"Don't touch the art!" It's a caution we've heard since childhood, along with admonitions to speak softly while visiting museums, where — in seeming paradox — an alarm shatters the church-like quiet if you get too close to an exhibit. It's serious stuff, art, made for looking at from a respectful distance. The rarified aura fills private galleries and auction houses too, where it serves as silent support to equally rarified prices. "Interplay: Mechanical Objects," on view at Southwest School of Art's Russell Hill Rogers Galleries through November 25, breaks with art world decorum by presenting an irreverent, noisy show of kinetic pieces that beg to be touched. There are gears to be cranked, buttons to push, and bells to sound in this child-friendly collection of interactive sculpture from artists across the U.S. and Britain.
Simple, but as satisfying as a 19th-century mechanical toy is The Heart Machine (2011), by Martin Smith of the British/Dutch collective Laikingland Co. Like many of the pieces in the exhibition, it is crafted of metal, and exudes attention to fit and finish. Turn a tiny crank, and two mallets strike a vibrant red heart that chimes like an alarm clock. While the noise and finger-action are pleasing enough, there's a bit of a nod to the centuries-old tradition of autonoma, self-moving machines driven by springs, gravity, or steam. The mechanical clock is a familiar example of the type; early versions made in the late middle ages adorned public buildings in Europe and often featured figures that moved and bells that sounded the hours. Any good steampunk knows the story of Hero of Alexandria, whose aeolipile (known as Hero's Engine), used captured steam to spin a wheel. Amusing, but not very practical, it did however lead eventually to the invention of the steam engine, famous for spanning continents on rail in the 1900s. Though there is a lack of steam-driven devices in the show, steampunk nostalgia for the machine era abounds.
Steve Brudniak, based in Austin, uses scientific elements like Tesla coils and fiber optics to make ornate pieces that have the appearance of ritual objects or parts of Captain Nemo's Nautilus, precursor to the submarine in Jules Verne's 1870 novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. His wall object Instrument for the Administration of Penance (1995) features a porthole-like orb with a lid that opens to reveal a slot. Instructions in the accompanying didactics urge the visitor to place their finger within; an electric shock is promised.
Going directly for results is Myopic Whims (2011), by Alexis Archibald, a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, native now living in San Diego. One of the most imposing pieces (among a number of extravagant works) in this two-room exhibition, it also uses metal, but adds a squeamish-making surround of fake fur to her large, wall-mounted device. Turn the crank and a long, protruding rod jerkily dangles a feather at its end. (A Southwest School staffer described the piece as "an armpit tickler.")
Other pieces light up, project strange sonic phenomena, and — quite pleasingly — shoot corks or explode small objects. This exhibition is not appropriate for the self-important or stuffy viewer; children encouraged.
Participants include: Alexis Archibald, Steve Brudniak, Benjamin Cowden, Kevin Curry, Nathan Dube, Forrest Sincoff Gard, Laikingland Co., Keith Newstead, Miel-Margarita Paredes, Gary Schott, and Martin Smith.
Southwest School of Art
Russell Hill Rogers Galleries, Navarro Campus
Through November 25
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