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cape reviews

Machine Worries

Various Artists at blank projects

By Chad Rossouw
04 October - 27 October. 0 Comment(s)
The Tristan Chord 

Pedro Gómez-Egaña
The Tristan Chord , 2012/2008. Sculpture performance .


Entering Anthea Buys’ recently curated show at blank projects, I was hoping to see at least one work featuring Lieutenant Commander Data. It’s not fair to beam your Star Trek hopes onto an exhibition, but the title ‘Machine Worries, Machine Hearts’ was particularly evocative. In fact, the story from where the title is distilled is worth quoting from the press release:

In the fourth century B.C.E., the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, wrote a fable of a traveling scholar who encountered a farmer struggling to retrieve water from a well to irrigate his crops. The farmer’s toils were exacerbated by his refusal to use a simple mechanical process to extract the water. He explained his position to the scholar as follows: “I heard my teacher say that where there are machines, there are bound to be machine worries; where there are machine worries there are bound to be machine hearts. With a machine heart in your breast you’ve destroyed what was pure and simple… It’s not that I don’t know about your machine. I would be ashamed to use it!”


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There is a tension between a sense of machine-lead mediation, and as the farmer says in the story, something pure and simple. The present is shameful and the artists role is to create an authentic work, something essential and pure. I did feel, however, marginally disappointed not only from the lack of androids but that many of the works weren’t as evocative as the title or the story. I found them to be opaque and, dare I say with a degree of irony, mechanical. This might of course be a product of moodiness, a fluctuating sense of frustration with current trends in art making (see M. Blackman’s article here, for a similar sense). Nevertheless, ‘Machine Hearts...’ grew on me, and after a little reading and thinking, truly stood out.

In Pedro Gómez-Egaña’s The Tristan Chord, a heap of paper shapes, inscribed with ink lines, lies on the floor. Fishing gut connects certain parts to a pulley system and then to a series of counter-weights. With the weights pulling the gut taught, the heap of paper transforms itself into a big T-Rex. The mechanism is non-recurring. When it is “on”, the gallerists attaches the weights to a series of simple switches. A winding mechanism pulls gut through the switches slowly releasing each weight, at which point a part of the dinosaur jerks into motion. A leg lifts, the head sways, the leg stomps, the neck arches. It starts off these motions as vaguely threatening, keying into our Jurassic lizard brain layer, but as the system loses energy it collapses back into a heap of paper. There was something quite cinematic about it, the last steps of the ancient behemoth, with a movielike build up of tension and release. B-movie, though, with its Rube Goldberg machine aesthetic and hand finishes. This was, of course, vastly entertaining. Later, though, the title The Tristan Chord began to intrigue me (mostly for its snappy resemblance to a Robert Ludlum title). A little Wikipedia later, and I found myself caught up in a miasma of mysterious musical lore. The chord occurs in the prelude to Wagner’s (date) opera Tristan und Isolde (listen for it in the 15th second of this rendition.) It is the musical equivalent of Manet’s Olympia, shocking, surprising and wholly Modern. The chord is described as having an incredible tension, discordant without any resolution and the first marker of Modernist atonality. While I can’t claim to understand much about Wagner, except a hazy sense that he was anti-semitic, and less about musical theory, the sheer volume of analyses of this chord is amazing. 

It’s a lot of weight for a paper bone machine to bear, one would think. But that same seemingly revolutionary discordancy is familiar to me from any thriller and horror, the majesty of an opera transformed into a gaudy heightening of movie terror, fake blood, swords and gorillas fighting T-Rexes. The bathos of the dinosaur collapsing into a pile, the Old stuttering through a series of tensions without resolution, seems amazingly poetic.

Cameron MacLeod’s Engineering Desire is a machine designed to skip stones across water. Essentially a motor driving a whirling arm held level by struts and feet, it sits inscrutably on the gallery floor. I found myself crawling around it tracing levers and springs to see how it worked. On the wall a video shows the machine at work. Sitting on the bank of a serene translucent lake, it fires its stone. What results is something close to pure aesthetic bliss (seen through a haze of video pixels). The stone taps out a perfect Fibonacci sequence on the surface of the water, and at the end of its ridiculously long journey curves into a spiral. This exquisite act lead me on three different trains of thought.

Firstly, there seems to be a tendency in current art to search out the formal, or the purely aesthetic. The act of skimming a stone as art is as depoliticized, as clean as a Norwegian lake. Its an act of privilege, as middle-class as a stroll, ennui or a course in art history.

Secondly, this feeling was offset by the absolute bizarreness of the machine. It reminds me of something from, the ultimate DIY website. The website is a mix of a desperate investment in making as a search for meaning and a tight and active sense of community. 

Thirdly, I was struck by a memory of my father, walking on the beach and teaching my brothers and I how to skip stones on the flat water between swells. A machine that achieves the perfect skip seems to me to be a negation of the father mixed with a need for masculine approval. The building of a DIY machine also reminds me of a disenfranchised masculinity: the garage-tinkerer, the woodworker or the after-hours mechanic bashing around with tools to fend off a creeping sense of the uselessness of traditional masculinity in a changing world. Except Macleod’s machine works.

It must be pointed out that as a curator Anthea Buys is on fire. While, as I grumpily mentioned at the beginning of this article, not all the works gripped me, the act of producing a show with multiple international artists without the backing of a major gallery or institution is amazing.  That some of the works were actually good is an inhuman feat.