Thursday, December 9, 2010

Meet Your Maker: Cameron Robbins

You could say it’s about as easy to describe Cameron Robbins' work as it is to describe ‘the wind’..

Which is an element – amongst others – that the Victorian artist uses to create his work. His Wind Drawings are literally made from instruments set up to capture kinetic motion powered by the wind.

They are delicate, elaborate instruments handmade by Mr. Robbins, usually set up in public places like piers, in the open, where they do their thing unfettered by the human hand... on paper.

Left, Wind Anomaly 2, Falls Creek Vic, Australia, November 2010

They inspire awe in viewers.. From a distance these Wind Drawings resemble hair, lots of it, fine, dark (like the monstrous girl's in Japanese horror film The Ring), stuck to paper.

But on closer inspection it’s plain to see that the images are actually dark, dense scribbles, made by something other than the human hand – how could it be? Just not possible...

Cameron is a fearless navigator of nature... You can kind of imagine him out there by the sea with his Wind Drawing machine, his eyes stinging with sea-salt and pelting rain, his skin burnt by the sun from hours spent in the elements.

And from his work, it might appear that he and nature have a 'particular' relationship, sometimes at ease with each other, sometimes at odds. Either way it produces epic, monumental work, that is like a great disaster movie to experience: at once thrilling, fun, spectacular and visceral - only on a more profound level.

(His instruments on the other hand, could be straight out of the cinema of Tim Burton or Jeunet et Caro.)

Cameron’s latest series of – for want of a better term – ‘kinetic scupltures’ involve water, air, light, metal, and his good friends, the laws of physics. One piece of his spectacular Vortex series dwells at Stockroom, beneath two of his Wind Drawings. Each is a sight to behold.

Cameron has been making this kind of work professionally since he graduated from VCA with a Graduate Diploma in Sculpture, in 1990. When he’s not making work, he lectures at RMIT in Sculpture, and plays jazz music.

Cameron kindly answered a few questions for Stockroom.

Words by Megan Spencer. Many thanks to Cameron Robbins for the interview and for supplying the images.

Stockroom: How would you describe your work?

Cameron Robbons: I usually try to avoid that! It’s so much better to see the work. I find that ‘descriptions of your own work’ is one of the worst things that artists produce and why a lot of grant applications are hopeless. Artists are also often technical and boring, uncomfortably emotional or modest and self-effacing to their detriment.

So I use a bio that someone helped me write:

Cameron’s work makes tangible the underlying structures and rhythms of natural forces. Over the last 20 years he has produced site-specific installations in art galleries, disused buildings and outdoor sites around Australia. These inquiries employ structural devices such as wind or ocean-powered mechanical systems. Their aesthetic is the result of both careful engineering and resourcefulness. The outputs of these site-specific installations include wind drawings and sound compositions. These interpretations of the dynamics and scale of the physical world suggest the complexities of the unknown.

Above, portrait Cameron Robbins, 2010.

SR: Was there a particular 'light bulb moment', when you discovered your style and your voice as an artist? Or did it all come about gradually?

CR: Doing post-graduate studies at VCA was the time I developed most as an artist. [I was] studying art and really looking into things, like a ‘new and alternative’ science and landscape.

It’s probably now time to do some more study. It was in 1990 that I really got onto the kind of work I wanted to commit to. Then the work progressed from a kind of apocalyptic modernism – from studying old-school sculpture at RMIT in the 80s – to kinetic and site-specific dynamic installation and works.

SR: What is your relationship like with nature?

CR: Working in places I love and with good things like wind and water, looking into the nature of the universe!

SR: How did you become a 'kinetic sculptor' - and is it a very different kettle of fish from being a 'static' sculptor?

CR: A lot of artists have really grown uncomfortable with the whole word “sculptor”. It just has too many connotations of the old-world macho ‘artist-in-beret troubled with the nature of materials’. We need a new word…

Right, Tank Vortex, 2010.

Unfortunately the current attempt - “spatial practitioner’ - is too cumbersome. I just use ‘artist’. As soon as you say “sculptor”, a person will immediately ask “what material”. That just does not apply to a huge percentage of art made today. So I now say to them “well that’s the wrong question”- it’s what your work is about no matter what artform it is.

