The Twentieth Century was brutal. It was a time of great upheaval—advanced technologies made it ever easier to cause harm to each other and the planet. Old conventions gave way to new vibes, radical ideologies gave way to stagnant philosophies, and traditional art practices went from being plastic to being plastique. Architecture exploded, painting exploded, and sculpture, the focus of our survey, definitely exploded into unprecedented material, conceptual, and technological realms. What follows is a selection of uncanny, performative efforts by artists active across the decades and into the present moment. Their works are, by turns, funny, dark, alluring, and contemplative as they explore what moves us, what stops us dead in our tracks, and how we envision the future.
(1898–1976) And His Work
Alexander Calder made sculptures that would spin. He said, “no thanks, traditions, my heart you’ll never win.” He made mobiles, he made stabiles, he made constellations, too, out of wire, out of wood, sometimes fabric, sometimes glue. His forms, they were dynamic, his palette red, orange, blue, and Jean-Paul Sartre praised his art as something wholly new. Once powered by a motor, his mobiles he refined to dance on air and bounce and flounce and never be confined. His work defined an era and bridged a couple more, through the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s and not one but two great wars. Late in life, he and his wife took residence in France, he painted cars and painted planes and got involved in dance. Today he is regarded among the most esteemed cabal— a clever mind, a kindly man, an artist above all.
Photo by KEYSTONE-FRANCE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Photo courtesy of Museum Tinguely
And His Fountains (1925–1991)
Nothing says wet and wild quite like Jean Tinguely’s totally bizarre, mechanical monster fountains. Tinguely’s fascination with mechanics, or rather, the mechanics of mechanisms, found expression in his kinetic works (hence the umbrella term for his sculptural output: “metamechanics”). A piece like Carnival Fountain (1977), which is comprised of abstract figures that mimic the gesticulations and ebullient repartee of the colourful characters for whom its location, Basel’s Theaterplatz, was once a popular haunt, is a quintessential example of Tinguely’s sensibility. Later works, like the Stravinsky Fountain (1983), Tinguely’s homage to, you guessed it, the work of Igor Stravkinsy (which he collaborated on with his wife, the equally stunning artist Niki de Saint Phalle), ups the ante on the wackiness that distinguishes his earlier efforts. As curious as the fountains are in action, they are perhaps even more visually compelling when encumbered with ice. Their gears, their plumes, and their doodads stop moving; and we are allowed to simply appreciate the quality of their construction, suspended in time.
How to make sense of The Senster. Let’s start with its name, which bears a suffix that conjures images of a vibrating mattress or the moniker of a sleazy hypnotist, but is, blessedly, neither of these things. Rather, it is the title of a sculpture built in the late 1960s by Edward Ihnatowicz on commission from Koninklijke Philips N.V., aka PHILIPS, the Dutch electronics corporation. Allegedly the first robotic artwork of its kind to be controlled by a computer and interact with an audience, The Senster torqued, twisted, and turned in response to sound and motion. It literally read the room and responded in a manner that was simply mechanical but appeared strangely human. The result? Ihnatowicz’s unwieldy scaffold, which was based on a lobster claw (according to the artist’s son), had a personality. The Senster charmed audiences, for whom such robotics were a novelty in the early 1970s, until its dismantling four years later. It is remembered as a benchmark in the evolution of behavioural robotics, a field that continues to develop in art and science, with ever greater sophistication, to this day.
Photo by Edward Ihnatowicz
Photo courtesy of Random International
RANDOM INTERNATIONAL’s Audience (2008) evokes the goof-ball chatter of a wind-up toy and the dirty trick of affixing a mirror to a shoe. It is, in a word, cheeky. Comprised of a fleet of mirrors that bobble willy-nilly on their mechanical bases, Audience portrays robots as deceptively cute. They appear to chatter with each other like incorrigible gossips, when left to their own devices; and as with any klan of gossipers worth their salt, these little guys are wary of eavesdroppers. Cross an invisible boundary, and the robots will snap to with the unspoken synchronicity of barflies assessing a stranger in their pub. Beware: their mirrored faces will face you, and your reflection, coming from a low angle, will both startle and perturb. But how different are these unflattering reflections from the cache of unflattering (and unshared) selfies stored on any given smartphone? Hardly different at all. It seems Audience knew before we did that we would always be intrigued by an audience of one to share with ourselves, even if we don’t like what we see.
