‘Cameron Robbins: Field Lines: MONA’,
Frieze Magazine, No. 181, September 2016
18 May – 29 August 2016
Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Australia
Cameron Robbins’s first ever museum survey highlights the artist’s 25-year obsession with the elemental forces of the natural world: rainfall, snowfall, ocean tides but most of all wind turbulence, which Robbins has harnessed through his eccentric drawing machines. Part recording mechanism, part kinetic sculptures, these hand-built machines feature a mechanical arm affixed with a ball-point pen powered by wind trapped in a series of swivelling steel cones mounted on a vertical axis. Sheets of drawing paper attached to a horizontal wooden plane are secured for specific intervals of time or set to rotate slowly: installed in the rural environment, the erratic behaviour of the wind drives the prosthetic pen to cover the paper’s surface with a hatching of delicate feathery lines. Built up over time, these lines form organic compositions that are, in effect, pictorial transcriptions of the movements of wind. It is no surprise that the gossamer lines create dense structures that recall the natural world – smoke vapours or eddying water, bark or bird’s nests.
While the prototypes of these drawing machines (Portable Wind-Drawing Machine, 1990-2016) were designed to becarried over rugged terrain (Falls Creek and the Otway Ranges in Victoria have been favoured sites), Robbins’s more recent machines deploy greater mechanical sophistication. The MONA commission, Tide Line (2016), uses industrial-scaled hydraulics to mobilize tidal motion in the Derwent River located six metres beneath the museum’s site to power a pen-mounted mechanical arm across the paper-clad surface of a giant drum, recording the ebb and flow of tidal currents. Wind Funnel (2016), an enormous tapering fibreglass structure, erupts unexpected fan-powered breezes into the museum’s stately spaces materialising the central element of the suite of adjacent drawings.
A more recent development has been Robbins’s turn to long-exposure photography. New iterations of the drawing machines named ‘Anemographs’ (a compound of the ancient Hebrew term for truth and the Greek term for recording instrument) work with light rather than pen and paper. Appended with a LED light, the wind-propelled mechanical arm produces agitated overlapping lines whose nocturnal coursings are captured through time-lapse photography and transformed into fiery ribbons of light. Both reminiscent of, and distinct from, Moholy-Nagy’s seminal experiments, Robbins’s photographs uncover the spatial drama of the Australian landscape.
Combining the techniques of magnetism and light, Robbins has taken his wind cartography into new territory in the series ‘Mt Jim Anomaly’ (2011). A mountainous area near Falls Creek, the land is the site of a natural magnetic anomaly – an unexplained kink in the magnetic field of the earth’s terrain. Using a hand-held compass and LED light, Robbins painstakingly charted the contours of this capricious magnetic field; an action simultaneously captured by time-lapse cameras installed in proximity. The resulting C-type photographs show staggered luminous loops whorling through the night-time landscape as strange eyelets of light. Some of the photos were shot on starry nights and slow celestial movement is also caught on film, making the photos inadvertent astronomical mappings. The companion piece to this series, ‘Magnometers’ (2016), are a cluster of compass-mounted wiry structures set in basalt, whose thin bronze arms point North-South. Placed in the cavernous spaces of MONA, however, invisible magnetic obstructions – such as the building’s electrical cabling – retard their natural orientation, forming a built environment analogue to the magnetic anomalies of the natural world.
Robbins’s interest in geo-physics situates his practice squarely in the realm of land art. Associated with iconic figures of the 1970s (such as Walter de Maria, Richard Long and Robert Smithson), land artists sought to make objects of the natural environment, with minimal modification, constitute works of art: against the commercialism of the art market and the perceived artificiality of the studio-made object these artists saw in nature materials and processes they found more compelling. Maria’s Lightning Field (1977), whose square kilometre grid of steel poles set in the New Mexico desert was designed to channel the high voltage electricity discharged during lightning storms, is perhaps the closest parallel in its natural force-harnessing ability but what makes Robbins singular is his inexpugnable drawing sensibility. On the one hand Robbins’s works are fine-tuned apparatuses that neutrally record the earth’s restlessnessbut on the other, the artist’s own orientation to the attenuated nature of the drawn line means these registrations devolve into something we can unequivocally call drawing. In other words, Robbins’ instruments allow the world to draw itself.
Cameron Robbins, Mt Jim Magnetic Anomaly, Loops, 2011, Type C photography on rag paper, 120 x 90 cm.