From static modernism at art school I developed an interest in work in the landscape. For a while I made things that looked like they responded to the horizon/unseen forces, akin to the radio repeater stations along desert highways. I started making pieces respond to wind, like the windmills.

But one summer I started attaching charcoal to bobbing boats in a mooring-shed, and got them to draw on paper I had stuck to the walls. I really loved the whole process; it was like the ‘object’ side of art disappeared and something else came into being. The drawings were very interesting and quite the most unselfconscious things I had made.

SR: What's the best thing anyone has ever said about your work - or the best reaction to it that you have witnessed?

CR: Any constructive criticism is the best thing that anyone who cares will offer to you. So when a viewer says “I’m not so sure about this stuff, it’s not really you” it makes you actually think about why you did that and who you are and what you should be doing.

This is what is meant by ‘critical thinking’. It’s the only thing that helps. Seems incredibly rare though – it’s much easier to say “that’s great, I love it, see you next show”, and if you hate the work you can avoid everything with: “well done on getting the show up”.

SR: What kind of personality do you need to have, to make one of your kinetic pieces - I imagine patience would be part of it?

CR: Brilliant, clever, funny, charming, kind etc Ha Ha!

I think you have to feel inspired enough by the idea to actually get the work together through a very long process that can often feel disruptive and exterior to the creative spirit.

Left, Shanghai Wind Drawing with light Rain (yu ching) 2010

Having the motivation to take it on and work out the issues along the way, while being open to the accidents and unexpected direction changes.

The thing with dynamic works is that when you have “finished” getting the work to a stage where it can function, you are actually just at the beginning - like getting a very expensive puppy.

SR: What's the most satisfying aspect of making your pieces?

CR: I have a telescope which allows you to see the rings of Saturn. Being able to show people that for the first time is a huge thrill.

I like this aspect of art - to share things that I love experiencing.

SR: Your work literally strikes awe into people, and they spend a lot of time with the pieces.. Why do you think that might be? What is it like experiencing one of your works?

CR: I sometimes wonder if it’s like a dog watching cars; our perception is geared towards looking at movement. This is why one TV screen can blow everyone else out of the water in a group show!

But more than the sheer physics of seeing, I think people really like to be presented with a refined vision of something which is very close to ‘nature’, and almost alive, like the Vortex works.

Ed’s note – one of these is at Stockroom, Tank Vortex.

SR: Can you tell us a little bit about how the Vortex water sculptures came about – the inspiration and process behind making them?

CR: I have done a lot of work with the weather. The Wind Drawing Machines have been a part of my practice for over 20 years. After a trip across to Perth, I saw many willie-willies and amazing weather systems. When I returned, I thought of presenting to the viewer the essence of dynamic fluid movement- the vortex. It is basically a small tornado you can watch for as long as you want. In biology it is well studied that the vortex in nature is the one inanimate object closest to being alive.

SR: Have you ever had a bad review that really stuck in your craw?

CR: In July 2010 I did a project in Japan, “Sea Songs of the Subconscious”, on a seawall in the Seto Inland Sea. I attached a pipe organ (which I had made) to large PVC pipes which went into the sea, so the waves could pump air into the pipes and make sea-music.

Right: Sea Songs of the Subconscious, Setouchi International Festival of Art, Japan, 2010 .

It was an environmental sound work with a nice bass F-minor chord. The work survived all the typhoons of the season and attracted thousands of viewers (the Setouchi International Festival of Art was visited by 930,000 over 100 days).

I got a review by John McDonald that said “might have passed for a John Cage piece”.

SR: If you had an unlimited budget, unlimited time, and lived in an ideal, parallel universe, what would be the 'dream sculpture' you might make?!

CR: I would like to build an art institute with lots of permanent installations which connect the building interior to the outside world, and have a never-ending series of guest artists residencies and projects.

SR: If you weren't an artist, what would you be doing instead?

CR: Studying to be one!

It's elemental.. Visit Cameron Robbins' official website. And visit Stockroom to view 'Tank Vortex' and two Wind Drawings.

And see the more pics of Cameron's work on Stockroom's Facebook.