Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Mechanical Thinking and the Human Soul

Holding Onto Myself, by Peter Callesen

Machine With Wishbone, by Arthur Ganson, where the machine that gives the wishbone life is also its burden to pull

My apologies for being late this week. Firstly, for those of us on academic schedules, the After School Chaos Control kicks in, where all the cleanup happens after weeks of grading; then we naturally go through a bit of slacking when the big push is done, and I'm afraid it has all lasted longer than I planned!

For your perusal this week I have a couple of great examples of mechanical thinking and the possibility of a lyrical end-product. By mechanical thinking I don't always mean the ability to fix clocks or understand what the car mechanic is saying, but rather the ability to envision how something is put together; to see the flat outlines of something that will be three-dimensional; to have an intuitive grasp of how something will work before it is created and, when it doesn't quite work how you wanted, to be able to envision an interesting solution.

A few examples of mechanical thinking are:
- Creation of machinery (of course)
- Packing a lot of things into a small space
- Paper engineering
- Rowing a boat
- Building structures, like treehouses, chicken coops, and of course larger constructions
- Rubix cubes (when you're able to be successful)
- Pattern drafting, for making clothes
- Sewing too, in a different way
- Puzzles of all sorts
- Mold making, especially several-part molds
- Glass-blowing, throwing pottery, and many of the sculptural arts
- Animation

Some of these could be conceived as spacial abilities, or simply artistic vision, but I think there is another element involved, about working with many pieces and parts and managing, somehow, to make them all work together. Paper engineering and patternmaking are, indeed, a kind of spacial imagining: taking flat sheets and bending them to encompass volumes of space. But there is often the matter of collars, sleeves and so on (or interlocking cuts and twists, for paper), which must be fitted together properly. Sewing, long denigrated by society as a "hobby", is actually quite fascinating, like a wearable puzzle: there are so many kinds of seams, so many intricate and complex ways of putting things together and turning them inside-out, that it is mind-twisting sometimes to understand what the result will be.

Other everyday examples, such as packing or rowing a boat, require a willingness to turn space around in one's mind and discover the trick which will make it work. Not only are you thinking of how something will happen in space, you are in effect twiddling the dials of reality, turning the world upside-down and backwards to get where you need to go.

The Machine with Artichoke Petal makes a plain piece of dried artichoke walk, plodding eternally on a turning wheel - which is also the driver for his walking

Arthur Ganson, who I found (despite his apparent fame) via a completely different link on Boing Boing, is a kinetic sculptor who - unlike many mechanical scuptors - creates his own parts. The elements of his machines: cogs, gears, worm gears, arms, wheels, dangly bits and so on, are built by hand from wire and other materials. But best of all are the odd elements he integrates into his machines: artichoke leaves, wishbones, and toy chairs are animated and integrated in such a way as to make us see them in a contemplative, funny, anthropomorphic way. This sideways-type thinking, the ever-present consciousness of art-making, is so clear and present in Mr. Ganson's work, that it bowls me over. Just the type of reality-twiddling that we need more of in this world.

The marvelously contemplative "Thinking Chair," which seems to pace its rock eternally, thoughtfully.

Thinking Chair, detail

Inspired by the work of such artists as Jean Tinguely and Paul Klee, as well as his own observation of people and human nature, Ganson's delicate, complex mechanisms work in the same fluid, skeletal way that bodies work. Their simplicity and self-containedness allows us to see either the mechanisms themselves, or the everyday items attached to them, as living creatures - rather than puppets dancing to the (comparatively enormous) machine's direction. It is easy to see emotion and humor in the machines; their humble materials, so clearly homemade, make you look closer and breathe, "Wo-o-ow!" - and wish that you could meet the man, see the machines in person. Smithsonian Magazine describes his work as "Rube Goldberg meets Jean-Paul Sartre." MIT Museum describes it as "Gestural Engineering." Mr. Ganson himself says that he is "not interested in intellectual sculpture that needs to be explained to be understood." And yet, he makes us think that an artichoke petal is a person, and imbues that person with so much expression, simply by means of mechanical movement. His inspiration is bewildering in its enormous obviousness, its excellent, mundane, intuitive sense of wonder.

You can see many of his pieces beautifully video-documented on eBaumsworld, as well as on his own site (beware the T-1 warning; these seem to work perfectly well on DSL).

Impenetrable Castle

Impenetrable Castle, detail

Another person worth noting, since I mention paper-engineering, is Danish artist Peter Callesen, whose "A4 papercut" series is all about the human condition. Playing on the idea of the object and its materials, Mr. Callesen creates 3-dimensional figures who are permanently fixed in place by the very stuff that made them. The results, as he points out, can be full of pathos:

"I find this materialization of a flat piece of paper into a 3D form almost as a magic process - or maybe one could call it obvious magic, because the process is obvious and the figures still stick to their origin, without the possibility of escaping. In that sense there is also an aspect of something tragic in most of the cuts."


Closet, detail (note the monsters all crammed inside)

Following the theme of imbuing parts with a further meaning and scope, Mr. Callesen is another artist who takes his materials and pulls them together into an amalgam of human consciousness. Helene Nyborg Gallery describes his work with the words, "Beauty, fragility, and failure."

Looking Back

"Big wave moving towards a small castle made of sand": stunning simplicity


Like Arthur Ganson, Peter Callesen's work is often stunning in its simplicity, yet surprisingly moving. Like Mr. Ganson's work, Mr. Callesen's are exquisitely detailed, obsession-driven, and intensely personal (in the sense of not-grandiose). Both artists create wonders out of simple materials, and each, in his own way, deserve a place in the Cabinet.

On Friday, if I have time, I'll be posting another amazing, obsessive artist who created a really extraordinary film - using scissors and paper.


Laura Grover said...

Great post. I love Peter Callesen's work.

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