When a pair of robots graffitied a white dress donned by model Shalom Harlow during the finale of Alexander McQueen’s Spring/Summer 1999 show, spectators were stunned. The event, a late 20th century iteration of Leda and the Swan, is often described by a particular set of details: the dress is ‘virginal’ (before the machines sprayed it black and yellow); Harlow is ‘graceful’ as a victim; and the automata are affiliated with contemporary art. ‘Violation’, however, is an uncomfortable adjective for one of the most surprising moments in fashion, even though violation is what made it such a titillating taboo then and what makes troubling today. Desecrating pristine haute couture at the climax of the show was, indeed, daring, but to see the delighted crowd and to hear the applause as Harlow presented herself drenched in paint, one is challenged to believe they were disturbed by the darker implications of the spectacle. Lest you think me a killjoy, note: the praise did not abate as Harlow exited the stage under blacklights – an effect that illuminated the splatters on the dress and recalled the forensic procedures of crime scene investigation. Mr. McQueen, it seems, may very well have gotten away with murder, although today we call it ‘savage beauty.’
Photo courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Photo courtesy of Iris Van Herpen
In 20 Steps (2015)
Have you ever encountered something so extraordinarily graceful, so superbly balletic, so lissome that other forms, other movements—including and especially yours—feel uncouth by comparison? Perhaps it was a dancer, a feat of aerodynamic engineering, or a murmuration of starlings (trash birds though they are). Perhaps it was the earth’s shadow, visible on the horizon at sunset. Or perhaps it was In 20 Steps (2015) by the Dutch design duo Studio Drift, a kinetic installation that somehow has the essence of all these things distilled into its twenty pairs of wings. Here, even the notion of a “wing” is reduced to its most basic, elegant form: a rod jointed to a rod. And the wings, of course, are made of glass because how else would the entire ensemble undulate and glimmer like a heavenly wave? Spend twenty minutes with this artwork and you’ll never feel more like a creature of earth.
SUN YUAN AND PENG YU
Can’t Help Myself (2016)
Mopping: a humid, hand-blistering, elbow-cramping task of sopping up the grime of daily life. Advertising since the 1950s, if not since the beginning of advertising itself, would have us believe that a freshly-mopped floor is the anodyne to an unpredictability grimy world. Simply cue the wet dog, the dust, or the school group on a rainy day to expose that remedy as snake oil. Foot traffic exemplifies entropy the same way that mopping exemplifies futility. Together, they are a vicious pair. Perhaps this is why Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Can’t Help Myself (2016) so fascinated visitors to the 58th Venice Biennale. The artwork, which is an industrial-grade mechanical arm outfitted with a bespoke squeegee that draws red mucilage ceaselessly towards its base, demonstrates mopping in all its sisyphean glory. It is, of course, also a comment on labor and control and, by extension, systems of power. Waxing poetic, one might even think of the work as the axis mundi, retrofitted to wipe up the mess of what Hito Steyerl terms “planetary civil war.” The old adage that a clean house is the sign of a wasted life acquires chilling, new implications from this particular slant. Keep your bucket close and your chamois closer.
Photo courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
Photo courtesy of the Getty Images
To The Son of Man Who Ate The Scroll (2019)
Goshka Macuga’s exhibition “What was I,” on view From March 23rd through June 2nd, 2019 at Prada Rong Zhai, a recently restored mansion and architectural marvel located in the heart of Shanghai, describes a dire narrative. A techno-pocalypse has precipitated the end of civilization, and the exhibition presents a slice of life in this “post-anthropocene” world. Life, however, is evaluated by a rubric more akin to the results a Turing Test as opposed to the biological standards that generally define the modern Weltanschauung. Case in point: Macuga’s artwork To the Son of Man Who Ate the Scroll (2016)—an android that recites snippets from historical speeches and apparently resembled, in 2016, the artist’s boyfriend—holds pride of place in the show. He embodies the promise and the remainder of human knowledge in this bleak, Prada scenario. The android, alone in his mansion, is surrounded by a selection of works by Alberto Burri, Piero Manzoni, Llyn Foulkes, and Rachel Whiteread, among others. The connection is tenuous but the selections are well curated. We can rest assured that the future, though absent humankind, will be at least tasteful.
END OF STORY