Peter Robinson

Petrochemical Wonderland

Start with the feeling of walking into the gallery and being hit by something huge, an interior landscape, a petrochemical wonderland.  The huge twining mass of intricately draped and interlinked polystyrene is soft, almost glowing under the gallery lights. The installation Snow Ball Blind Time lacks the distancing irony and sardonic humour often present in New Zealand artist Peter Robinson’s work, it is open to interpretation, inviting, suggesting a world in ways that previous works, like the hanging models of expanding, interpenetrating universes he showed at the 2001 Venice Biennale alluded to, but this is both a model of a universe and a universe.

In his twenty-something years of practice, Robinson’s sculpture and painting has moved from critiques of identity politics and art’s export imperative to a recent more formal focus. Snow Ball Blind Time at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth is the first time a single artist had been given the use of the entire space since Real Time, an interactive environment created by young artist Leon Narbey that filled the gallery with light and sound for its opening, 38 years earlier. Curated by the gallery’s director, Rhana Devenport, the work evolved in response to the architecture of the Govett-Brewster, a former picture theatre with rambling interconnected galleries.  Through these spaces twists a huge tangle of machine-cut polystyrene chains, seven continuous strands, some as massive as the anchor chain for a supertanker, some as delicate as those embellishing a designer handbag.  The sinuous tangle of chains controls movement through the gallery, blocking access, dangling from mezzanines and gantries, twisting back on itself.

The Blind Time comes from Robert Morris’ drawings executed blindfold according to sketched plans and makes me think as artists we are always a little blind, that we know not what it is that we do, the sketches and models, emails and conversations, months of planning and weeks of fabrication all lead up to this moment, this standing on the threshold of a new world that unravels the old.  This is the pleasure of installation, being utterly embedded in another person’s vision.

Expanded polystyrene foam first made an appearance in Robinson’s work in the installation Ack (2006) at Artspace Auckland. Huge chainsaw-cut slabs like faceted speech-bubbles contrasted with interlinking beams and blocks. Bright blue chunks of styrene protruded like duck bills, comedy cigarettes, shotgun muzzles and errant toenails. Ack lounged about the gallery, drooping, stooping to punch through a wall, its intertwining forms ballooning out in plasticised tear-drops. The splayed and interlinking forms resembled a cheery, gallery-sized cartoon version of Giacometti’s Woman With Her Throat Cut. The work was devised using clay in a scale model of the gallery, its squelchy formalism translated into the foamy bulk of polystyrene.
Ack was disassembled and stored, to be reinstalled, punching through a purpose-built wall as a finalist in the 2008 Walter’s Prize (in which four nominated artists reinstall selected previous exhibitions within the Auckland Art Gallery).  This was the second time that Robinson was nominated, and judge Catherine David selected Ack as the winner of the $50,000 prize. There were subtle shifts in the installation from its Artspace incarnation, including deletion of two small characters previously perched on fluted chunks of foam, a grey-fleshed mermaid and one-eyed duck-man who Robinson described as perhaps the parents of this branching abundance of forms. Removal of the little figures played down the figurative, foregrounding the formal qualities of the work.

The origin of the chain motif can perhaps be traced back to Divine Comedy, Robinson’s work in New Zealand’s first participation in the Venice Biennale in 2001. Divine Comedy utilised binary to play out a drainage of meaning through recoding and recontextualisation. The installation included digital prints of grids and spirals of zeroes and ones, rendering philosophical quotes (“There is no god, only being and nothingness”) into strings of binary. Null and Void, a stack of red acrylic ovals, was formed from the vacant space in the centre of the zero in Gil Sans typeface. Zero Red Shift was a dangling chain of interlinked acrylic zeros patterned after the system fonts available on Robinson’s computer. Accompanying these were hanging fibreglass miniatures of conjoined and inflating universes,  like speech bubbles breeding. The work modeled big ideas: nothingness, the origin of the universe, but its clean-edged conceptualism felt diagrammatic.

The foam chain motif is at once more humble and more expansive. Robinson has put it through its paces in shows following Ack, stitching together square-cut foam rods, counterbalancing metal bars or squashed by cool blue cubes of styrene. Chains twist, lock and rear up over their own offcuts (Concantenation and Dispersion, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne, 2007), effusions of chains drip from polystyrene orifices (Soft Rock Baroque, Peter McLeavy, Wellington, 2008). Snow Ball Blind Time revels in the simplicity of a single material and a single formal device, employing the post-minimalist strategy of draping and scattering, allowing elements to form themselves.

