Literary Purdah

date 2021
location online
medium mp4 and stills
dimensions variable
photographer artist
collection artist

the spirit of 21 | cementa | open mic

sei article

Where do you go when so many obstacles block progress?

At the Edge: Personal Reflections on Stasis and Process Within Lockdown

Drawing upon personal experiences of Sydney’s 2021 Covid-19 lockdown, Robyn Backen traces elegant lines between vanished plans, future possibilities and the moments and matter in between.

by Robyn Backen

“… it wasn’t that the world was vanishing from my consciousness but that I was vanishing from the world.”1

This article is a personal reflection upon a specific time in our lives in 2021 and the relief felt once we were able to exit the three-month lockdown. It was as if we had vanished from what we understood to be normal in our individual worlds. A new routine was established: walking a couple of times per day, mask-wearing, days without eating, days of only eating, reading, making, writing new project proposals and more streaming than usual. The isolation brought about an unexpected quiet—not able to or having to—do!

At the start of the three months, in July, I was to commence my long-awaited six months Special Studies Program (SSP), originally travelling to Sweden and Finland to work with my established collaborators at Art Lab and work with Daniel Peltz’s students at UniArts, Helsinki. A revised SSP proposed research for a site responsive cultural-burning project, supported by indigenous communities in APY Lands, plus working in Flinders Rangers and Bundanon; all cancelled. Every turn was blocked, and best-laid plans fell in a heap. As our worlds started to shrink, so did the opportunities for many of us as the COVID effect took hold and stole the potential. With all my outdoor projects on hold, I found myself in a timeless drift, moving closer to the edge and another year of lost projects, needing to find motivation and reason. It took time to come out of the darkness.

Where do you go when so many obstacles block progress?

While modifying how to stretch my creative muscle, I started to “clean (it) up!“2 in my virtual studio workspace—moving, consolidating, deleting unwanted data and backing up. Then came the physical world of my studio, removing contents from the towering bookcase, dusting, getting caught in the memories of another time, a place for thought, escapism with old friends. While caught in this meditative cleaning reverie, I found a transition from nothingness into something. These understood objects could be my building material, blocks, bricks, singular elements ready for construction. I started building towers, creating groups and categories, mindless play, production of disorder; a place to find out what might come next. Most of my books are non-fiction; often the fiction books get passed on. My research books are mostly related to art theory, philosophy, technology, and applied sciences.

Then a distant conversation with Daniel regarding our revised project now set for 2022 at SCA, shared thoughts about isolation, cancelled and incomplete projects. This inspired exchange led to a question: How to pass through a doorway that is impenetrable? This needed contact, the question, and the library clean-up became a formula for my new work Literary Purdah a wall between two spaces.

“Gravity is the force that pulls any two things together that have mass.’3

Many have built walls as barricades to keep out or in, to divide and protect a place, to create a them and us. Historical walls have been constructed in Asgard, the kingdom of the gods in Nordic Mythology; The Great Wall of China took more than 20 years to build, and most recently the now de-constructed Berlin Wall, separating east from the west. Walls that can be spoken into, written upon to pass on a message or to demark territory. A wall was what I would build with my stacks.

I decided to build myself into my studio space to indulge the lockup theme. The process of building a book wall in the doorway between my old butchershop studio and our living environment was an opportunity to generate new ideas and possibilities. How many books will I need? Will they hold without additional structural support? Will the gravitational force be enough to keep the pile from collapsing? Is the system of pattern forming strong enough to sustain the force?

The first build was wonderfully surprising, something new—a kind of discovery. Filming myself performing the build, tension of getting the books to hold, deciding upon the best weight and size to keep the construction stable, finally using downward force to lock into position. I was reminded of the centuries-old Japanese and English craftsmen who engineered bridges to hold together without nails or fastening; a mathematical mystery lost to history. I filmed the backside of the wall, creating a time-lapse.

This book laying choreography became set and clearly functional until the second install when one wrong move shifted the balance, forcing a loud shockingly fall, collapsing upon me. This accident offered unexpected additional material for the time-lapse films. Gravity became a lead character, there is no up or down without gravity. It “governs our personal and mundane activities… it controls the grandest events of the cosmos”4. Gravity took control and the collapse played into the form.

I built and collapsed seven walls in the threshold between spaces in my place over four weeks during August – September. Some of the walls remained standing for enough time to reorganise my daily pattern of working, entering and exiting became a considered action, not simply a thoughtless act or clear passage. The vertical wall was left to admire in its commanding control of the spaces.

“…drifted away from me into darkness” 5

This purposefulness gave shape and pattern to a day full of limits. This process combined to create a recipe of elements and actions – a missing conversation, a provocation, a play with found materials, a performance for oneself, a film, not knowing, breaking through the bleakness and resentment. Being open to the unanswerable questions that lie at the end of most challenging artworks. Questions that lead to new undiscovered potential, a place to not know but to allow mistakes to lead. What will we take with us from these past two years that will acknowledge the need for change, a quietening, a less is more philosophy? How close to the edge will we come before it once again collapses?

So, what now remains? Representation of a time; short time-lapse films and two large format front and backside photos of the wall. Representing a blocking out and removing light, creating an unexpected purdah, a place of lockup, a darkened corridor, a barrier. The backside surprised and offered the unexpected delight of colourless beauty, a desaturated pattern that reached into my imagination—no longer drifting in the hardened present of the 2021 lockdown. I see an edge awaiting erosion, but I still walk.


1. Rebecca Solnit. Recollections of my non-existence (London: Granta Books, 2020), 1.

2. Clean it up! Collaborative project, D. Peltz S. Westerberg I. Hobbs & R. Backen, working with SEI & SCA in 2022.

3. Peter Kosso. What goes up… gravity and scientific method (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1.

4. Peter Kosso. What goes up… gravity and scientific method (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 3.

5. Rebecca Solnit. Recollections of my non-existence (London: Granta Books, 2020), 1.

Robyn Backen is a Senior Lecturer at Sydney College of the Arts. Her art practice crosses disciplines creating works that generate collaborative engagement with communication technologies, science, and philosophy. Her works focus as much on formal and poetic elements as they do on how objects engage the space in which they are placed. She has shown extensively in national and international exhibitions and has successfully completed many large public commissioned artworks. Robyn has a history of awarded residencies worldwide, most recently in Reijmyre, Sweden and Beijing, China. She is a recipient of an Australia Council for the Arts Fellowship.

Robyn creates site-responsive projects that actively engage with the spaces in which they inhabit. Her work is not bound by medium or scale, with large public commissions contrasting against smaller sound and light works. Conceptual continuity, however, is the constant, allowing the translation of ideas and messages into an eclectically bound body of work—multi-faceted conversation.

This article was commissioned by Sydney Environment Institute , University of Sydney.