Art and Australia 28, no. 2, Summer 2010.
In 2008, Peter Robinson created the largest sculpture ever seen in a New Zealand art gallery. Snow Ball Blind Time was a massive tangle of white expanded-polystyrene chains, with links ranging from a tiddly three centimetres to a humungous three metres. Marshalling masses of this complex chainy material, Robinson’s absurdly ambitious work filled all seven galleries of New Plymouth’s Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, embracing the eccentric, open architecture of this former cinema. Snow Ball Blind Time was a revelation, the best local show in ages, but it didn’t come from nowhere.1 It was the culmination of several years of investigation into the sculptural possibilities of polystyrene as a medium and into the chain as a form.
Derived from petroleum, polystyrene is a cheap, ubiquitous, modern material. Expanded polystyrene is bulky but light (mostly air), and is primarily used as insulation and for disposable packaging. Being easy to sculpt, it is also favoured by window-dressers and set designers, giving it an aura of fakeness. Although it is utterly friable, expanded polystyrene won’t decompose and is impractical to recycle. Despite its pristine whiteness, it’s toxic. Chains are also peculiar, permitting yet restraining movement. Although their rigid links are consistently joined, chains are floppy, forming irregular shapes. You can stretch them out, scrunch them up, even tie them in knots; they can be pulled tight or hang limp. But, as much as you can try to organise them, they tend to do their own thing.
Robinson explored the possibilities. His 2007 installation Concatenation and Dispersion suggested a playroom in disarray, with all manner of provisional structures being developed on the floor, as if the artist was trying to invent or demonstrate a new sculptural grammar. Robinson not only used chains and chain links, he also used the capsule-shaped centres expelled in cutting the links and polystyrene boulders. Titan (2008) had a unifying logic. Like a dry stone wall, it snaked across the floor at knee height; smaller and larger chains holding one another in place. In Soft Rock Baroque (2008), chains—suggesting stalactites, streams of candle wax or frozen waterfalls—were draped over roughly hewn polystyrene boulders. To me, it recalled gongshi, Chinese scholar’s stones, whose odd decorous shapes prompt an appropriately spiritual appreciation of order in nature.2
Robinson says he was thinking a lot about late 1960s American post-minimalist sculpture—Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, Eva Hesse, Barry Le Va, and so on. While minimalists favoured rigid, regular, geometric structures, the post-minimalists preferred the informal, famously developing ‘scatter’ installations. Although they eschewed explicit composition, the post-minimalists’ concerns were still formal. They were interested in the play of order and disorder; regularity and irregularity; field and incident; density, dispersion, and compression. Decades later, Robinson’s polystyrene-chain works revisit these concerns.
In Snow Ball Blind Time, bigger chains were tied up using smaller ones, sometimes loosely, sometimes tightly. Robinson exploited the chain’s split personality, its appearing both rigid and fluid. The chains’ relative fluidity was in the eye of the beholder. Viewers tended to see the larger link chains in terms of their rigid individual links, and the finer chains more as fluid wholes. By making Snow Ball Blind Time too big to see all at once, Robinson emphasised this. Like Hollywood’s Incredible Shrinking Man, viewers were forced to confront human scale as arbitrary. Standing within it, they realised that, if they shrank down, chains that currently appeared fluid would look increasingly blocky and rigid; if they grew larger, it would all appear more supple.
As white as the gallery’s walls, Snow Ball Blind Time visually melted into and emerged out of the architecture. Weaving through the building, it was one big thing, and yet its character seemed to change from space to space. At some points it appeared to be at rest, dormant; at others, tense, flexing. The work rested on roughly hewn polystyrene boulders, squeezed through corridors and flopped over balconies, rising or plummeting from one level to another. It drew attention to the peculiarity of the gallery’s spaces, their thresholds and sightlines.
There was always a contrast between the way viewers could occupy space and the way the sculpture could. Anthropomorphic, it was frequently described as a snake or a worm. Indeed, it had a monstrous quality; it reminded me of The Blob.3 On the other hand, it could have equally been a calcified fossil from the days of the dinosaurs, its threat long since extinct. Robinson’s polystyrene-chain works have been understood as the product of an about-face, with the artist turning his back on ‘content’ to become ‘a formalist’. But, if anyone really thought Robinson had transcended content, they were mistaken.
For all its formal rigour, Snow Ball Blind Time was hugely suggestive, inspiring critics to fanciful flights of creative writing. They imagined themselves walking through a landscape or ‘set’—making this art-as-mise-en-scène. They rhapsodised about geomorphology, romantic ruins, and polar landscapes. They compared the work to Piranesi’s etchings of prisons and Caspar David Friedrich’s 1823–4 masterpiece, The Wreck of the Hope (showing a capsized ship being crushed by Arctic pack ice). Cued by the polystyrene’s blinding whiteness, some recalled a local catastrophe, New Zealand’s worst air accident, the 1979 airplane crash at Mount Erebus, Antarctica. The critics dropped names. They cited classical Greek god Prometheus (who stole fire and gave it to man, only to be chained to a stone and pecked by an eagle for his audacity), Robert Morris (enchained S&M style in his 1974 exhibition poster), and even Dickens’s Miss Havisham (whose decaying white wedding cake, covered in cobwebs, was also something of a ruin). One erudite commentator recalled that chains are part of Ratana iconography; another that polystyrene is itself a ‘long chain’ polymer. And so it went. Perhaps Robinson was chained to content as much as Prometheus was bound to that stone, whether he liked it or not.4
Ecological themes were persistently read into the work. Paradoxically, it suggested both the disastrous break up of the polar ice caps and the equally disastrous accumulation of man-made rubbish that won’t break down. Certainly, man-made eco-disasters have become the new sublime; our mistakes overtaking nature as a source of terror and pleasure.5 If Robinson was expressing environmental concern, he had chosen an odd way to do so. Snow Ball Blind Time not only suggested a pile of waste, it was one.
