The first time I met Robin Lee was in the back of a carpet fitters van, heading back to Hull after watching author, Russ Litten’s teenage band come third in the annual Scunthorpe Baths Hall ‘Battle of the Bands’ competition. My recollection of this journey was that it ended with us having a knife fight across the rolls of Wilton and Axminster on which we were perched, although Robin Lee insists to this day that I was the only one with a knife.
Almost a decade later I ran into him again, sitting menacingly at a table in a bar in Camden Town. He’d moved south just as Britpop was about to break out from NW1, and was applying his creative talents to writing songs and playing bass in a very good band from which he was shortly to get fired. The reason for his dismissal has long since escaped me, but it probably had something to do with the same reason I ended up having a knife fight with him on the M62 all those years before. Robin Lee has never been a man to compromise or pull his punches; moreover he will tell you that from the first minute you meet him, and it usually involves the words, ‘yer knob’ead.’
The ensuing years have seen Lee turn his talents to the world of visual art; firstly as a controversial interior designer, and now as a fully fledged artistic sledge hammer. His latest exhibition, Regrets, is as provocatively visceral as it is conceptual and beautifully shocking.
Lee states that the initial idea for Regrets came from observing a young couple arguing one Valentine ’s Day, and the guy telling his girlfriend that he felt as if he had the word ‘Useless ’written across his heart. The incident resulted in Lee setting about the job of procuring a number of human hearts with a view to branding them with all that they may once have carried within them. Lee, of course is evasive when it comes to explaining how he managed to procure his donated organs. Burke and Hare he is not, but it certainly raises a few questions as to how anyone might come by a bucket full of derelict human tickers.
The Regrets exhibition is as emotionally shocking and thought provoking, as it is visually powerful and exciting. You could argue that it does what art should always do; reach inside you and stir every facet of your own emotions. The six giant canvases; each depict a human heart that Lee has physically tattooed like the arm of a sailor, or the neck of a Millwall fan. Six statements of indelible culpability within the frailty of the human heart, and each one accompanied by the confession of its own failure in life.
Abuser, Phoney, Bitch, Waster, Shit Parent, and Burden, are not only the titles of the canvases, but the self-criticisms imagined by Lee. Each artwork is accompanied by a needle sharp audio monologue, written by writer and novelist Russ Litten, that is part courtroom defence for their actions and part cathartic confession for their lives. Each monologue is written as if from the grave; the previous owners of these scarred vessels explaining and excusing what they were in life.
‘Bitch’ begins with the words; ‘I never could resist sticking the knife in, twisting it, and then kissing better the wound with salt cracked lips. I drank the discomfort of others like a fine wine and fed off their embarrassment; and if your ears were ever burning, chances are, it was my words that were whipping them red raw.’ It immediately conjured up the face of Brenda Leyland, the woman who recently killed herself after being exposed as the troll who had been abusing the parents of Madeline McCann. Even in the cold void of death, her words still trying to suck sympathy for taking her own life. ‘Phoney’ transported me back to 90’s Camden Town where everyone was going to be a rock star; a world of the fickle and insecure, fuelled by chang, and trying to be everything to everyone, twenty four hours a day. ‘I don’t tell lies; I just tell what the truth ought to have been.’
The last time I saw Russ Litten, he was trying to break up an (apparently unfair) knife fight in the back of a carpet van. Now I think, maybe he was the one with the knife? It’s fair to say he has gone on to become one of the most accomplished British novelists of recent years; a ‘Fuck You’ Stan Barstow, full of ale and grit, and his Regrets monologues are as moving and hard hitting as trying to catch a cannon ball fired from ten feet away.
Regrets is subtle and multi layered in the most disturbing of ways, but it isn’t just confined to the macabre visual and the lantern monologues. It’s hugely contemplative, as both a visual and audible work, and it questions everyone’s own individual take on morality and self loathing. Was the dead Bitch really that bad when she was alive, or maybe she was like that because she had once known someone like the Abuser?
One cannot help thinking that it won’t be long before Robin Lee begins to feel the tide pulling his work towards the world of The Turner Prize, and the like. It will be interesting how he manages to explain the acquisition of a bucket full of human hearts... ‘Zombie Apocalypse, yer knob’ed.’