Next time someone calls you an automaton, say thank you.
A new exhibit at the Morris Museum elevates repetitive machinery to an art form–a spinning, spooky, humorous, hypnotic art form.
“I want people to discover the fun in art again,” said Cleveland Johnson, the museum’s new director. “The art world shoots itself in the foot when it becomes too elitist and too exclusive.”
Curious Characters, which runs through June 2018, is the first installment of a four-year series called A Cache of Kinetic Art. These pieces are 21st-century progeny of the intricate, ornate 19th-century music boxes and automota in the museum’s permanent Guinness Collection.
A steely spider crawls crawls on a portrait. Metal bicycles spin round a curved rail. A mannequin finger points random insults at whoever pushes its button.
Some works you can crank, others you dare not touch.
One creation is so mesmerizing it’s actually called The Mesmerist. Insert a coin and a door slowly opens to reveal a naughty-looking, scantily clad lady dangling a pendant, as creepy music wafts behind her.
It’s the work of Orange artist Lawrence Berzon, who progressed from comic books to paintings to dioramas. He is among 16 artists in the exhibition, which showcases 27 pieces that invite repeated visits.
Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin:
Laura Zelaya of Argentina is represented by two delicate, hand-cranked kinetic sculptures. To the Promised Land depicts a man rowing his boat to a new life. Counterpoint is a dance between a man and woman who never quite connect.
“I love to stage ideas and stories like a theater. I’m the director of their drama,” Zelaya said of her wooden characters, at last week’s opening reception.
The daughter of artists, Zelaya grew bored with acting. Mechanical inventions intrigued her. “I was always very interested in how things work,” she said.
In a show packed with curiosities, two inspired awe at the opening.
“I like birds,” Chris Fitch explained, after his half-ton Bird of Paradise spread its Tyvek wings and attempted to soar free of its whirring pulleys and gears.
Three years in the making, this tough-looking buzzard is so delicate that exhibition curators Michele Marinelli and Jere Ryder may fire it up only once a week. That’s the day you will want to bring the kids.
Performance art was imprinted on Fitch at a young age, as a puppeteer in his family’s traveling puppet theater. He also did some dancing. At Yale (located, as everyone knows, in Kinetic-cut), he studied film, followed by gigs in engineering and animation.
Still…gigantic mechanical birds?
“I’m an idiot!” the Arlington, Mass., artist said, flashing an animated grin.
The other show-stopper is Floribots.
It’s a “garden” with 128 origami-style flowers that sprout, undulate, shimmy and dance in seemingly random patterns, triggered by audience motions captured by sensors.
“They all talk to each other,” Australian artist Geoffrey Drake-Brockman said of the faux-plants, operated with computer power equivalent to a couple of digital televisions.
Installation was challenging; a pair of nor’easters knocked out power at the Morris Museum for the better part of a week preceding the opening.
“Fortunately, the room has good natural light,” said Drake-Brockman, whose inspiration came from children’s paper toys variously known as “fortune tellers,” “cootie catchers” or “chatterboxes.”
He holds degrees in computer science and visual art. Automated projects like Floribots ideally marry the two, he figured. The flower-bots can grow bored by repetitive crowd motion. No motion, and they may clamor for attention. Over-stimulation can make them chaotic. It’s an uncanny commentary on how we interact with technology.
“This sees you and reacts to you, as a technological ‘other,'” Drake-Brockman said. “It’s a process that’s under way in society. We all carry phones and talk to them.”
One can imagine Stephen King’s version of Floribots. Fortunately, there was no need to run for our lives. Not on this visit, anyway.
“It’s quite happy now!” observed Drake-Brockman.
Curious Characters runs through June 20, 2018, at the Morris Museum, 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morris Township. Admission: $7-$10. Call (973) 971-3700. Visitors can vote on their favorite automaton; the winner will be announced at AutomataCon, a convention for automaton fans at the Museum from May 18-20, 2018.