Even if it wasn’t rotting in a hurry, Snow Ball Blind Time looked like a ruin and that was crucial to its appeal. From the late eighteenth century, romantics celebrated ruins as picturesque, finding beauty in decay, in seeing man’s structures being reclaimed by nature. 6 Impatient for the effect, they created readymade ruins as follies. Centuries later, Robert Smithson coined the term ‘ruins in reverse’ to describe the pleasure he took in structures that looked like ruins but were, in fact, in the process of going up. As much as Snow Ball Blind Time implied dereliction and dissipation, it also suggested a ruin-in-reverse: a studio in which a sculptor is grappling with recalcitrant materials, coaxing order out of chaos. It was as if Robinson, like some Michelangelo of polystyrene, had been carving out his massive chains in situ.
Of course, such heroism or hubris was contrived—a flagrant conceit. Polystyrene is not marble; it is lightweight and easy to cut and move. Despite the artfully strewn rubble, the chains were clearly not carved by the artist. The links were ‘prepared earlier’, cut in a factory to be assembled on site. And, despite the ‘heavy’ associations of the chain, expanded polystyrene is not tough: those links would tear. Snow Ball Blind Time was a tease. As much as it provoked awe, it pulled the rug.
After Snow Ball Blind Time, Robinson largely abandoned the chains, perhaps thinking the Govett-Brewster work might be his last word on the matter. He embarked on a new body of work, his ‘Polymer Monoliths’. Robinson’s first monolith, at Artspace, Sydney, in 2009, was a grand stack of expanded-polystyrene blocks, some 2.5 metres high, with a footprint of about 2.5 by 5 metres. He had chipped away at the surface, creating a consistent texture on all four faces; leaving the chips at the foot of the structure to suggest that he had carved out this pure geometry. Robinson’s new monoliths, just shown at Wellington’s Peter McLeavey Gallery, are simple rusticated blocks. One stands up in one room and two lie side by side in the other, suggesting memorials and tombs. The rubble has gone.
Monoliths (or, more precisely, ‘megaliths’) have a long history. They were created by technologically primitive people in different parts of the world at different times. While their precise meanings are obscure, they doubtless fulfilled a variety of significant purposes, particularly astrological and funereal. Their weighty significance was implicit in the commitment that was required to extract, move and erect them. But this is hardly true of Robinson’s synthetic example. A twenty-first-century polystyrene monolith is, surely, a joke.
Robinson’s monoliths give little back. They offer scant sculptural experience ‘in the round’ and little room for fanciful interpretation. Robinson has jettisoned the suggestive imagery and bravura formal qualities that made his chain sculptures thrilling. Perhaps, having spoilt his viewers with baroque confections, he now feels compelled to put them on a diet. Where his chains prompted endless free-association, Robinson’s monoliths impress more with their bluntness.
Despite their differences, Robinson’s chains and his monoliths have much in common. Both pull their punches by restaging old ‘heavy’ ideas (sublime nature, ecological crisis, artistic struggle, cosmic interconnectedness, death) in an (in)appropriately lightweight modern material. They reconcile Robinson’s new desire (to create massive monumental, formally compelling sculptures) with his old desire (to deflate bogus claims to mystery, metaphysics, spirituality, and depth). Everything has changed, nothing has changed.
[IMAGE: Peter Robinson Snow Ball Blind Time 2008]
- Peter Robinson: Snow Ball Blind Time, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, 13 September–23 November 2008.
- Concatenation and Dispersion (2007) was installed at Sutton Gallery, Melbourne; Titan (2008) formed part of the exhibition Promethean Dreams at Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland; Soft Rock Baroque (2008) was shown at Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington.
- In both the 1958 original film and its 1988 remake, ‘The Blob’ enters a cinema to terrorise and consume the patrons.
- Chains carry a back story in Robinson’s practice. For his 2001 Venice Biennale project Divine Comedy, he made acrylic chains made from zeros rendered in all the fonts available on his computer. There was also a big stack of red ellipses (the ellipse being the numeral zero’s internal space). Zeros and chains had also featured in Julian Dashper’s work in the 1990s. Dashper made paintings and prints of zeros (riffing on Kenneth Noland, Olivier Mosset, and others); he hung paintings from plastic chains (a nod to Peter Tyndall); and linked gilded frames in a chain as though they were conjurer’s linking rings.
- Here, Snow Ball Blind Time has something in common with Jim Speers’s Tiffany’s Kyoto (Artspace, Auckland, 2000), where white powder-coated oil barrels were scattered on the floor of a mirror-lined room. Despite its pristine appearance, Speers’s work cued one to imagine oil slicks as far as the eye could see. Similarly, Bill Culbert’s floor piece, Pacific Flotsam (2007), where spotless plastic bottles ‘float’ on a sea of glowing fluoro-tubes, suggests the pollution of the oceans while evoking a sublimity we once associated with nature.
- Our pleasure in ruins is a conflicted one. We enjoy both the frailty and the resilience of man-made structures. Ruins fire the imagination, as we rebuild them in our heads.