Friday, September 21, 2007

Art as statement and functionality

Mechanical engineering on display in the art world?

Alas, you say, can it be?

Currently showing at Dam, Stuhltrager Gallery in Williamsburg, kinetic sculptor Mark Andreas utilitarian "sculptures" that mix agricultural need with scientific functionality and brings to mind issues of instability.

Experimentation is the way we have learned so much regarding technology-- The Wright Brothers, Henry Ford, Isaac Newton, even Leonardo... the list goes on and on.

But before an inventor can reach the level of mass production and manufacturing, in each case throughout history they have had to experience multiple failures to get to the point of a working model.

I'm thinking that Mr. Andreas must have gone through many different designs, crashing and burning, before he finally found one that worked to his liking.

After all, I can't image it's an easy task assembling a 400-pound mass of steel, dangerous blades and springs, all while lying flat on the ground, hoping against hope that this time it wil work.

I couldn't help but think of the Model T by Henry Ford and its crank engine when I saw this exhibition in Williamsburg.

Other things it brought to mind-- a mechanical Grim Reaper, a harbinger of a gothic death watch; a design model that is truly part science project part agricultural innovation.

Let's take a closer look at the "Seed Spreader."

This piece initially creeped me out.

It reminded me of those spider creatures in the Matrix, for instance; or just a big old walking stick come to animated life.

The creature has even been given feet.

Andreas has rigged this machine to whirl around like a helicopter's blades at just the right moment in time.

A small twig is placed in the "engine" contraption, after a physically laborious "cranking" by the artist.

The pressure of the cranking weighs down upon the wood, which absorbs all the pressure, and eventually upon reaching the treshold of its own strength, snaps.

Upon the snapping of the twig, the contraption, which has been loaded with grass seed, then lifts up, and helicopter blades spinning, equally distributes in a circular fashion.

It is perhaps a science project each of us has at one time dreamed of creating...
'Let's see... if I do X plus Y-- will this equal Z?"

Though truth be told, it's not often that our own projects worked out that way.

How many parents intervened at the last minute when our volcanoes didn't spew their vinegar and baking soda lava, or our bug collection fell off its pins?

The thing I liked about this exhibit was Andreas' obvious devotion to perfecting his project.

I can't imagine how many countless twigs and ice cubes (to say nothing hundreds of bags of sand) he must have gone through before knowing if these experiments would "work" or not.

This is not to say that they are continuously successful now.

This work, "Transcendence," with its three armed/legged appendages that are supposed to collapse upon the eventual sand in the central "hourglass" depository shifting of the object's weight by the sand depositing underneath-- just might go before its time.

Given the object's inherent instability-- especially of the sand-- I noticed how any weight shifting, by a viewer stepping even close to the piece, upset its precarious balance.

You could hear the vibrations in the metal, and walking upon the sand made you feel as if you had worn high heels to the beach-- you were sinking into the gallery's floor.

I hoped against hope that I wouldn't mess this project up by watching the pieces fall over due to my own clumsiness, so I took an immediate step backwards.

It certainly is not be goal to be a "part" of an art project, but I couldn't help but be concerned regarding that cardinal rule of "You break it, you buy it."

At right is another interesting piece, "Hanging in Balance," powered by an ice cube.

Again, the cube is placed in the contraption's central motor to balance the piece and absorb the pressure.

Of course, the fleeting nature of ice does not a reliable construction component make.

Eventually, going back to its H2O form, the sculpture's arms and legs collapse upon itself.

I like what Andreas is saying here with this project.

Though as humans we're always talking about issues of safety and security, nothing is ever a sure thing.

Everything eventually degrades and breaks, no matter how strong we build it, or think it's stable (buildings, countries, armies, marriages, political systems).

It's a nice take given we are immersed in a time of U.S. history when our infrastructure is literally crumbling around us and we run so scared into the night, obsessed with terrorists, celebrity, and the boogeyman coming instead of the real issues under the surface.

Very cool project indeed-- though I wouldn't recommend it for a collector who's not a brave soul or of the faint of heart.

These things will poke your eye out!

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