Four words that any artist longs to hear: “Do whatever you like." This is how ACMI briefed sculptor and video artist Ian Burns.
“My only real limitation was the space,” Burns says over the phone from the Lake Macquarie house he grew up in. “And that’s a marvellous environment for an artist.” Now based in New York, Burns has exhibited in Dublin, Vienna Paris and Madrid. He returns to Melbourne in August with In the Telling – an exhibition inspired by contemporary consumer culture and the road movie cliché.
“French philosopher Deleuze wrote that all cinema had become an American road movie.” Burns adds that for decades many commercial films featured two people, their relationship and a journey – and predictable devices were always used to show them. “There are these transitory sequences, like smoke coming out of a chimney, or a piece of paper floating in the wind.”
Burns comments on what he sees as this cookie-cutter language of cinema with his own work. And in order for his own work to be unpredictable, he has essentially “built it wrong” to create random events. “I'm trying to give people an experience where they can have their own values. Technology doesn't make mistakes – it's the people and environment around it. And if I want that element of chance which is so valued in art I have to build in systems that fail.”
Repurposing technology is something Burns has become known for. For example, technology off the shelf comes with “in-built linearity” – it’s to be used a particular way. But if you use technology exactly as it was intended, “in a way you’re like a monkey typing out War and Peace. Using technology wrong, or patching things together, is when certain technological events can happen,” he says. “For anyone who has an interest in it, there’s so much in technology that’s incredibly seductive.”
Burns’ method involves gathering everyday objects, assembling them into a sculpture and powering it up with lights and/or video. His work often errs on the ridiculous and is genuinely funny despite its heavy themes. “What I do is often very humourous. And I think in humour there's often a lot of insight – it alters the mind, and the viewer recognises how the work is built. There's this idea that if they thought of it they could have built it themselves,” Burns reflects. “Humour triggers empathy for construction, and how it works – and that gets curiosity going. In humour there’s hope.”