Californian art maverick Doug Aitken's 'Station to Station' train is currently hurtling its way across the US, acting as a traveling public art platform for some of the art worlds big hitters. Among contributions from the likes of Thomas Demand, Ed Ruscha and James Turrell is an intriguing piece by Olafur Eliasson: a drawing machine that is turning the concept of a journey into a physical entity.
Eliasson's contraption - named 'Connecting cross country with a line, 2013' - is a purposefully kinetic. Designed to resemble an old-fashioned traveling trunk, the ingenious yet beautifully simple machine opens up to reveal a spring-assisted drawing plate, where an ink-coated obsidian ball roams freely across a round piece of paper, responding to the train's movements. Each bump and lurch of the railcar will express itself on the piece of paper.
'When Doug explained to me about this notion of a cross-country train, I was really interested in taking this highly conceptual idea and making it tangible,' the artist explains. 'I wanted to make a line that connects one side of America to the next.'
The resulting drawings render the topography of the United States while the journey is in progress. 'The machine is very much about how to feel the shape of America. It's like a seismograph that picks up the shape of the country as you drive across it,' says Eliasson. 'The movement of the ball is determined by the movement of the train and the drawings will serve as a record of the physical activity of the journey. It's like a scientific experiment. It's very analog.'
Eliasson's interest in kinetic drawing dates back to his early collaborations with his father, Elias Hjorleifsson. 'My father was a sailor and some of the waves that he described on his journeys were inconceivable to me. So we came up with this way of drawing that followed the rocking of the boat. It becomes very emotional when you are not doing the drawing by hand and are observing it as it happens.'
Aboard Aitken's train, Eliasson has tasked a small team of drawing operators to supervise and manage the machine. 'Some drawings will be short, maybe around five minutes long, and some will be several hours long. There will be some that are very minimal, while others might be very cluttered.' The operators will make new drawings when the train is passing through the mountains, desert, or Cincinnati, for example.
Despite the differences between Aitken's highly digitalized style and Eliasson's conceptual one, Eliasson discussed their mutual appreciation for geography. 'We share the same affinity for making highly physical relationships with the land.'
The artworks created by the drawing machine - all made on circular pieces of paper - will be inscribed with the number of the drawing and the place and date of its execution, before being mounted in round black frames, like the wheels of a train, and exhibited at a later date. Nine poems composed by Olafur Eliasson will be printed on the same paper as the drawings and hung together with them 'as stations among the lines'. Here, we give you a glimpse of one of the poems.