Arthur Ganson and His Elegant Mischief Machines

Faster, 1982. Mixed media.

If motorized sculpture could be cast in dramatic roles, Rebecca Horn’s sporadically silent and staccato objects would fit nicely in existential melodramas à la Samuel Beckett; Bruce Nauman’s heavy irony and foreboding forms seem to embody Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty; and Jean Tinguely’s lightly satirical fusions of parody and absurdity are naturals for the faux-cabaret atmosphere of Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus stage. For the mechanized sculptures of Boston-based artist Arthur Ganson, however, all the world’s a stage.

Ganson, who is currently artist-in-residence at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), makes works so versatile they cannot be typecast. It is the spirit in his machines, their individuality and elegant wit, rather than any psychological, sociological, or ideological agenda, that defines them. His pieces borrow, or parody, widely to devise original virtuoso performances dramatizing the physics of movement and playing upon the escalating dance between person and machine. In the best postmodern non-tradition, their choreography draws from a culture’s collective experience of tin wind-up toys and locomotives, angel wings and exploding chairs, inch worms, and the internal combustion engine. They also tap into signature movement stylings from innovators like Buster Keaton, Errol Flynn, Martha Graham, and even Twyla Tharp.

Ganson readily acknowledges the influence of other artists, notably Duchamp and Tinguely, as well as mechanical jesters like Rube Goldberg, and he occasionally celebrates them through wry titles (for example, “Homage to Tinguely’s Homage à Marcel Duchamp”, 1992). But Ganson takes his machines beyond previous kinetics via a precise formal aesthetic derived from obsessive crafting, practicality (he insists his machines actually work), and fine-tuned, authentic engineering skills that frequently become a visible part of the content. All the while, he keeps his materials purposely mundane and his methods accessibly low-tech; when MIT colleagues describe his work as elegant, they mean in the mathematical or economic, sense of the term. At no point does Ganson lose sight of the essence of his work, which is gesture.

Machine with Roller Chain, 1996. Mixed media.

Ganson’s works from the past 20 years can be sorted into roughly two types—those that outwardly express the gesture and those that seem to be thinking about it. “Cloud” (1978), an early example of the latter, is a piece with many, evermore refined, incarnations (for example, “Untitled Fragile Machine” and “Untitled Tall Machine”, both 1997). These assemblages of interconnecting worm and spur gears, springs, cams, ratchets, and sprockets, most often made from spot-welded baling wire, are abstract and meandering mechanical doodles, sometimes hand-cranked and sometimes motorized. Other writers have noted how these intricate, delicate parodies of mental wheel-turning are like three-dimensional versions of Paul Klee-like meditations.

“Faster” (1982) comes from the other camp. This loopy pushcart was built for street use in the World Sculpture Racing Society, a dubious-sounding organization thought up by some of Ganson’s friends. The gesture here is not running, but handwriting. “Faster” writes its own admonishing script: as it is pushed, a mechanical hand slowly, jerkily, inscribes “f-a-s-t-e-r-!” on a pad of paper.

“Faster” is typical of how a mundane reference can inspire Ganson to build an absurdly elaborate construction. The swashbuckling “Machine with Cocktail Swords” (1996) performs a dazzling balletic duel with whirling (tiny red plastic) swords. The piece calls the bluff of all those old pirate movies and their posturing, macho swordplay. “Machine with Wishbone” (1992) reduces another mythic character to the bone. Pushed by a comparatively massive infrastructure and ridiculously intricate mechanical system, a tiny wishbone ambles along like a cowpoke with a bowlegged swagger, a gesture that was first parodied in early modern dance. As in many of his machines with multi-layered content, Ganson provides here not only arresting formal compositions, but metaphorical comparisons of scale and hair’s-breadth dynamics.

“Inchworms” (1996) is another pushcart, more purposefully elegant than “Faster”. Waist high, seriously constructed of handsome welded steel plate and chain drive, the cart’s sole purpose is to transport a rectangular tray full of azure feather boas. Writhing along through the fluff are three small metal mesh “worms” that amazingly contract side to side and turn their tiny steel connector “heads” in the same direction that the cart is pushed.

Machine with Grease, 1992. Mixed media

Other works are less subject to narrative and more about a persistent search for the surprising, random consequences of material properties. Ganson’s two seductively gloppy pieces, “Machine with Oil” (1990) and “Machine with Grease” (1992), exploit the gesture inherent in viscousness, but are slyly suggestive in their self-lubricating, onanistic properties as well. “Machine with Roller Chain” and “Machine with Ball Chain” (both 1996) are similar but their imperative is more John Cage-ian, in that Ganson is simply using things that happen to move in interesting ways. Like recycling fountains, they present the random play of dribbling, puddling, snaking metal chains. Ganson reveals something of the tinkering-scientific way he works when he tells of his first pass at “Machine with Roller Chain”. Initially envisioning the lumpy chain falling, blob-like, into the middle of a cradling arc, Ganson said he discovered that a curvature simply caused the chain to “glump to one side and turn around and around. It was completely boring.” He decided to bend each side of the arc up into flanges. Now shaped by wide angles, the chain goes through many interesting permutations. It is the kind of direct physical cause and effect that most delights him.

“Machine with Ball Chain” also undergoes subtle changes. The longer it runs, the more the little balls rub against each other and develop a mellow sheen. “Ball Chain” in particular, with its patinated plate of industrial steel, graceful splayed legs and spout of curving copper, is very retro-techno looking, very knowingly “School of Pottery Barn.” “Machine with 23 Scraps of Paper” (1996) is equally tasteful, equally meditative, equally detailed. The design is almost M.C. Escher-like, in the way the rectangular, gridded base of motorized worm gears transmogrifies its energy upward, into a cloud of delicate, white, torn-paper wings. The little wings flap convincingly, as if each were energized by anatomically correct muscles.

“Cory’s Yellow Chair” (1997), on the other hand, is like a manifested puzzle, with its exploding and reassembling miniature chair. This dazzling piece performs its own visual concept, as tiny gears and chains transform the chair into a starburst pattern, by tumbling six tiny parts outward, then repeatedly snapping them back into perfect form. Ganson recognizes the comic yet poignant quality of chairs. An earlier chair piece, “Machine with Chair” (1995), also performs an absurd acrobatic act. A life-size chair sits vulnerably in the middle of a track. A larger engine chugs along, clamps onto the chair with its mechanical arm, twirls it high overhead, passes beneath, then gently replaces the chair in the same exact spot. It is a Buster Keaton act—of all the contemporary artists who aspire to Keaton’s sublime haplessness, only Arthur Ganson comes close.

Cory’s Yellow Chair (two views), 1997. Mixed media

Ann Wilson Lloyd is a frequent contributor to Sculpture.