From Search Engines to Saxophones: It’s The Machine, Stupid!

by G. W. Smith

Lin Emery. Hana. 1997. Aluminum and paint, 22 feet, orbit 22 feet (6.7m, orbit 6.7m).
Izumisano Municipal Hospital in Izumisano, Japan
(Image courtesy of the Artist)

A peculiarity of intellectual revolutions is that victory is neither announced nor celebrated.  Even as Magellan’s Victoria sailed back into the harbor of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, the once exciting idea of a spherical earth was morphing into the dreary task of subdividing the globe for the purposes of conquest and commercial exploitation.

So it will be for the idea that contemporary art has lost its way.  Long proclaimed by the revolutionaries among us, we have sensed victory in recent articles in the New York Times, the Guardian, and Slate — but there will be no definitive announcement, no starting gun for the new era.  Now is the time — lest raw market forces once again prevail — for us to hold council.

Lost its way – the very words imply a retracing of our steps, and those must lead back to a time of real vitality for Modernism. We dial back instinctively to the glory years of Abstract Expressionism and the New York School, but there was no important sculpture to speak of.  And so we continue to dial back, to the real glory years of Modernism, the early twentieth century.

What might we seize upon there for inspiration in this, our own dispirited age? We recall the revolutionary fervor of Constructivism, Futurism, and the Bauhaus, whose programs were united by the imperative of re-connecting art with science and technology; and indeed, we cannot ignore the twin facts that technology has played an ever-increasing role in human affairs, and that the visual arts, at least within the Western tradition have played the lead role in assimilating that technology on behalf of mankind’s spiritual and aesthetic needs.

But “science” and “technology” are sterile words.  Let us, therefore, employ a term which will give to them a contemporary body and face — the machine; and let us think of the machine, not in its limited mechanical aspect, but rather as the splendid instrument of human aspiration, and infinitely malleable — from the search engine to the saxophone — in human hands.

Suddenly a flood of images will burst upon us from those decades bracketing the 1913 Armory Show: Brancusi’s piston-like Torso of a Young Man; Raymond Duchamp-Villon’s machine-like Horse; Leger’s cylindrical maidens; Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s bio-mechanical creations; and Boccioni’s robot-like figure gliding through the Einsteinian void; and with this flood of images was the basis for, perhaps, a renaissance.

Two things we must bear in mind, however.  First, the machine can serve as an antidote to the catastrophe of agglomeration, only to the extent that we respect its coherence.  Second, the already-referenced idea of assimilation is also critical, and it is this which differentiates the early twentieth century masterworks from contemporary attempts to come to terms with the machine.  We cannot place raw technology on display as art; nor can we be satisfied with cargo cult-like tributes to it.  We must, rather, emulate our legendary forebear — and give wings that work.

And here a fitting topic for our conclusion: do such artists walk among us still? It is a function of the pernicious coma that the art world has been in for the last thirty years that the planet’s greatest living kinetic sculptor, Lin Emery, is virtually unknown.  This may be about to change, however, as much as Emery has been the subject of a recent and splendid monograph by Philip Palmedo, himself a noted writer on art and technology.

The series of works upon which Emery’s reputation will come to rest are architectural-scale assemblages of polished, space-age, aluminum forms, exquisitely articulated upon precision bearings, and nodding night and day to the prevailing winds.  Two or three such works might establish an artist’s reputation; but in turning the pages of Palmedo’s beautiful book, one is astounded to discover that Lin has executed some thirty-six major architectural commissions for universities, public buildings, medical centers,  religious institutions, corporation.  Although Emery’s pieces are wind-driven, they are nonetheless machines with polished, metal construction and precision bearings. Hence, the importance of their grace, and evocation of natural rhythms, and uncanny harmony within their outdoor settings.

 

 

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