Simon Yates: Magic or System Error?

Bec Dean

Metropolis Robot_1880pxSimon Yates, Futura (2001)

Simon Yates shares his name with the mountaineer who famously plummeted through an icy crevasse and survived. That particular Simon endured a solitary struggle to hold onto life, trailing various broken body parts, and subsequently made quite a bit of money by telling his story through the biopic, Touching The Void (2005). It is much harder finding information on Simon Yates the artist through the lazy act of Googling, because since making the film the mountaineer is now also a kind of Auteur. It doesn’t even matter if you limit the search to Australia. There he is, touching the void, page after page. I am not only wasting the word-count in this circuitous approach to Simon Yates the artist based in Sydney, as there is something about the results of my search which seem to parallel Yates’ approach to information systems, knowledge economies and technologies—a kind of algorithmic, almost deliberate, randomness that proffers a range of results with spindly threads of connectivity, stretching on (perhaps) infinitely. The Void. The Infinite. You catch my drift?

Yates is very much an artist of this technological age, though he works askance of its shiny, digital materiality. Yates questions and answers such complications and contradictions with tissue paper, string, paint, glue, sticky-tape, bamboo, balsa wood, stepper motors, op-shop curiosities, two-dollar shop whiz-bangery and helium. He cuts and pastes from yellowed paperbacks that provide answers to the mysteries of the Earth, the universe and ancient cultures and outdated and debunked theorems and conspiracies, binding them together in papery analogue form. Yates’ zine Hobby Horse is an ongoing self-made publishing concern that skims the flotsam from popular science and cultural ephemera, connecting art with (possibly) mountaineering with biochemistry with gaming with astrophysics. Among other things, the zine considers the current of DIY culture embraced by a generation of contemporary artists as stemming from multiple historical precedents and antecedents that include scientists, inventors and lucky people that just happened to stumble upon something significant.

From Yates’ collection of VHS tapes has also sprung a zine-based compendium describing his personal favourite scenes in blockbuster movies. Not encyclopaedic but rather rambling, it addresses the kind of social contracts that we make with films, and the meanings, messages and other memories they provoke, which continue to resonate with us as we carry them through our own time. My favourite scene in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) makes an appearance in Mysterious Movie Mashup (2011). It is the forest scene in which Madeleine/Judy played by Kim Novak touches the tree rings of an ancient Redwood addressing it directly, saying, ‘Here I was born, and there I died … It was only a moment for you, you took no notice.’ In all of Yates’ work there is an inherent frailty made tangible through the impermanence of the materials he works with. Not only does this invoke a sense of personal mortality from the artist’s perspective, but, by way of his zine-making, he draws in the wider culture to which we subscribe, as merely the manifestation of a provisional and contingent moment in time.

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Hobby Horse zine, edited by Yates

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Simon Yates, Brain Scapes (2008), paper, cardboard, wire, paint and pen, 10 objects, dimensions variable

Most recently in Australian gallery contexts, Yates is well known for his delicate papier-mâché automata; a number of life-sized robots taking the form of himself and his partner, as well as such recognisable forms as Futura from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1928), The Golem from Paul Wegener and Carl Boese’s film of the same name (1920) and the towering figure of the character Neytiri from James Cameron’s Avatar (2009). My first encounter with Yates’ robots was almost bumping into the likeness of Sir Isaac Newton as it changed course and headed in my direction at the opening of the Biennale of Australian Art, Before & After Science curated by Charlotte Day and Sarah Tutton for the Art Gallery of South Australia (2010). It is not the same sort of uncanny experience as the shock of Masahiro Mori’s ‘uncanny valley’ in meeting Yates’ robots insomuch as they are obviously not attempting to pass as human. Rather, they command the attention of a room with a kind of otherworldly and all-seeing grace. The way they move makes it seem as though they occupy another temporal plane. Yates’ representation of a bewigged Newton in this exhibition paid a kind of homage to the physicist whose research had made possible the basic function of the artist’s automata. Suspended by balloons filled with gas that is lighter than air so that they defy gravity and only just touch the ground, the automata perambulate with energy provided by mechanical means as well as changes in air density and movement.

