gestural engineering, and some thoughts on art, historical time and metaphor

The MIT Museum houses many wonderful things, but my favourite is an exhibition of kinetic mechanical sculptures by Arthur Ganson in a genre he calls “gestural engineering”. In Ganson’s own words to the viewer: “The objects are part of a cycle. I take an idea from my heart, but it is not complete until you have seen it, and found your own meaning in it.”

It’s hard to describe the experience of looking at Ganson’s installations. His kinetic sculptures are deliberate, exquisite. Each features a mechanism which repeats a single, precise set of motions. A long coiled chain of ball-bearings is pulled link by link down a hole, and is replenished link by link from a tap above it. An ostrich feather and a violin caress each other in a sequence of slow, sensuous dance steps. A tiny chair plods in meditative circles around a stone platform. These iterations, accompanied by the click and whirr of their mechanical sequences, are equal parts beauty and hypnosis.

Arthur Ganson - Violin and Feather

It occurred to me that by their nature, Ganson’s kinetic sculptures engineer — or perhaps mechanistically reveal — a certain way of viewing art.

First, they literally force engagement: many of the installations require you to jumpstart the mechanism, by pressing a button or pushing or pulling something, or turning a crank. In other words, like most art, you must actively engage with it before it will start to produce meaning for you.

Secondly, like films, they structurally induce patience. Each of the artworks produce their meaning over a set period of time, and therefore dictate the duration of your engagement.

Finally, they also demand to be read: these are not objects you can skim and grasp at once. They are frequently baffling at first glance. Many have revelation built into them: you press the button, the mechanism whirrs to life, and you watch an iteration or two before something like a meaning or an emotion presents itself, in a moment of ambiguous, personal and wordless epiphany. Ganson’s Yellow Chair exhibit embodies this moment of revelation beautifully: for most of the artistic sequence, it’s unclear what is happening, right until the pieces snap together. The split-second jolt of epiphany this produces, the first time you watch it, can never again be reproduced.

I loved all the installations, even the slightly creepy ones involving babies. But the one which snagged most in my mind was Ganson’s Beholding the Big Bang (2009). Clearly made with the Long Now clock in mind, it is a gear train comprising twelve pairs of reduction gears set in 50-to-1 ratio. They’re arranged such that although the gears closest to the motor on the left are in constant motion, the gears furthest from the motor, on the right, are effectively motionless: they will take 13.7 billion years to complete one rotation. Roughly, as Ganson reminds us, the age of the known universe.

Beholding the Big Bang

Almost instantly, Braudel rose to mind. Here was his metaphor of historical time, made art! Fernand Braudel, a structuralist historian of the French Annales School, first articulated his conception of historical time in his monumental history of the Mediterranean, the three levels of which correspond beautifully to Ganson’s sculpture. On the left, the breathless spinning ephemera of histoire événementielle: the bustle of daily politics; the lived domain of the journalist, the politician, the Great Man. These are the days, weeks and years of diplomatic time. In the middle, the moyenne durée: the decades and centuries of economic and social time, the rise and fall of empires, and the revolutions of industry and technology. These movements, though barely perceptible, can be apprehended by discerning, long-lived participants, and perhaps readers of history. And on the far right, literally lodged in concrete, la longue durée: the monumental stasis of geological time, this thing which all things devours. Here we find the life of mountains, the crawl and dissipation of glaciers, a thousand starbursts, the exhalations of galaxies.

The model also suggests two other aspects of the Braudelian metaphor.

The first is that despite the heuristic distinction Braudel makes, and despite the failures in our own perception, all three levels of historical time are deeply related. One pair of gears turns the next, and the next; one day’s flurry is directly connected to a millennium’s stasis, and time implacably moves all levels of change.

The second is that, as Dan Little has observed, the apprehension of historical change is problematic, for different reasons, at both ends of the spectrum. On the one hand, longue durée historical change is so slow as to be invisible; consequently, it’s almost impossible for human societies to factor it into their more ephemeral considerations. (An obvious example is the impotence of political action on climate change). On the other hand, the gears of the courte durée, ephemeral time, can move more quickly than the human eye can see: some changes happen more quickly than the state or policy-making bodies are able to react to. (The legitimisation of gay marriage, or the collapse of Wall Street, come to mind).

Arthur Ganson - Machine with Wishbone

But the model, and my reading of it, also demonstrates what Ganson means about the intensely personal experience of looking at his art — all art. In his words, “[each] piece should be crystal clear and also completely ambiguous. That’s what allows each viewer to create their own story.” Seeing Braudel in the gear reduction exhibit, or reading capitalism into the installation of a wishbone plodding up and down its platform: this is the essence of art. It’s a feeling or idea “wrestled into physicality” just long enough to allow it to jump from one mind to another, girding itself in the new metaphors of each one it enters. So in my own mind, with its irredeemably historical and melancholic bent, is it any wonder that I watched the gears spinning and not-spinning, and felt both the weight and absurdity of human history? That I watch these paper scraps flit on their fragile perches and feel the promise and entrapment of impossible dreams?

paper dreams

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