Earlier this year, I had my eyes opened to the current vogue for mechanical and digital interactive media in a show at Maine College of Art’s Institute of Contemporary Art called Fracturing the Burning Glass. Last week while visiting family in Providence I stopped by the David Winton Bell Gallery at Brown University where I got another lesson in techno-art in the form of a five-artist exhibition entitled Nostalgia Machines (through Feb. 19, 2012).
According to former Bell curator Maya Allison, who organized the show, while technology and new art are usually future-oriented “this exhibition springs from the growing body of work by artists who make free use of technology in ways that undermine this past/future dichotomy. Paradoxically, the sculptures in this exhibition use mechanics to nostalgic effect.”
The most obvious example of this technology-in-service-of-nostalgia aesthetic is Belgian artist Jasper Rigole’s OUTNUMBERED:a brief history of imposture in which a computerized camera on a robotic arm constantly scans a found 1936 panoramic class photograph focusing on individual children as a recorded narrator gives brief fictional lives of the randomly-selected subjects.
The nostalgic element is less obvious in works such as Gregory Witt’s Packing Tape, a mixed media sculpture machine that sits on the floor and makes both the gesture and the sound of applying packing tape to a box.
Swiss artist Zimoun’s 150 prepared dc-motors, filler wire 1.0 mm is a kinetic installation that sets 150 wires spinning against the wall with a soft metallic patter that sounds something like rain on a roof.
Recent RISD graduate Meridith Pingree’s Yellow Star and Umbrella Torque are creepy machines suspended from the ceiling that respond to the viewer’s presence by moving in motions evocative of cringes and shrugs.
Jonathan Schipper’s Measuring Angst appeared to be the most dynamic machine in the show, designed to repeatedly break Corona beer bottles, the action carried out by the curved armature being played and replayed on videotape, but it was not working the day I visited. The trope being played is presumably the tension between creation and destruction, life and death in mechanical terms.
All of these clever, creative contraptions trace their lineage most directly to the 1960s art machines of Jean Tinguely. In a sense, the entire cutting edge art machine trend is an expression of nostalgia for the iconoclastic sensibility of Duchamp and Dadaism. Tinguely and Duchamp, however, created their art as ironic critiques of manufactured culture. I got the sense that most of these young artists were being sincere and playful. Pingree, Schipper and Witt all attended the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture in Maine, giving Nostalgia Machines a nice local connection.
[David Winton Bell Gallery, List Art Center, Brown University, 64 College St., Providence RI, 401-863-2932]