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Subtle Mechanisms

For Arthur Ganson, an artist whose ingenious contraptions tell stories, meaning and motion are all but inseparable

by Harvey Blume

August 13, 1998

Arthur Ganson works, as very few artists do, with machines. He builds subtle mechanisms that magnify and reflect on aspects of existence. Given his medium it's at first tempting to think of his work as a throwback to the eighteenth century, with its belief in a clockwork universe activated at the beginning of time by a divine being -- a clockmaker -- then left to run in accordance with the laws of Newtonian mechanics. It was an age with a passion for automatons -- Jacques de Vaucanson's duck, for example, which was rigged to swim, swallow, and produce excrement. According to one contemporary account, this duck "performed all the quick motions of the head and throat which are peculiar to the living animal, and ... also the sound of quacking."

In the eighteenth century, quacking and crapping mechanical ducks were in philosophical earnest, intended, as the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard put it in Simulations (1983), to be the "analogy of man and ... his interlocutor." Ducks and other automatons pushed the clockwork metaphor to its limit, embodying viewers' questions about the real difference, if any, between mechanism and organism. Might the latter be merely a highly refined version of the former? Were living things God's finest clocks, built for swallowing, defecating, and, in the case of humans, talking, too?
Previously in Critical Eye:

"Truth and Consequences" (May 1998)
The films of Luis Buñuel, argues Lee Siegel, reveal a vision of human violence that is complicated, unsentimental, and always honest.

"Posing for Egon Schiele" (February 1998)
Lee Siegel on the artist, the critics, and the importance of being jaded.

Discuss this column in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

Ganson's work isn't ruled by a clockwork philosophy; it is open to whatever truths about life and motion his wires, motors, oil, and chains will lend themselves to. His pieces are not, like de Vaucanson's duck, scrupulous mechanical copies of living things, but are instead suggestive -- or, as Ganson puts it, "gestural," frequently grounded in biological and bodily processes but never limited to them. And Ganson proves just as resistant to today's dominant metaphor machine, the computer, as he is indifferent to the Newtonian metaphor of the clock.

This summer represented Ganson's breakthrough into the New York art world; an exhibit of his work, on view from May 30 to July 18 at the Ricco/Maresca Gallery, was praised by The New Yorker as including "miraculous whirligig sculptures." I met up with the forty-three-year-old artist at the MIT Museum in Cambridge, where his work remains on display, and where I first encountered it.

The MIT Museum specializes in exhibits about science and its history -- as in a current installation on the history of the slide rule -- and devotes a room to MIT students' most memorable hacks. (How did they get that car to the roof the administration building overnight, anyway?) To go from such displays into a gallery of Ganson's work is to experience a sudden shift from documentation, however informative or amusing, to the more complex claims and rewards of art.

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Cory's Chair

In "Cory's Chair," a small yellow plastic chair is torn apart by four mechanical arms, which then reverse the motion and reassemble it. The violent action of the mechanism reminded me of a spider's mouth fastening on prey. Ganson's initial thought, though, pertained to time. "The exploding chair is like the current moment," he told me. "It's around long enough for you to see what it is, and suddenly it's gone." The idea of the exploding moment led Ganson to considerations of the Big Bang, which joins the Big Contraction among the multiple meanings arising from this piece.

For Ganson it's crucial that it be a chair endlessly torn apart and put back together rather than, say, an anonymous car part or lawn-mower gizmo. An exploding gizmo might say something about factory work and the assembly line, but an exploding chair sets off a broader range of feelings, according to Ganson. "It's a well-understood object in a strange situation. We fill in the blanks. Why is it doing that?"

