Mechanical, Moving, ‘Automata’ Art In SF
Guest Post By Laura Jaye Cramer
If you’ve ever stood, zombie-like and transfixed in front of moving diorama at Pier 45’s Musee Mechanique, you’ll understand Atlanta-based artist Tom Haney’s obsession with self-operating mechanisms. In a world where smartphones and laptops reign supreme, it’s unusual to see someone gravitate so dramatically to a style that’s been more or less forgotten since the turn of the twentieth century. But for Tom Haney — whose main artistic focus is on automata — the thought of creating such a throwback style of work hits a basic level. “People can’t understand how a phone or a computer works nowadays,” he says, “but they can see how a piece of automata works. They can see how the gears, the cams, the levers, and other mechanical devices work. I think it really connects with people.”
It’s not hard to see why these figures might hit a nerve with their audiences. Made from a wide range of materials, the mechanical figures that make up the genre of automata are surprisingly human. Hailing from a “simpler time”, the animated human and animal sculptures have historically been used in order to tell stories. Vintage versions might depict groups of women playing music, children writing letters, or little birds splashing in water. Their visible gears and predictable movements are understandable, often almost meditative. At its core, automata is robotics, boiled down and anthropomorphized. It’s a relatable, “easy” form of art.
Ushering in a new wave of automata are the artists of Heron Arts’ Perpetual Motion: Contemporary Interpretations of Fine Art Automata. The group showing of eleven national and international individuals was curated by Haney (alongside Heron Arts director, Noah Antieau) and shows a decidedly contemporary selection of work. This means that most of the pieces are fully electrical, use unconventional materials, or in some way speak to contemporary culture. All of the traditional standards are in place — but with a healthy breath of 2016 injected.
“I do like to look back to antique automata and learn how to make a new movement, or new mechanical device,” Haney says of a process that is equal parts nostalgia and innovation. Like his contemporaries, it’s this nod to the past that keeps creators and viewers invested in the tradition. “People want to try to make it,” he says. “People are fascinated by it.”
Heron Arts presents Perpetual Motion: Contemporary Interpretations of Fine Art Automata continues through May 14 at 7 Heron St. Visit heronarts.com
Guest Post by writer, dancer, history buff, & cat Mom; Laura Jaye Cramer