To spot Roy Adzak’s tomb in Montparnasse cemetery, in Paris, is to look for the confusing marks of the past, epitomised by a small bronze pyramid in which is cut on each face the silhouette of a disproportionately large man, as if human and godly orders had been inverted.
Adzak (1927-1987, born Roy Wright), a multidisciplinary artist and civil engineer by training who spent twice as many years across the world as in his native England, seems to have consistently disturbed the expected and conventions.
From a grandfather himself in the building trade, he acquired and developed a strong affinity for the process of constructing. His first major achievement was a house he built in his night time when he was living in New Zealand (1949-51), having bought a piece of land over Wellington harbour. Styled in the manner of Bauhaus, the house structure used rimu (red pine) – a native timber favoured by Maori tradition.
There is no photograph of the Wellington house, but Adzak’s later life building project (1982-83), also singly assembled (see above), is witness to the strong influence of Bauhaus principles in his creative practice, which combines the truth of simple materials with craft. Built on the top of a pre-existing garage in the 14th arrondissement of Paris, the 4-storey extension was conceived as a “Container museum”, an extremely light wood structure filled with cyberex.
The use of plaster would not be anecdotical. From his archaeological expedition in Afghanistan in the 1950s, Adzak would have used plaster to capture reliefs of excavated artefacts. This would inform his artistic research for the decades to come. Back in Europe (1956-62), his experimentations would lead him to work on archeological prints, fossils and negative/positive shapes. His first years in Paris (1962-73) would see him further explore negative objects and how they affect the notion of time and can play with light and optical effects.
As much as Adzaks’ reliefs – from full human forms and body parts to objects as diverse as fruits, eggs and bottles, tell of the call for the unsaid and to be said, they also express the fragility of life through the material they are made of . The artist was increasingly concerned by the organic deterioration not only nature- but also human-induced, in particular of trees, as reflected by his series on the relation between Trees and Humans in the context of acid rain (1983-86).
Cancer would bring Adzak’s commentaries on the lightness of life to an halt in 1987. If there is one obvious legacy to be made, it is of Rachel Whiteread‘s Turner prize in 1993 with her casts of negative spaces: she ought to own it to Adzak’s negative objects and the maize of his inversions. The intaglio of his hands on the threshold of his composite Parisian house – a studio, museum and artist residency all combined, shall remind every pedestrian walking along rue Jonquoy that was is left of of us after all is only an impression, even if with spiritual powers as intended by cavemen.
Hung reliefs are dangling from the ceiling of the studio like suspended columns. The irony resides above them: the extension built atop the garage has been sealed by law since the death of the artist due to some dispute on his estate. As inaccessible a space as the mystery of pyramids’ content, Adzak’s treasury chambers remain to be explored. The human figures on his grave give a pathway for our imagination to fill up the void.
With thanks to Margareth Crowther for her most generous introduction to Roy Adzak’s Atelier Musée.
All photographs (except of the grave) ©Marianne Magnin, 2017