Neil Hardy (British, b. 1955), The Early Bird, 2004, wood, brass, paint, 9 x 9 x 5 in. Croft Collection.
While interactivity is the buzzword of the Internet age -- and some contemporary artists do exploit high technology -- Automata: Contemporary Mechanical Sculpture offers a different kind of thrill. With the turning of simple hand cranks, the works in Automata, on view at the Chazen Museum of Art through March 14, spring to life to delight viewers in witty ways.
In Writer's Cramp, for example, a brightly-painted tiger clatters away at a typewriter, his mind on only one thing: fish. Literally. As he types, his open brainpan reveals tiny fish circling inside his head, as if in a goldfish bowl. And as his paper emerges from the typewriter, it reveals a single word, "fish," typed over and over.
Made by the British duo of Paul Spooner and Matt Smith, Writer's Cramp makes great use of things that automata can possess and most other sculptures don't: an element of time, and of sound. It makes that satisfying takka-takka-takka those of us who used to actually own typewriters (gasp!) remember.
Not surprisingly, you can't manipulate the sculptures yourself in the Chazen show; they're all fairly delicate and wouldn't withstand nonstop wear and tear. But video monitors at each end of the gallery give you the chance to see each piece in motion; a remote lets you choose exactly the piece you want. And two simpler, more durable automata are included as demo pieces that you can crank yourself.
This exhibition hits the sweet spot in terms of appealing to a wide range of audiences: from kids to gearheads who will marvel at the complex mechanisms to serious art buffs who probably haven't given this genre much consideration.
Some of the automata introduce a storytelling element. In Neil Hardy's The Early Bird, a couple of birds watch their rival tug at an orangey-yellow worm in a hole in the ground. Yet as the crank turns, comic-book-style speech bubbles appear over the heads of the other birds. "I've a feeling that ain't no worm," one goggle-eyed fowl says. He's right: it's the tip of a tiger's tail, and the big cat eventually rears his angry head.
Other works don't necessarily tell a story, but are still impressive in their own right. As a stationary sculpture, Keith Newstead's Dragon is a beautiful brass object with sinuous lines. But as the video shows, it's even more spectacular in motion, with surprisingly fluid and articulated movements.
Wanda Sowry's self-portrait automaton cleverly shows her at her work bench, cranking an even smaller automaton as tools miraculously move around and other automata spring to life of their own accord.
Czech-born artist Jan Zalud takes automata in something of a surrealist direction with Sleepless. It's no wonder Zalud's man can't sleep; as his eyes shift back and forth, sheep circle in and out of his gaping mouth.
While this show is installed in the Chazen's small, first-floor Mayer Gallery, there's a lot to see. Automata brings together the work of 14 artists from various countries, although Brits are heavily represented. And while some pieces are made of the humblest of materials (recycled tin, unfinished wood) and others are more polished, they all intrigue and delight in this excellent show.
Exhibition curator Cassie Wilkins will give a talk on the contemporary automata movement Fri., Jan. 22, at 5:30 p.m., and a reception with music by the Stellanovas will follow.