The awe-inspiring installations of Castlemaine kinetic artist Cameron Robbins transform Mother Nature's repertoire of physical forces into art that is both highly dynamic and beautiful. Cameron talked to Calder Western about his art machines, music, science and the art of harnessing the power of nature.
You recently moved to Castlemaine. What drew you to the region?
I thought it might work in Castlemaine as there is a good arts community, a few friends live here, and I could get a house and studio together. Having access to interesting landscapes and darker night skies is really good for my work.
The behaviour and power of natural forces is key to your work. Where does this love of natural phenomenon begin in you?
In my younger years, I did a lot of surfing, bushwalking and camping out; all things that connect you with the greater natural world. Surfing, especially, has a connection to wavelength, frequency, rhythm, weather, and tides so it really can be a connection to the dynamic, elemental world.
Instrumentation and mechanics are fundamental to your pieces and installations. Are they a means to an end or as important as the final work?
I generally make mechanical devices that produce drawings from various available energy sources like wind, tides or sun. I have come at this from a drawing point of view, wanting to create interesting drawings that can stand on their own. But it really is great to have a working drawing machine installation connected to the elements, and the output as well; the whole narrative is all in front of the viewer’s eye.
Are you aware of Aeolian Harps? Have they influenced your work?
Of course, but I’ve never seen or heard one working properly. I have attempted to make them, with mixed results! But it is a really nice idea and I like the thought of having gentle tunes from the wind - although wind chimes can get very annoying at times! [Laughs] The closest I’ve got is in my series of wave-powered pipe organs, which were connected to ocean waves and able to make pretty nice abstract music when waves pump air into the pipes. I did these at MONA, Lorne, and Teshima in Japan.
How would you classify your work? Is it ‘kinetic art’? Or do you prefer it to be free of classification and left to interpretation?
Classification is amusing because as an artist you do things, and people get it, but perhaps don’t know exactly where it all sits. But of course, categorization comes from the museum, gallery, writers, and collectors. It’s easier in retrospect to say this work belongs to that area because at the time it is often described as hard to classify.
I generally make mechanical devices that produce drawings from various available energy sources like wind, tides or sun. I have come at this from a drawing point of view, wanting to create interesting drawings that can stand on their own. But I studied sculpture for five years, so I do love making machines, sculptures, and installations that can be poetic with how objects are made and placed together.
I like to think of your work as ‘the poetry of motion’. Is this a fair interpretation or too ‘romantic’?
Perhaps this is a little too corny for me to actually say, but it had a nice intention. [Laughs] Poetry enables us to place items together in an abstract or intuitive way, to produce something meaningful in a different kind of language.
Your installations produce curious side effects: the sound of your drawing machines are as hypnotic as the drawings they create. Would it be fair to say that sound and motion gives the machine life, the art gives it a heart and the natural forces a spirit?
The big drawing machine I have down at MONA makes a lot of sound on windy days. With two fellow musicians, we miked up the machine parts and played some improvised works along with the machine, using electro-acoustic instruments. This brings the installation into a different area of sound performance and music, an extra dimension that really works well I think.
Interestingly, your art is only an interpretation of the natural energy you are harnessing: the instrumentation you create has its physical constraints and properties: for example, the dynamics of the wiring and the friction of the pens on the medium. How important is it to capture your forces accurately?
Accuracy and precision…it’s a fascinating territory. The first thing I should say is that I come at this work as an artist and want to make the best drawings and the most intriguing installations. A scientist would have to keep the instruments set up consistently to show the variations in the data, whereas I keep changing the settings to riff on drawing ideas and riding the energy. So I guess what I am doing is more like surfing the wave of energy.
One major difference between art and science is the idea of the "experiment". In art it is a one-off, a tangent allowing the artist total freedom, whereas the scientific experiment is the fundamental principle of empirical thought - the experiment has to be reproducible by several others with the same results to prove a theory. Artists generally do not want their experiments being copied successfully.
Early photography was distorted and lacked fidelity yet these images can now hold an inherent beauty due to their organic nature. Could this sentiment also apply to your work?
Accidents and artifacts of production can be very interesting. Occasionally, for instance, a part on a drawing instrument might move or fall over, and in doing so start creating a new drawing next to the previous one. This happened with Cyclone Vance, when its tail moved through Melbourne in 1999 after trashing the West Australian town of Exmouth. The winds hit my drawing instrument out the window of Lovers Gallery in Fitzroy, bending the drawing arm and literally making its own drawing adjacent to the previous one. Amazing!
Do you like to be surprised by your work? That you set the experiment, but may never know what it might reveal to you?
Surprise and discovery is a big part of why I have pursued Wind Drawings and other dynamic artworks over the last thirty odd years. It never gets boring and it's always revealing new things, and I guess this is the way art-making should be.
I am in awe of what you create as I have a passion for nature, experimentation in the arts and understanding of what you are trying to achieve? Is your work a ‘hard sell’ next to more accessible work or is the premise easily conveyed and embraced by your audience?
I always like the drawings to be able to stand alone and be appreciated for what they are. But audiences like to find out backstories, and in particular, with my work done with weather or sun, people are intrigued, for instance, if a date or location of a drawing is important personally to them. If I do not exhibit the drawing instruments and machines, I will often show a video of them working on site creating the drawings, to give people the background. But it is always surprising what people do perceive and respond to.
Were you a creative child?
I don’t think unusually creative, but I do remember a lot of experimenting with science kits and making model airplanes, pulling apart clocks and machines in people's sheds, making billy carts and skateboards and drawing and painting as well.
Your career as an artist and teacher span decades. Are there any milestones that you are particularly proud of?
In 2016, I was the first Australian artist to be invited to mount a major solo exhibition at MONA [Museum of Old and New Art] in Tasmania. I showed after Marina Abramovic, Gilbert and George, and Mathew Barney. I showed in nine galleries through the museum and had seven commissions for new works.
I now have a permanent large scale fully kinetic Wind Drawing instrument at MONA, next to installations by the American artists Charles Ross, James Turrell, and the German artist Anselm Kiefe. It’s an incredible honour to be amongst some of my greatest art heroes.
Which artists have inspired you and your work?
Many artists had something to offer my work: many of my Australian colleagues, both artists and musicians; Swiss artists Jean Tinguely, Fishli/Weiss, Steiner/Lenzlinger, Anselm Kiefer and James Turrell.
What is one particular lesson you have learned in your career that you would like to pass on to young aspiring artists?
Any success you have is related to how often you are willing to fail. Taking risks means that you’re pushing yourself, or being stupid. Work with people who know how to do the things you want to achieve - you don't have to be an expert at everything yourself.
What places would you recommend people visit in the goldfields region?Dog Rocks at Mt Alexander and the giant river redgum at Guildford.
Do you love music? What artists are currently on high rotation?
I play clarinet and saxophone in jazz bands and other more experimental projects. I listen to a lot to Lester Young, Barney Bigard, Duke Ellington, Geroge Lewis, and at the moment Melbourne bassist Sam Anning's new album "Across a field as vast as one"
Are there websites that you frequently visit for inspiration or a good read?
The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for the detailed photographs and descriptions of the planetary probe missions, in particular, JUNO at Jupiter and Cassini at Saturn and its rings.
Is travel important to you? What are your “must see” destinations?
It was incredible to visit the Himalayas and just stare at mountains that are eight and a half kilometres high. It is also great to see the vast plains outside Port Augusta in South Australia and to dive with the giant cuttlefish near Whyalla.
Cameron Robbins works can be viewed at MONA, Tasmania, Stockroom Kyneton and MARS gallery, Melbourne