Statistics abound in descriptions of the work: its 7 different sizes of unbroken chain made up of 300,000 links, its 6 tons of polystyrene (a particulaly impressive number when considering the insubstantiality of the material), its freighting to the gallery in New Plymouth in eight 40 foot containers.  The figures are a comforting handle on a work that is sublime and excessive, impossible to grasp in one look, one visit.  The dazzling white bulk of the work is impossible to convey accurately in photographs – its evasion of photographic shrink-wrapping perhaps the mark of a truly successful installation.

The polystyrene Robinson has predominantly used since Ack has a moral weight. As a material, we are most familiar polystyrene as packaging, husks for commodities. A standby of prop-builders and scenographers, it is often a representation of other materials, nothing in itself. Long employed by the artist as a bulking agent for sculptures, Robinson describes it as emerging from underneath, a lurking substrate. But as well as the attractions of the material – its bulk, its snowy pallour – there’s a melancholy. There is this notion that polystyrene is a kind of hyper-pollutant, environmentally persistent and morally bankrupt, a symptom of the  failure of post-consumerist society.

What gets you first on entering the space is the lingering (and possibly nauseating) smell of the pentane used in the plastic’s expansion process.  This chemical tang is accompanied by the hiss of the air conditioning, as the foam links deaden the space’s acoustics, making minor environmental sounds more noticeable. On one side of the entry a huge tangle of chains tumbles down to the floor from the mezzanine above, on the other it winds up the stairs and loops back into the upper galleries, walled off by frail polystyrene stanchions that play between the Govett Brewster’s previous life as a cinema and the control systems of the gallery.  The clusters of stanchions, light and ineffectual, repeat at a more intimate scale the way the work directs movement through the rest of the space.  Their delicacy calls attention to the tactility of the snow white surface of the artwork, so easily pocked and marked, a little chipped and fingered by the end of the show’s run.

The pure dazzle of the pale foam twisting through the white gallery space creates a synthetic environment that can read as ice floe or mountain range. The work forms a literal storyline, a pattern of movement superimposed over the older layers of cinema and gallery. The chain motif too repeats, right down to molecular level, the styrene polymer itself formed from intricate links of carbon and hydrogen. There is no vantage point from which to survey the work entire, but withdrawing into the corner of  the largest gallery allows enough distance to look down the chain of chains snaking through the space and gain a sense of its immensity.  Navigating the work is in some ways like strolling an intricate garden, with chains gushing in falls, grottoes of polystyrene stalactites and carefully framed views of distant landscape.

The chains articulate differently at different sizes.  Huge links lean against each other, the smaller ones drape and dangle. In some spaces chain links are elevated on pillars of rough-hewn foam, surrounded by drifts of waste chips that tinkle and squeak as you wade through their warm, insulating drifts. Staticly charged crumbs of polystyrene stick to clothes and shoes.

The frail chains describe both power and failure. Readings of restraint, security and opression are undercut by the uselessness of the frothy plastic bonds.Their heroic scale recalls creation stories, of Maui the trickster fishing up the North Island of New Zealand or binding the sun to slow it down and lengthen the day, or of Prometheus chained to his rock and daily disembowelled by vultures. The artist recalls too Robert Morris’s 1974 exhibition poster for a show at Leo Castelli; the artist poses all helmeted, oiled up and chain-bound, and these chains have the same kind of theatricality as that S&M outfit: the bonds are real, but the restraint is faked.  My mental counterbalance to this work is the potentially deadly weight of a Richard Serra sculpture. The leaning rusty bulk replaced by something that also fills a room, that like those torqued pieces of Cor-ten is perceptible even with eyes shut by an acoustic shift, the smell of rust, a gravitational pull.  But the quality of this bulk is soft, sharply chemical, warm and quiet.

Revelling in scale and material, Snow Ball Blind Time is mordant but also beautiful, its whiteness ground for projection and imagination. The excessiveness of the work seemed met by the generosity of its reception by the small-city audience of New Plymouth, who, when I was in the space during the final days of the exhibition seemed often to be guiding friends and relatives round for a final look, talking about making snow angels in the plastic drifts or of jumping into the soft tangled piles of chains. Many wanted a few small links as a souvenir.

In the end the work came apart quickly, chainsawed into chunks. Rustling, tinkling armfuls of polystyrene chains were dumped into huge bags, the remnants vacuumed up. Unlike the earlier Ack, which was carefully demounted and stored, the foam from Snow Ball Blind Time was shipped back to its Auckland manufacturer to be reconstituted and resold. But the crumbs of polystyrene will linger in the gallery for years, wedged in corners and secreted behind panels and skirtings, tiny reminders of the work persisting in the folds of curtains and in the air-con ducts.

 First published in Eyeline , Issue 69, 2009