Welcome to the Machine: Mobile Sculptures and Mind-Blowing Op Take Over the New Museum

Plug in and tune out in 'Movie-Drome'—the Internet avant la lettre

  • Last Friday afternoon, New Museum curator Gary Carrion-Murayari was in the museum’s spacious fourth-floor gallery watching a six-foot-tall abstract sculpture that looks like a mushroom cap creep up on a group of teenagers. “If you look,” he said to The Observer, gesturing at the sculpture, “this guy’s moving very, very slowly.” A young woman in the tour group pivoted around and gave the mushroom a narrow-eyed look—perhaps wondering if it was stalking her.

    It wasn’t, but the interaction between man (or, in this case, woman) and machine is part of the point here. The artist Robert Breer created these mobile sculptures in 1970 for Pepsi’s pavilion at the World’s Fair in Osaka, Japan. They rolled around outside the building, as if they were floating, and now they’re a part of Mr. Carrion-Murayari’s latest exhibition, “Ghosts in the Machine,” where, were it not for metal stanchions, they’d be smacking directly into trippy black-and-white paintings by Op artists Bridget Riley, Victor Vasarely and Richard Anuszkiewicz.

    Co-curated with the museum’s associate director, Massimiliano Gioni, the show, which opens to the public today, looks at artists’ interpretations of the productive and peculiar exchanges that take place between people and machines, as well as the development of art based on technological advances. Among the pieces by more than 70 artists are a 2007 film by Phillipe Parreno that shows an 18th-century anthropomorphic automaton built to write like a human (cue the Hugo references), an eerie reconstruction of the torture device from Frank Kafka’s 1914 story “In the Penal Colony” and kinetic, computer and optical—or Op—artworks that blossomed in the 1960s.

    Much of the work on view is from that time, when Sputnik-era artists approached technology and science with a sense of unbridled possibility. In a 1964 Time article, included in the show’s catalog, Jon Borgzinner wrote of the members of the French GRAV group as “six researchers who resemble the Atomic Energy Commission more than café-sitting artists,” and marveled at Italian artists who were “more adept with pliers and power drills than brushes.”

    Art, artists were realizing, could do more than hang on walls, or even just glide across floors: it could produce light shows (as in the work of Otto Piene and Manfredo Massironi), change shape on the wall or in space (as in the constructions of Jean Tinguely) and even constitute nothing more than a piece of chiffon or a weather balloon dancing below a gust of wind (as in Hans Haacke’s pieces). On the second floor of the museum, a number of works twirl and float about in space.

    Visions of the future have a way of quickly looking passé. Until recently, much of this work—particularly the Op and kinetic stuff—was out of style, especially in the United States, Mr. Carrion-Murayari said.

    “It’s a movement—or a moment—in art history that was quickly tossed away and has not really been reassessed,” he said of Op art, which was presented at the Museum of Modern Art in 1965 in a show called “The Responsive Eye” that brought droves to the museum while exasperating critics, in no small part because of its groovy, eye-catching popularity. (“These objects on the whole cannot qualify as works of art,” critic and historian Dore Ashton wrote at the time.)

    Fashion designers, however, got on board. There were Op dresses and Op handbags. Vogue cried, “Pow! Op goes the art. Op goes the fashion.” Ms. Riley sued a collector for printing textiles based on her paintings. “I left three weeks later with feelings of violation and disillusionment,” she wrote of her visit to the U.S.

    “It’s hard to believe it’s been almost 50 years,” Mr. Carrion-Murayari said. Many of the pieces in “Ghosts in the Machine” have been shown only rarely in U.S. museums since that MoMA show; meanwhile, artists as different as Tauba Auerbach, Xylor Jane and Carsten Höller have been mining Op art for inspiration.

    Other works have simply never been seen in museums before, like Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome (1963–66/2012), a 12-foot-high metal dome that visitors can enter to see images from more than a dozen projectors—film, digital, slide—collaged across its curved ceiling. When The Observer visited, a handful of people were inside, sprawled out on pillows, staring up at the cavalcade of images in front of them—abstract patterns, a nude woman modeling, scenes from parades.

    “This is the birth of an image culture that we feel very strongly today,” Mr. Carrion-Murayari said, peering into VanDerBeek’s dome. “That’s what makes it so prescient. He was anticipating the stream of images of the Internet, the immersiveness of the Internet, and would have been very excited about it.” VanDerBeek’s plan was to have Movie-Dromes around the world that would be linked together, allowing people to broadcast images among them. That never panned out, but that’s basically what happens online today.

    Mr. Carrion-Murayari went with the artist’s daughter, Sara VanDerBeek, who is also an artist, to Stony Point to view the original dome, and they took photographs and measurements of the installation, which its owner now uses as a garage. “There was all this correspondence between him and the silo company that made the original building,” he said. “We ended up getting it from the same company. Putting together a dome hasn’t really changed very much in 50 years.”

    The New Museum is also displaying a recreation of British artist Richard Hamilton’s 1955 exhibition, “Man, Machine and Motion,” which he first installed at a gallery in Newcastle, England. Hamilton had assembled some 200 photographs of humans and the various devices they’ve used to help them move through the world, like diving suits, spacesuits and a flying suit with thin fabric wings.

    “That and Movie-Drome were very emotional and personal labors of love,” Mr. Carrion-Murayari said. Hamilton died last September at the age of 89, before he learned that the New Museum was planning to recreate his display. In January, the curators spent three days at his London studio, where he had stored the original photographs as well as a few shots of it installed. The recreation may end up in a traveling Hamilton retrospective scheduled to tour to Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Madrid and London, beginning next year.

    Much of the work in the show speaks to the dark side of its era’s technological advances. Think 2001,not Wall-E. Slides of nuclear explosions click through in the Movie-Drome and one of Hamilton’s artist associates in the technology-obsessed Independent Group is quoted in the catalog saying that he didn’t want the prints he filled with images of popular culture “to help people escape people from the terrible world. I want to remind them.”

    In one very obvious way, the timing of the show could not be more appropriate: the generation that forged many of these artworks is passing on. Hamilton and Breer, as well as the famed French dealer of kinetic art, Denise René, have all died in the past year.

    But it also feels timely because technology is in the midst of another sea change. Wall Street firms use algorithms to trade at speeds—and sometimes with methods—that are beyond the comprehension of whole teams of humans. Google is developing cars that can drive themselves. The American government has soldiers piloting drones that fire missiles into Yemen and Afghanistan from bases thousands of miles away. As we become closer to them, machines seem more and more autonomous.

    It’s perhaps fitting, then, that Der Lauf der Dinge (The Way Things Go) (1987), the film by Peter Fischli and David Weiss (the latter artist is another recent loss), has pride of place in the lobby. Over its 30 minutes, it shows an ingenious Rube Goldberg-ian machine at work, propelled entirely by itself. But if you look closely, there are barely perceptible cuts in the footage—the artists had to pause to get the whole contraption to function. They’re reminders that, whether we like it or not, the ghost in the machine is always us.

    arusseth@observer.com

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