Kinetic Sculptures Paint Ghostly Phrases, Using Light And Magnifying Glasses

“It’s no more complicated than your iPhone,” says Ian Burns, who builds mechanical art with inexpensive household electronics.

“A lot of engineers are frustrated artists,” says Australian artist Ian Burns. “And a lot of artists are frustrated engineers.” Speaking on tape about his mechanical sculptures, he seems to be a mix of both.


At the most basic level, Burns builds machines. In 2011’s What Might Be, he rigs dozens of light bulbs and magnifying glasses to a lattice of plywood strips. Each lens is carefully arranged to magnify the light in a specific way, projecting ghostly phrases on the gallery wall in a scrawled hand. A timing mechanism–the type you’d use on your garage floodlight–switches the machines on and off, clicks and whirrs echoing off the walls. He explains on his website that the works were inspired by a fluorescent sign on the old Las Vegas strip. “It’s no more complicated than your iPhone,” Burns tells Australian critic Michael Lawrence. “At the basest of levels it’s the same technology. It’s just switches.”

At the Melbourne Art Fair last month, Burns unveiled a specially commissioned piece called Clouds. The massive sculpture looks a bit like an old-fashioned watermill, if the CERN engineers had built it. Two metal cogs bristle with objects like toys, umbrellas, lightbulbs, and salad bowls. In motion, the bits and pieces created a fracture narrative, recorded on two mounted video cameras and displayed on nearby flatscreens. Toy planes and other objects arc across the screens, in an endless cycle of flight. There’s no plot, per se, and it repeats itself forever. The piece is a kind of mechanical, self-generating movie–where the actors, directors, and camera men are conspicuously absent.

Courtesy of Ian Burns and Mother’s Tankstation, Dublin.

Burns compares himself to a painter who’s chosen to work with the medium of his time: mass-produced technology. His metaphorical “tube of paint,” he explains, is cheap household electronics. “I think if you take a look at contemporary society, ‘material’ means a lot of accessible technology items. I try to see what a bit of technology–a cheap camera, and a chair–will do.”

[H/t The Creators Project; all images courtesy of the artist, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Sydney and Melbourne and Mother’s Tankstation, Dublin]

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.