Arts & Culture

Mechanical sculptures inspire reflection

Staff Writer
Sunday, November 27, 2011

A glass bottle spins in slow motion toward the wall and shatters into pieces. Then, defying physics, the bottle spins backward and reforms itself, becoming whole once again. Jonathan Schipper’s piece, “Measuring Angst,” displayed in the “Nostalgia Machines” exhibition at the David Winton Bell Gallery, fulfills the viewer’s desire to travel back in time and change lost moments.

The exhibition — organized by Maya Allison, the gallery’s former curator — attempts to convey the feeling of nostalgia through industrial, almost futuristic sculptures.

Each piece incorporates some element of machinery such as motion detectors or small motors, technologies generally associated with progress and forward thinking. But the sculptures as a whole invite the viewer to look into their past and uncover old memories or emotions.

A piece by audiovisual artist Zimoun features 150 small motors spinning vertical wires in circles to create the sound of rain hitting a tin roof. As the sculpture’s description explains, rain is often used in movies to evoke a sense of loss or longing, and the work mimics this effect. As the wires spin and hit the nearby wall, the familiar sound of rain fills the room, flooding viewers’ heads with associated emotions. The mechanical apparatus contrasts perfectly with the chaotic nature of rain.

Sculptor Gregory Witt designed two pieces for the exhibition — “Packing Tape” and “Light Switch.” “Packing Tape” is an arm-like machine miming the ripping of a piece of tape from its roll in time with the sound of tearing tape. The sculpture effectively evokes the contradictory feelings of loss and excitement one feels when moving from one chapter of life to another.

But his other sculpture, “Light Switch,” was a bit too simplistic for the exhibition and almost did not look like art. The piece consisted solely of a screen inside a wooden frame. The framed screen shows a light switch turning on and off, and the sculpture moves up and down in accordance with the light switch. The mundane activity prevents the sculpture from inducing any real feelings of nostalgia.

Another sculpture, Meridith Pingree’s “Umbrella Torque,” suffered from being overly abstract. The piece, a series of connected, flat, green objects suspended from the ceiling, uses motion detectors to move when viewers approach or back away from the sculpture. The movement is supposed to “recall either a chandelier or a wind-damaged umbrella, flinching and writhing with each passerby,” according to the accompanying description.

But the piece barely moved when approached, appearing slightly jerky but otherwise relatively stationary. As a result, the sculpture did not really evoke images of “flinching and writhing” objects, instead seeming more like a twitch.

Pingree’s other sculpture, “Yellow Star,” delivered a much stronger message.

As the piece uses motion detectors that respond confidently to the room’s movements, the circle of yellow rectangles recollects the sense of someone cringing away from the viewer. The associated emotions of fear and repulsion bring viewers back to unpleasant moments in their past.

The final piece in the exhibit, Jasper Rigole’s “Outnumbered,” features a black-and-white photograph of a large group of children. As a projector scans the photograph, magnifying faces at random, a narrator tells a short story about the highlighted person. While the sculpture almost seems like a historical documentary, the faces and associated stories are all random. The projector moves around the photograph, arbitrarily highlighting individual people, and the narrator tells stories that have nothing to do with the person chosen. On top of this, the stories told relate to deception. The resulting message is brilliant — showing the bias and dishonesty in historical representations while also evoking viewers’ desires to understand the true stories of the individuals.

Combined, the sculptures in “Nostalgia Machines” create a truly unique exhibit, conveying a common theme through unusual and creative materials. The artists seamlessly incorporate the machinery into their sculptures and create works that come to life and engage the viewers.

“Nostalgia Machines” will be open in the David Winton Bell Gallery Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on weekends from 1-4 p.m.


**** (four out of five stars)

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