In his basement, sculptor Gordon Bennett makes beautiful, oddly human robots out of mid-century mechanical scrap
When I first saw the robots, they were standing among the goods at City Foundry, a Brooklyn vintage store piled high with $400 chairs. I pressed my nose to the window and stared: thigh-high and remarkably evocative robots constructed solely from mid-century mechanical components looked back. Their legs were struts; car insignias formed chests. Everything fit. They were sculptures made from things no one makes anymore and most wouldn't recognize. They looked like characters from a lost sci-fi movie Pixar made in 1955. You just want to hug them.
I decided that I had to meet their maker. I wanted to see the workshop. I accosted the store's proprietor with my request and he told me I should just go to BennettRobots.com.
It was a Saturday afternoon, and I only had 24 hours left in town. So, when I saw the phone number on the site, I called it. To my surprise, a man answered. He was game. Within an hour, I was headed to a random street in a no-name neighborhood between Park Slope and Greenwood. I was going to see a robot workshop in a basement! I got so excited that I left my phone in the cab.
Gordon Bennett answered the door in a plaid shirt. He and his apartment were unassuming, but nice. He led me downstairs, protesting that it really wasn't much to see. He said that it wasn't some special place.
But it was. This is it.
All these lamps and pipes and fans and radiators and knobs and toasters and juicers and cocktail shakers and lids and wafflemakers had been scavenged from the streets, dropped on his doorstep, bought at flea markets, or otherwise acquired and stored. None of it cost him more than $50. But this isn't junk and it wasn't collected randomly. Certain shapes and metals appeal to Bennett. Most of it is from the American mid-century industrial peak, back from when we made everything, and it was heavy.
"I'd love to stay within that design epoch, that aesthetic," he said. "Because the one thing that I want to do is that I want things to feel like they're from the past. Almost like if they did have robots back then, this is what they'd look like."
In that, he succeeds. The solidity and the craftsmanship make the robots seem from another era. Nothing is soldered because the different metals he works with melt at different temperatures. Everything has to fit exactly, and then it gets bolted together. Industrial items are converted into bespoke mechanical dolls, each one with its own story and architecture.
The best moments come when he finds two pieces of random stuff from different eras-- a lamp covering and something from a power plant -- and they just happen to fit together *just* right.In Bennett's hands, each machine part becomes like a metallic version of Plato's half-souls groping through the world, each looking for its chance to meet its match. It almost sounds mystical, this metalworking.
You can pan and zoom around this panorama of one of Bennett's shelves.
It's clear to me that Bennett's robots, which don't move or have any electronics, are art. Like a good impressionist painting can make you see the reality of light and color in new ways, Bennett's work shifts your perspective about the aesthetics of the mechanical world.
After you've spent some time with these robots, the flotsam of the machine age doesn't seem like scrap metal. The pieces don't seem broken, even though they can't fulfill their original tasks. You start to view the objects by their form, not their function. A curving pipe could be a shoulder. A wafflemaker an abdomen. A lantern a head.
Even after you look away and get back in the car and drive home, you can't help but see human forms in even the bleakest industrial settings.