Last year, the French artist Paul Granjon presented a performance lecture in Sydney about DIY robotics entitled Lo-Tech Songs and Servo Drive in which he included footage from the embarrassing appearance of Honda’s Asimov Robot in Japan (2006) where the robot was only seconds into its performance of climbing a set of stairs when it stumbled and fell. Not only did the Asimov robot fail to pick itself up again, it also failed to recognise that it had fallen and continued the presentation on its side (to the horror of its designers). While Yates’ automata need replacement air and an occasional battery change to continue moving around, the Asimov robot required millions of research dollars and an entire team of scientists to reset its functionality. Faced with these kinds of fiscal and human-resource limitations as an artist, Yates works with what is able to be achieved—in terms of bringing to life a fantastical or speculative idea through invention—utilising the relatively crude technological provisions of the home or studio.

Yates is an artist who surrounds himself by books and other forms of obsolescing technologies—offering them the potential of an extended life and renewed purpose. One issue of Hobby Horse included photocopied letters to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald reacting to news that the University of New South Wales was going to pulp part of its library. When I visited him to talk about this feature, he had recently acquired a microfiche viewer, a former library fixture, for an upcoming exhibition (I had some previous experience of this machine as a medical records filing clerk). Through our discussion I settled on what was so compelling, indeed magical about his reuse of mechanical and pre-digital technologies; they are open systems, able to be modified and repurposed easily by hand. They can literally be opened up and adapted by ordinary people with the most quotidian of tools and materials.

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Simon Yates, The Robot Who Looked Like Me (2009), installation view

My recent experience of working with Yates, and also with Sydney-based collaborative duo Jaki Middleton and David Lawrey, was made fascinating as I witnessed the unabashed wonder of gallery visitors trying to make sense of the analogue tricks and mechanisms such as the Pepper’s Ghost1 employed by Middleton and Lawrey, and in Yates’ case, the sneaky use of remote control with his robots. With more research coming to light about the ways in which converged technologies such as the iPhone are, in fact, replacing the function of parts of our brain—for recalling our friends’ phone numbers, reading maps or remembering directions—the work of Yates and of Middleton and Lawrey seems all the more pertinent in terms of reinstating a basic understanding of how machines work, of how perception is formed, of how certain strands of knowledge are privileged and revered, and how others are destined for pulp or the local op-shop. The simple example of a friend enquiring at the Apple Store about a dysfunctional iPhone and being presented with a brand new one, no-questions-asked, seems symptomatic of the distance we are creating in our understanding of the functions of the technologies we are dependant upon.

In Brain Scapes (2006), which is now housed in the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Yates attempted to elucidate the multiple memories, stimuli and thought processes that take place in his brain at the same moment. Like my description of spindly connections at the start of this text, the objects he has made make contact with one another through fragile points. Painted black and almost monstrous-looking, like a human virus, the neurological process rendered in three-dimensions by Yates is at once disturbing and bleak, and then, as you move closer to examine the individual drawings, plans and explanatory text pasted across their surfaces, they are infused with the levity and humour that Yates brings to all of his work, a humour and delight in the world and all of its possibilities, tinged with frailty. In his acknowledgement that everything is temporary, Yates seeks to create objects of puzzlement from the scientific and cultural ephemera that time has abandoned, so that we may see them not only as new again, but with curious eyes and ontological enquiry.


1. The Pepper’s Ghost is an optical trick using two-way or angled mirrors and lights to introduce ghostly objects into space. This technique was first demonstrated by John Henry Pepper in the mid 19th century.




Bec Dean is a curator and writer who trained and practiced as a visual artist in performance art and photomedia. She is currently commencing postgraduate...


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