Travelling slowly and steadily along an abandoned railway track somewhere out in the bush, you’re confronted by what can only be described as a magic door. Through it you can see suburbia. Through the next door there’s a river with an elevated highway passing over it. The train tracks are the only constant.
It’s called Phantom Ride, and it’s the current Ian Potter Moving Image Commission at ACMI. The artist responsible for this bending of reality is Daniel Crooks.
It’s a deceptively simple two-channel video work. Putting it together involved trekking into the wilderness with purpose-built robotic camera equipment, contending with high-level mathematics and endless pages of computer code.
“My pieces are very simple propositions, but they require an incredible level of complexity,” says Crooks.
So which came first, robotics and maths or visual art? “They’ve been hand in hand from the very beginning,” says Crooks. “Trigonometry was my favourite subject at school. It really represents this threshold in mathematics between concrete and abstraction. So I suppose I’ve always been a very aesthetically inclined maths nerd.”
There are many influences behind Phantom Ride. Crook is fascinated by the history of the moving image. “I’ve always been attached to what’s called the ‘Lumière Moment’,” says Crooks. The Lumière brothers, regarded as the first filmmakers, shot simple moments: a factory at knock-off time, or a train leaving a station. “In early cinema, there was no editing. It was just a chunk of time, a slice of life.”
Before cinema, people such as Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey were dissecting time and movement, laying the groundwork for cinema. Crooks’ work reaches the same point working backwards, unpacking the moving image as we know it until he distils it to the basics of recording the coexistence of time and space.
Then there’s Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, a series of children’s novels. In them characters literally rip apart reality with a knife. “That idea of teasing the tip of the knife through the fabric of reality and tearing a hole fascinates me. I wanted to create these slices of reality and merge them seamlessly.”
“It’s axiomatically impossible for us to conceive of a four dimensional experience,” he says. “We just can’t do it. But I often feel like I come so close. It’s almost on the tip of my brain.”
Phantom Ride by Daniel Crooks is at ACMI until May 29. acmi.net.au/exhibitions/daniel-crooks
This article was updated on May 27, 2016.