Alchemy of the Invisible

“The truly exact work of art is a metaphor of the universe”[1]

I will not forget the first time I saw a work by Cameron Robbins.

Sitting in a large metal framework, just inside the gallery window, were two sizeable, egg-shaped glass vessels.

Drawn closer, I watched as marvelous vortices trapped inside each vessel swirled gently and consistently, like elegant liquid tornadoes.

Then, attached to the frame, I noticed two gun-sights aiming at the Fitzroy Town Hall…

Titled Sniper, this work humorously invoked a real tornado to evacuate those within the Town Hall and their inadequate decision-making processes.

Robbins’ work often creates such discrete environments, increasing its conceptual and material possibilities.  This extends the viewer’s encounter – from the visual to the physical – arousing curiosity as to how they are made, and what they are for.

His acute awareness of our environment, and what it is composed of, has driven his desire to capture it, express it, and draw our attention to things we may not normally notice.  It is the invisible, the intangible, the “incommensurable”, that attracts him most strongly.

Motion, sound, light, drawings; Robbins produces intriguing structures that aestheticise our universe, creating some visual or aural experience and sensitising us to nature.  At times contingency and indeterminacy enhances the work, making it exciting: what will be the result?  What will we ‘see’, or ‘hear’?

Engaging on visual, physical and intellectual levels, his work remains open to interpretation. It also challenges historicist and idealist paradigms of artistic, political and economic thought.

We could go back to Duchamp, Picabia, Hannah Hoch and Jean Tinguely – to Dada – when ‘machine art’ critiqued industrial and economic power structures and bourgeois art.

We could go back to Beuys, to ‘process art’, when creating was more important than aesthetics.  He projected a better future, better relationships with the environment, a new democracy, a new freedom, through creativity.  He said: “Sculpture… must always obstinately question the basic premises of the prevailing culture”[2].

In the 60s and 70s, a dissatisfaction with capitalism’s emphasis on acquiring material objects and it’s failure to cultivate non-material values drove artists to create works as ephemeral objects, or activities.  They expressed ideas that encouraged social and cultural change.

Fluxus; Yves Klein; Australian artists including Tony Coeling, Domenico de Clario, Stelarc and Dave Morrisey… they worked with music, energy, or the environment; their works asked questions about who we are and what we are doing with our lives, our environment.  They made us think about how we could make things better.

Robbins’ inventive, dynamic, often ephemeral, structures encourage the same questions.  But he extends the premises.

Each work is a metaphor.  Of a ‘reality’.  Interacting with the environment, a system of forces acts in space and time.  As Foucault’s pendulum demonstrates the earth’s rotation, Robbins produces ‘models’ of the universe.  Sometimes he makes us think about the site, about why his work is there.

I must mention The Sea Wailing, a collaborative piece by Robbins and John Turpie which was created in memory of the Aboriginal people who were pushed to their death from the Elliston cliffs in South Australia during the 1840’s…  Several large metal organ pipes were made and placed into the blowholes of the cliffs so that every time the undulating swell of the waves pushed air into the blowholes, the pipes emitted a deeply resonant sound resembling a gentle, eerie foghorn.

Like an alchemist, Robbins masters what we may consider to be immaterial, invisible.  His inventive sculptural ‘machines’ express some essence, some truth, about the universe, sometimes converting it to material, like a record, or a ‘map’, of time, space and energy; sometimes to sound, or light, or motion.  They take us outside ourselves, make us think about what we ‘know’, what we do, what is possible…

Kirsten Rann © 2003


[1] Theo van Doesberg, ‘Principles of neo-plastic art’, Bauhaus book, no.6, 1925. Reprinted in English by Lund Humhries, London, 1969

[2] Interview with Willoughby Sharp, Artforum, New York, December 1969