Copper in the Arts

January 2010

Automata: Contemporary Mechanical Sculpture

automata kinetic art Neil Hardy, The Early Bird, 2004, wood, brass, paint, 9 x 9 x 5 in. Croft Collection

Photograph courtesy of Chazen Museum of Art
The Chazen Museum of Art presents the delightful work of fourteen international artists in Automata: Contemporary Mechanical Sculpture. Meticulously crafted with brass wires to perform complex, surprising, and often comic movements, these mechanical sculptures tell quick fanciful tales of nature, myth and magic, the creative process, and sheer make-believe. More than 25 hand-cranked artist-designed automata, most loaned from the private collection of University of Arizona art professor emeritus Michael Croft, will be on view January 16 through March 14, 2010. Videos will play in the gallery to show the animated workings of the pieces. Museum admission is free.

Traditionally, the term "automaton" referred to a mechanized device constructed to perform actions as if by its own motive power. Like robots, animatronics, and clockwork figures, early automata were engineered to imitate life; thus, their inner workings were hidden from view. Notable examples of self-moving naturalistic sculptures include jointed religious effigies of ancient Egypt, pneumatic models of ancient Greece, a mechanical orchestra created for the emperor during China's Han Dynasty, and monumental animated water clocks of the medieval Islamic world.

automata kinetic art Dean Lucker, Man Drinking in the Moon, 2009, wood, metal, paint, 13 x 7 x 4 in.

Photograph courtesy of Chazen Museum of Art

Some of the best-known automata were designed by French engineer Jacques de Vaucanson in the eighteenth century. His life-sized mechanical duck, made of gilt brass, used flexible rubber tubing for intestines and more than 400 moving parts in one wing alone. It looked like a duck, moved like a duck, quacked like a duck - and on being fed corn it even defecated like a duck. Vaucanson's work ushered in a nineteenth-century golden age of animated clockwork clowns, acrobats, and entertainers, which were popular as parlor amusements and department store window displays until World War I.

Today's artist-designed automata tend toward imaginative storytelling, suspending reality and exploring playful worlds beyond everyday existence. Many sculptors are drawn to automata for the expressive possibilities of working with wood, metal, and wire in motion. They also incorporate the element of time, using the wind-up and release of mechanical tension to parallel the build-up and punch line of a tale. Many artists appreciate the mass appeal of mechanical sculpture and find great satisfaction in seeing how audiences experience the work.


Chazen Museum of Art, 800 University Ave., Madison, WI, (608) 263-2246

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