Sunday, May 17, 2009

Dark Roasted Weirdsville

Here we go again: another article for the always-great Dark Roasted Blend. This time it's about magnificent kinetic sculptures. Enjoy!

The word definitely gets tossed around way too much -- and too frivolously -- but even so, everyone pretty much agrees that Hemmingway was one, Einstein was one, Michelangelo was one, Frank Lloyd Wright was one, Freud was one ….

And then there’s Theo Jansen.

Without a doubt, with no hyperbole: Theo Jansen is an absolute genius.

You might not have heard of this particular Dutchman – unlike, say, others like Vermeer, Leeuwenhoek, or Huygens – but believe me, Theo Jansen deserves to be among their genius standing.

You see, Theo Jansen is an artist, but not just any artist. He doesn’t paint, doesn’t work in clay. Theo Jansen is a sculptor: he creates, from his own mind and imagination, intricate mechanisms. There have been other sculptors who've created work that moves – and there will be again – but what makes Theo’s work so amazing, so blindingly brilliant, is that his creations walk, stroll, stride, and amble. Yes, they walk.

Instead of being powered by primitive steam or modern electricity,
Theo’s creations are propelled by the air, by wind. They are strolling clipper ships, sauntering sailboats.

Just watch them -- they’re hypnotic, dreamy. Undulating beasts marching along the seaside, elaborate mechanisms walking through the surf spray ….

But Theo Jansen is not the only magnificently original artist out there doing things with gears and pulleys and wire and leverage. Many other artist/engineers are working on a wide range of ways to mix mechanical joints with organic precision to create devices that walk like living creatures -- though whether those creations are as whimsical as Jansen's is open to debate.

One truly spectacular group, lead by François Delarozière, is called La Machine. Uniting engineers – who know how to make things move –and artists – who have outrageous visions -- La Machine has created some truly awesome devices for some truly amazing events.

Recently, for instance, a 37-ton spider descended down the side of a building in Liverpool, in the United Kingdom. La Princesse, as she was called, proceeded through the city, her elegantly mechanical walk controlled by a team of skilled puppeteers. To say that the sight of this playfully nightmarish creature took the city by surprise is an understatement.

But the masterminds of La Machine have had other tricks up their wildly inventive sleeves, as well. In 2005, in public squares in cities all around the world, a massive Jules Verne inspired rocket ‘crashed’ to a landing. After a brief time a girl emerged from it. But this was not just any girl: she was a immense marionette controlled by dozens of skilled La Machine performers. Dreamlike, she walked – and even rode a scooter -- through city streets, taking in the adoration and amazement of the crowds.

But soon she was joined by an even greater kinetic marvel. Another elaborate puppet, the Sultan’s Elephant of La Machine, is an artistic and engineering marvel: a 50-ton imitation operated by more than 22 puppeteers. Watching the girl and the elephant … well, I’ve already called it ‘dreamlike.’ How about mesmerizing, incredible … or just unbelievably very cool?

Since we’re chatting about amazing mechanical/artistic creations, we have to mention the artist Frederick Roland Emett. Sure, you can point to Rube Goldberg, who certainly deserves praise, but Frederick Roland Emett has a leg up on Goldberg for his incredibly diverse work. Not only are his illustrations wild, fanciful, and outrageous but he also created many insanely elaborate sculptures and creations. Looking like Willy Wonka’s hallucinations, or Dr. Suess' nightmares, Emett’s sculptures have an entrancing craziness that’s dazzlingly hypnotic.

Creating something beautiful and wonderful takes one kind of skill, but to bring it to mechanical life – well, that takes genius.

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