"Cory's Chair" points both to the instant and eternity, and Ganson toys with the dimension of time in many of his works, which often repeat themselves at fixed intervals -- though in the case of "Machine with Concrete" you'll just have to take the artist's word for it: the sculpture features fast gears acting on a system of slower gears that will drive a steel bit into a waiting concrete slab some 2.191 trillion years from now. (One has to assume this machine has never been adequately tested.) Ganson's time play is usually on a more human scale, and surrounds his work with an implicit music, a sense of dance. The dance is made explicit in a piece like "Machine with African Porcupine Quills," whose arms do a high-speed flamenco with sword-like objects.

The mobile nature of Ganson's work appeals to children, who are not yet inculcated with the belief that art and motion can't be combined. Ganson is one of the few contemporary artists whose work charms almost immediately rather than luring viewers into a series of staring contests with ominous objects. And some of the pieces are interactive, driven by human beings rather than electricity. "Brownian Motion," when pulled along, communicates the motion of its wheels to a tray of rice pellets that swarm over themselves like larvae, or, from a distance, appear to undulate like a single wave-like living thing.

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Machine with Ball Chain

Ganson's accessibility does not come at the expense of complexity or depth. "Requiem for a Lost Uncle" consists of twenty-three small scraps of paper positioned at the end of rods that lift and fold them so that they appear to be birds flying off in a serene token of a soul's release. "Machine with Ball Chain" evokes an opposite sense: of weight, density, gravity, effort -- of forced labor, perhaps, or peristalsis (enter the bowels of de Vaucanson's duck). As the chain is tugged slowly down through an opening, it defies Ganson's usual repetitive motions, huddling into different patterns of resistance every time.

Ganson's work can be compared to that of Rebecca Horn, the German artist who also employs motion but who buries her apparatus in feathers and cloth and subsumes it in symbolism pertaining to sex or violence and, in many cases, both. Ganson's works are lighter and more forthcoming about their own composition; the mechanism is always a good part of the message. When I alluded to the fragility and delicacy of some of his wire constructs, he responded, "Those are all human qualities. Fragility, sadness, joy, fear, and also wonderment -- those are the feelings that caused me to make them in the first place."

Ganson has been fascinated with motion since devoting his sixth-grade doodles to studies of a race car ramming into a rock. When I asked why he hasn't used computers to carry out simulations of the motions and collisions that intrigue him, he said, "In the digital realm, you can do anything, draw anything. You don't have to obey the laws of physics. So when you see something digital, it's less surprising than when you see a physical object doing it; there's less mystery."

Ganson isn't ready to abandon atoms for the easy malleability of bits. "Part of the reason for me spending my time, my limited time on earth, in this pursuit," he says, "is to work with the physical world and see what I can say with it."

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Child Watching Ball (Click below to watch a QuickTime movie.)

Given Ganson's respect for the expressive possibilities of matter in motion, one piece in particular seemed to serve as his self-portrait. In "Child Watching Ball," a doll's face swivels in perfect accord with a ball's gyrations. No matter how fast the ball moves -- the speed is determined by how fast you turn a handle -- the doll's eyes refuse to break contact, as though permanently hypnotized.

Ganson disagreed with me that "Child Watching Ball" says any more about him than his other pieces; he regards them all as telling part of his story. Not surprisingly, Ganson did warm to a statement the novelist Umberto Eco made about his own work -- namely that its focus was "to transform machines into narrative, to show how much narrative power they have inside them, how they can tell stories." For Ganson, as for Eco, motion and meaning are close to inseparable.

Ganson's work is at home in a place like the MIT Museum because his small machines are so exquisitely engineered, and in a New York gallery because they are created to accomplish nothing else than art. For Ganson, the clockwork universe, with its strictly mimetic mechanical forms, has long since run down, and the digital universe, the world of virtual reality, where anything goes, has not yet been booted up. It's in that space -- where objects have real weight, real motion, and real implications -- that Ganson as an artist thrives.

Discuss this column in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

At a critical point in his life, Harvey Blume chose English over C and therefore writes reviews, criticism, and even the occasional book rather than computer programs. The co-author of
Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo (1992), he writes about art, literature, and new media.

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Photographs and video courtesy of Arthur Ganson.
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