Nick Rayburn sent me a link to this video of a nicely done tapping hand:
It has beautifully-captured motion and a nice sense of sculpture to it. I watched it three times, and then, as always happens to me, I got distracted by all the other automata videos down the side of the page.
There are so many people doing automata now that every time I go to Youtube I find more. It didn't used to be this way; when I first started this blog I'd swear the video channels all seemed to show the same few. However, nowadays, more and more wonderful creations are blooming all the time. I'll try and feature a few now and then, although if you're like me you'll probably find them yourself by sheer compulsive watching.
Here's an example of a very complex one made by Thomas Kuntz:
Most of them are a little simpler than this one, which is remarkably theatrical (columns of fire!). Arthur Ganson, for example, makes his own gears and other mechanisms out of wire, and then puts together these complex creations that generate what seem like astonishingly simple motions in everyday objects, motions which aren't mechanical-looking at all -- which is why they're actually not simple. I've mentioned him before, but he's made many more beautiful things since then. You can find at least 25 different pieces of his on Youtube.
His pieces are remarkably lyrical, and although Mr. Ganson has a thoroughly Fine Art resume, his work avoids some of the pitfalls that contemporary art often falls into: the banality, the emphasis on a common understanding of mass culture, which taken as a whole -- suburbia, television, consumerism -- doesn't have much resonance for me.
He says, about the uber-creepy Machine With Abandoned Doll, above: "Stopping to view the ocean from Highway #1 on the coast of California just south of San Francisco, I found this doll lying in a trash pile by the side of the road. I picked it up and immediately visualized this machine. 'As above, so below.'- this recognition of the parallel nature of our spirit and body helps define the formal structure of the machine."
As you can see, he knows his artspeak, and can write what he needs to get recognized by the High Art community; but at the bottom of it all, anyone can understand his work, because he sticks to simple things that resonate with us at a deeper level than those banal parts of our culture -- even if his machines are anything but simple.
It makes me happy to see people thinking once again about the mechanical world. It seems to me there is a correlation between looking back at clockwork and other more fundamental mechanisms (as opposed to electronics-based mechanisms) and a more sustainable approach to the world, because it's a clear rejection of mass-produced planned obsolescence. If you've ever seen The Story of Stuff (below), you'll know that something like 80% of all the consumer goods we buy are in the landfill within 6 months, because they're simply designed to break. In a society like this, clockwork and steam -- and even the concepts of clockwork and steam -- have a certain satisfying durability which is often lacking in our day-to-day lives and stuff. Think of those many wonderful surviving automata from the 18th century, which still work: dancing, playing music, moving like they should all these hundreds of years later. Sure, they've needed tune-ups and the occasional rejuvenatory makeover, but they were really made to last, and they show it. That, in itself, has a resonance for those of us living with an endless supply of disposable stuff.
(beware, this is 20 minutes long, though very fascinating)
One of the things I thought a lot about on my hiatus was what is important to me. Much of what I find important is probably the same as most people: love, a good home, happy children, creativity, a job which makes me feel I'm doing something useful. But there are also things like conversation, wonder, discovery, intimacy, learning, community, nature, and aesthetic observation which, though they sound rather abstract, are things I need for true satisfaction in my life. A lot of people don't seem to need those things, or if they do, they don't realize it. For me, communicating some of these needs is part of what makes me write a blog; but I think there is an idea out there now, that the act of making art is a cerebral exercise, as divorced from the ideas above as we are from the realities of production. With Postmodernism, many people in the art world scoff at the naivete of belief in universal truths, which for me are no longer like those old ones in the Victorian novels -- Truth, Beauty, Virtue, and Hope -- but are embodied in things like the movements of birds, the feeling of holding a baby, the quality of water against your skin. Instead, with Postmodernism we have playfulness, multiculturalism (both good things), and fragmentation, which leaves us with a curious lack of certainty.
And that's an interesting thing, because when you try to paint certainty onto the contemporary world, you hit a mammoth fail. To be honest, I think it's part of what I don't like about some of the art I see now, is that feeling of amorphousness that comes with not being sure of your voice, not being certain what it is you're doing.
It's in the peripheral cultures that certainty seems to come a little more into focus, those ragtag groups like the Steampunk and Maker communities, where people know what they like and pursue it with happy abandon. The multitude of voices which make up this Postmodern society are finally finding their stride in the minglings of these subcultures, places where beauty and skill and the desire for something a little more permanent are considered good ideals.
And that's why I like seeing all this automata, from people who have contrived to straddle the space between the over-mixed blandness of the art world and the lively, vibrant certainty of subcultures. The interest in materials, the love of small pleasures, the geeky fascination with how things work: they work against the tendency of made things to end up in dumpsters, and especially they avoid that tendency for art to become saleable, showable detritus made by people who have been stuffed with unreadable theory, who don't, apparently, feel that vibrancy.
I have to say, it gives me hope.