Sunday, November 16, 2008

A world made on Sunday

A new multi-artist show at the college gallery, called Move Me: Kineticism in Art, brings several of Arthur Ganson's amazing machines to the campus. I've been a huge Ganson fan since I saw exhibits of his work many years ago at the college and the MIT Museum -- devilishly clever, whimsical contraptions that have an almost organic feel about them, which probably derives from their sense of humor. Can a machine have a sense of humor? Why not? Here is a video of one of the works in the show, called "Thinking Chair."

In my book, Ganson is a genius. Some works I have previously encountered:

-- A machine made of pulleys and levers that spends its time scooping machine oil from a pool at its base and pouring it over itself. The oil glides sensuously down over the mechanism, back into the pool. Ahhh!

-- A machine mounted on wheels that you push like a barrow. As it rolls, a cogged mechanism causes an artificial hand to write on a white piece of paper "Faster!" The faster you roll the cart, the more manically the machine scrawls its urgent message. What a hoot! I was in hysterics.

-- A bird cage filled with a delicate wire mechanism that repeatedly tips two of those cylindrical cardboard toys that make animal noises when you turn them over. These tweeted. The title: "Two Cans from the Island of Taiwan."

-- A train of twelve worm gears, each gear driving the next at a fifty-times slower rate. The first motor-driven gear whirls furiously. The last gear is set in concrete. I'm not sure what made this funny, but I laughed uproariously.

It is great to be around machines that make you laugh. We spend most of our days with machines that haven't a funny bone in their bodies, machines that turn us into dour button-pushers. Of course, we shouldn't blame the machines. It's their designers that are humorless, those glum-faced consortiums of engineers that serve us our daily mechanisms.

In 1738, the mechanical wizard Jacques Vaucanson demonstrated his masterpiece before the court of Louis XV, a copper duck that ate, drank, quacked, flapped its wings, splashed about, and, to the astonishment of all, digested its food and excreted the remains. It was a witty beginning for the age of machines. The king's courtiers had a good titter.

Descriptions of Victorian inventions in early editions of Scientific American also suggest a delightful sense of whimsy. Electric jewels. Cuckoo watches. A mustache food-and-drink guard that clips into the nostrils. Advertising projected onto clouds. An electric trolley on tracks that delivers food from the kitchen directly to the diner's place.

The Victorians liked whacky combinations. A hammock mounted on a tricycle that allows the cyclist occasional rest. A camera hat. A rocking chair connected to a cradle and butter churn that employs "hitherto wasted female power" to sooth the baby and make butter while keeping the hands free for "darning, sewing or other light work."

Now that I think about it, maybe it is only in retrospect that we find these things funny. Never mind; Victorian inventors at least understood that machines are our servants rather than the other way round.

Of course, as always, it is the artists who teach us not to take our machines too seriously.

The Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp saw the humorous possibilities of a bicycle wheel mounted on a stool, or an ordinary urinal turned upside down and titled "Fountain." His masterpiece, a glass construction called "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even," although not quite a machine, is full of wires and painted mechanisms. Duchamp found it necessary to invent a new "amusing physics" to describe this last work, including terms like "oscillating density," "uncontrollable weight," and "emancipated metal."

The undisputed master of whimsical machines was the Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely, who contrived spindly wire devices that thumbed their noses at Swiss order and efficiency. I have not actually seen an animated Tinguely sculpture, which are said to invariably produce laughter as they click, whir and clatter unpredictably, but even photographs of his works produce a smile.

Tinguely's most famous sculpture is called "Homage to New York," a vast white contraption of wheels, motors, pulleys and wires that was designed to destroy itself in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art. The machine balked short of suicide, but caused an uproarious commotion before the fire department arrived to put it out of its misery. Tinguely was delighted with the unexpected outcome.

"For me," said Tinguely, "the machine is above all an instrument that permits me to be poetic. If you respect the machine, if you enter into a game with the machine, then perhaps you can make a truly joyous machine -- by joyous I mean free. That's a marvelous thing, don't you think?"

Yes, I do so think, and so apparently does Arthur Ganson. One of Ganson's creations is titled "Homage to Tinguely's 'Homage a Marcel Duchamp,'" which places Ganson squarely in a poetic, joyous tradition.

Back in 1993, when I first encountered Ganson's work, I asked him what he was up to. He replied that he is not interested in making political statements. "My machines are investigations of thoughts, dreams, and ideas," he said. "They are about invention, about play, about a childlike way of looking at the world. They are about not taking the world too seriously."

I suspect that deep down Ganson takes the world more seriously than do those of us who take ourselves too seriously. Like Jean Tinguely before him, he seems to believe that a spirit of play lies at the heart of creation.

As for that "Thinking Chair" -- apparently there is a big flat rock near Ganson's home where he likes to walk and think. The piece is autobiographical, with the yellow chair taking the place of the artist himself.

Further Reading

When I first came across Ganson's work I wrote about it in the Boston Globe. The artist was kind enough to send me a video tape of some of his work. You can watch a few videos under Sculpture on his web page, or if you really want to marvel, buy his DVD.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.