Mechanical humanity: Arthur Ganson’s Kinetic Sculpture

ecently the Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure crew took a trip to the MIT museum here in Cambridge.  We went in expecting a lot of cool technological doodads (Hello, virus-powered batteries! Robots! DNA maps! Holographs!), but we weren’t necessarily expecting to see any remarkable art.

Much to our surprise, we rounded a corner and walked into an exhibit of Arthur Ganson‘s kinetic sculptures entitled Gestural Engineering. The exhibit consisted of a cluster of machines, some motor-driven, others hand-cranked. When running, the machines made subtle movements, some almost undetectable.

Perhaps most affective was this little man perched on a high platform – above my eye level, I had to look up to see this little guy. Curiously, it took us all a moment to see the man and, once the machine was engaged, to see what was moving. We had been used to looking down to find the necessary switches, pedals, and cranks. When we looked up at the little man, we saw that his head was turning minutely from side to side while he sat there.  It wasn’t hard to project onto his blank face all of our feelings of loneliness, desperation, sadness, isolation.  And that’s what was so remarkable about all these sculptures – and maybe kinetic sculpture in general – they engage the viewer in a way that other art doesn’t. You stand there looking at the sculptures making their little movements, worrying that the figures are going to topple, fall, or fail and knowing all the while that the mechanism will not fail. And that thought forces you to confront the idea of inevitability, of predestination. Each of these sculptures seemed to hold up a mirror, to point a finger at the viewer. It was all very reminiscent of a certain Archaic torso of Apollo. This little man in particular, seemed to be telling us “Du mußt dein Leben ändern.”

These machines were surprising in so many ways – in a museum that was otherwise filled with sturdy, cogged and wired, electric-looking contraptions, Ganson’s sculptures were composed of rugged-looking metals in unspeakably delicate shapes, natural materials, and whimsical imagery. They were at once delicate and rough around the edges, complex and subtle, playing around the topic of eternity. One was devised to wear away a large stone over the space of several thousand years by some mechanism I can’t remember. What was perhaps most surprising, however, in the context of that shrine to technology and engineering, was the pathos – almost a humanity – exuded by these machines.

Take this wishbone, for instance. When turned on, this particular machine made the wishbone pace slowly along its track, slowly, ponderously. As it neared the end of its track, we deliberated about whether it would topple off the end of its platform, but it paused momentarily while the track returned to the other end, typewriter-style. Then it set off pacing again.

This chair, titled “Thinking Chair” had a similar effect. The chair paced in circles around its stone, sometimes hovering near the edge, but never falling. Of note in this sculpture: the chair paced while tipped forward on its front legs, not back onto the back legs. The resulting image is much less stable, much more tenuous, much more nervous-making.

But it wasn’t all so dour – one of the sculptures featured a cat sitting on a Persian rug, while an armchair floated, spun, and danced all around it, occasionally glancing off the cat, sometimes landing on its feet, other times spinning for a while in midair. The little cat, standing still, poised, wasn’t affective or sad or accusatory. She was just sweet and the chair a lovely dancer.

About the exhibition:

  • Arthur Ganson‘s Gestural Engineering  seems to be a more-or-less permanent fixture of the MIT Museum
  • 265 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA
  • Hours: Daily 10-5
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  1. I adore this exhibit, and having been there, I think you’ve captured the mood of these sculptures precisely.

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