Portrait

Stealing time and cultivating “radical empathy” with artist Robert Walton. By Claire G. Coleman.

Artist Robert Walton

Robert Walton and I find a rare moment when I am in Melbourne, and neither of us is busy, to sit down for “coffee”; I have coffee, he has tea. He is a surprisingly quiet, softly spoken man with a northern English accent I could never place and can’t recall having heard the likes of before we meet.

We talk a lot about art, what art is, what his practice is, although like most artists he finds it difficult to define his practice in words. He believes strongly in the good art can do, fostering what he calls “radical empathy”, in our society where “it’s easier for hearts to close and for hope to be lost than for our childlike openness and wonder to remain at the centre of life”. He sees art as problem solving. “If you see a problem, you just fix it. There are some problems we need to fix in our society, some big problems”. He talks about artists “plumbing our hearts”.

For all that he appears calm and peaceful, Robert is a surprisingly energetic, hard-working high achiever. In his own words he has a “lovely collection of hats” – one as a lecturer in the theatre department at the Victorian College of the Arts; another as an artist in performance and site-specific art. Either of those hats might be enough for most people.

His project with collaborator Jason Maling, Vanitas – an “artwork for smartphones and cemeteries”, according to the website – has been performed, if that’s the right word, in Melbourne General Cemetery for the city’s writers’ festival. There is also a project early in its development. It is through my engagement to help with the development of this mystery project that we met – we have friends in common, one of whom put us in contact about two weeks ago. Robert’s enthusiasm is infectious; the project he is talking about seems almost impossible yet breathtaking, if we can pull it off. The near impossibility appeals to me.

Even through his glasses, there is a sparkle in his eyes. His inviting face smiles more often than not. Considering how busy he is and the amount he has achieved, he is unassuming and likeable and gives good hugs. He seems delighted to talk about his work but can be surprisingly coy when invited to talk about himself. In his practice he centres his collaborators and the audience, happy to write himself out of the centre of projects, to be relatively anonymous, to exist in the background.

“There’s enough white guy’s voice in the world, isn’t there,” he says with a splash of gallows humour.

“We are trying to make a conversation about the future that people can’t normally participate in. I’m a ‘settler’ in this place … I’m still benefiting from that history of colonisation.” He wants to engage with this place he has come to, with what it was before colonisation, what it is now, what it can be. He believes that through art we can change the discourse, plumb our hearts, heal society, save the future.

Robert, originally from Burnley in Lancashire, arrived in Australia “seven-and-coming-on-to-a-half” years ago from Glasgow, Scotland, after marrying his partner there. At the time a civil partnership was their only legal option, although same-sex marriage has since been legalised in both our home countries. Their marriage was an emotional moment and a way to say goodbye to their families.

Immigration was a nightmare, he says, even in the “most privileged situation imaginable” – having a university job lined up and already speaking English well. He and his partner arrived in Australia as a “de facto couple”.

He believes the change that marriage makes in a family’s life is unbelievable. “Everyone comes together” to the party and that party is all “about love”. That is what he believes can change society: love and engagement with others. He is a strong advocate of marriage equality – if that is what is right for a couple – as marriage can make same-sex relationships more acceptable. He is glad marriage equality has been achieved in Australia, so we can get on with the urgent issues facing our country.

Talk turns back to the secret project, this gargantuan thing he is working on, this thing we have been working on together for a couple of weeks and yet I still can’t get my head around it. He is trying to make a project the likes of which has never been done before. This great big thing could only be possible through collaboration, and it is in collaboration that his powers, and focus, as an artist lie. It’s a powerful practice; the problems in the zeitgeist are huge and collaboration helps to engage with those problems while giving others the opportunity to do their part.

Perhaps art is the only way to heal our hearts, so our hearts can heal the future.

We make plans to meet the next day to work on that project as we are leaving the place where we had caffeinated ourselves while we talked. Another good hug, a pleasant smiling goodbye and we separate into the sunset of a cold Melbourne evening in the first week of spring. We both have things to do.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 22, 2018 as "Healing arts". Subscribe here.

Claire G. Coleman
is a Noongar author whose debut novel Terra Nullius has been long-listed for the 2018 Stella Prize.