Thursday, January 6, 2011

Engineering as Art: Sayumi contemplates selected pieces from the December round

Dutch artist and ‘kinetic sculptor’ Theo Jansen has infamously been quoted (and see also here) as saying that “the walls between art and engineering exist only in our minds”, and this quote came to mind when I viewed several of the works presented for the December round of the competition. Although at first glance these pieces may seem to depict engineering wonders from the past or an imagined future or alternative universe, it brings me to consider the sometimes arbitrary way in which we may classify the products of human ingenuity and imagination. I am sure that some purists would rightly leap to query my qualifications (I have none!! There, I said it first, hee hee!) to become even slightly philosophical about the art world. But let me be a fool who rushes in where angels fear to tread…

In this category I firstly came across Crampton locomotive by the delightfully-named followmeimthe Piedpiper. This work reproduces at full size a class of British steam locomotive from the mid-19th century. As a non-specialist and someone who has no first-hand knowledge of steam engines despite living near what I am told is a wonderful tourist steam railway, I always tend to think of steam engines as grimy black industrial things from another era; but the Piedpiper’s work reveals the Crampton engineers as people who cared to add colour and style to their work. The combination of green paintwork, polished brass and shiny steel presents us with an aesthetically pleasing result visually while no doubt retaining essential functionality. I was at first disappointed not to be able to board the locomotive because the pose was set for the owner only; but this only impelled me to investigate more closely and discover that I could fly away to an SL railway yard and obtain my very own simple steam locomotive completely free courtesy of the Virtual Railway Consortium. I don’t usually play trains and I never had a brother who did, but I am sure I will return to play with mine again some day soon.

followmeimthe Piedpiper - Crampton locomotive

Sayumi plays trains at the Virtual Railway Company (and you can too!)

The second piece is one for which I have a special affection simply because it was created by my fellow Western Australian, Dusty Canning (there, I had to declare my personal bias, even though I have actually met Dusty only once!). With her Jindivik – the Hunted One (the subtitle providing a translation of the Aboriginal name) we have moved forward from the 19th century into the mid-20th, and to the parched plains of the Woomera rocket range in South Australia, where one of Dusty’s first world relatives was involved in developing and testing this pilotless aircraft. I have to admit that the Royal Australian Air Force logo with its Qantas-like kangaroo brought a patriotic lump to my throat to see it in SL, but the sleek lines and (girl’s view here!) pretty orange colour of the paintwork reveal again that aesthetics and practical application do combine. The orange paint may look good, but in useful terms it also made the aircraft an easy target, since it was designed to be attacked by practice missiles! Dusty has given us two Jindiviks, one on the ground for our close inspection and the other circling overhead. Artistically, one also finds a piece of Australian Aboriginal artwork in a classic white clay and ochre medium, on the verso of the placard.

Dusty Canning - Jindivik - the Hunted One

Finally, on one of my occasional ‘pink’ days (I have far more pink in my wardrobe than can possibly be good for me!) I approached a threatening column of black smoke rising continuously from the benignly-named Bennie by Tensai Hilra. I was unable to access artists’ notes for this piece, so I was left to let my own imagination wander freely. And wander it did! Insect-like, imposing and dominating, Bennie towered above me, his hollow, expressionless gaze and huge mandibular jaws creating a terror which may have been felt by some undiscovered race of moth-people on a far-flung planet of the Andromeda galaxy as he advanced upon their simple cocoon village. Hilra has used the natural form of the arachnidae to inspire this engineering marvel whose sole purpose must surely be to trample, tear and destroy. One wonders at the power source which would provide the energy for Bennie’s marauding, the thick black smoke making the viewer wonder if any progress at all has been made since Crampton’s steam locomotive, and whether, in Bennie’s alternative metaverse perhaps some undeclared catastrophe has forced the engineers back to the simple energy sources of a former era. Only the luminous green glow from his feet suggests that I may be wrong. Emotionally this work returned me to the fear of Spirit Radikal’s Owned, though without the sense that I would be ravaged before being dismembered; I am not fond of spiders at the best of times, and Hilra has done his work well in ensuring that the arachnophobe will not die calmly at the jaws of his creation.

Tensai Hilra - Bennie

And so each of these works has drawn from me an emotional response, not only of admiration for the creative skill involved, but in approaching the finished work and sensing something of the artist’s world and purpose in presenting the piece. Engineering does indeed overlap with the world of art, and although the pieces I have discussed here are a far cry from Theo Jansen’s strange beach creatures I somehow believe that he would endorse the way I have understood them.

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