account of this period in her life.