time: Harold Edgertons magic bullet.
Mechanisms: The Kinetic Sculptures of Arthur Ganson
the Unseen: Photographs by Harold E. Edgerton
Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, Mass., through Nov. 3
exhibitions that marry technology and art are on view at The
Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, and they make a pretty pair.
A 40-mile drive from Albany, the museum is in a venerable
old building on South Street, right off the city’s historic
New England-style square, but it has kept up with the times,
particularly in the way it promotes art, science and learning
to children. Artful Mechanisms: The Kinetic Sculptures
of Arthur Ganson and Seeing the Unseen: Photographs
by Harold E. Edgerton make a strong argument for the power
of art to communicate to all ages, even when a strong dose
of technology is involved.
Ganson was artist-in-residence at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology from 1994 to 2001; though no dates accompany
the works on view, one would assume that most of them were
created during that period. He also is the inventor of a plastic-and-foam
creative toy called Toobers and Zots, and a large portion
of the gallery is devoted to a user-friendly corollary installation
built around the toy’s colorful shapes. This totally hands-on
part of the show looks fun, but the serious stuff is the machines—and,
as it happens, they are fun and hands-on, too.
“to work with the physical world and see what I can say with
it,” Ganson extends a modernist tradition that spans constructivism,
dada and surrealism. He was described by one critic as “Rube
Goldberg meets Jean-Paul Sartre,” but I would add Leonardo
DaVinci and Alexander Calder to the list of significant influences
on these playful, energetic and meaningful inventions.
The comparison to Goldberg is, I think, mistaken. Whereas
Goldberg delights by taking the most complicated possible
route to, say, letting the cat out, Ganson puts the cat on
a relentlessly turning wheel where an avenging lobster tail
repeatedly knocks it off. Existentialism indeed.
As with DaVinci, some of Ganson’s machines appear to exist
not so much to perform a function as to explore how it happens.
In DaVinci’s case, this meant the study of birds’ wing structure,
and a design meant to imitate (and thus understand) the way
a hand twists yarn when spinning. For Ganson, this can mean
building an electric machine that opens and closes a Chinese
fan, or one that performs the bizarre task of making a small
plastic doll’s head follow the erratic motions of a wobbling
and rotating plastic ball as the observer hand-turns a little
And, like Calder, Ganson is simply a genius with wire, crafting
wheels and gears and a panoply of other beautiful working
machine parts that fit together like those of a fine Swiss
watch—but looser, for the love of fun.
Among the most popular and original pieces in the exhibition
is one called Machine With Wishbone, which updates
the myth of Sisyphus by harnessing a chicken bone to a large,
whirring contraption; the bone then appears to trudge along,
pulling the machine behind it on an endless, repeating track.
One of the informative panels that offer input at key spots
throughout the installation points out that Machine With
Wishbone is often interpreted by adults as negative but
by children as playful and light. This generational dichotomy
can be found elsewhere in the show, and is one of the reasons
Ganson’s creations are more appropriately termed art than
Another piece that shouts ART is Cory’s Yellow Chair,
a stylish, dark gray rectangle in front of which a miniature
wooden chair flies to pieces and comes together briefly in
an exploding, star-shaped rhythm. A comment on postmodernist
deconstructivist theory, perhaps.
Among the more minimalist machines are Machine With Breath,
which slowly opens and closes a cylindrical bellows, and the
relentless Radio Press, an extremely slow-moving collection
of graduated gears that clicks metallically while imperceptibly
but inevitably crushing a defenseless home-entertainment appliance.
On a lighter note, Machine With Eggshells produces
a mellifluous castanet-like percussion when cranked, and Margot’s
Last Cat allows a piece of dollhouse furniture to bounce,
soar and pirouette as entrancingly as any dancer through the
expert use of a perfect counterweight and a shifting plastic
feline on a rug.
Though a number of Ganson’s machines either look complicated
(and are) or don’t (but are), several are elegantly simple.
The best one, Machine With Ball Chain, has just one
gear, turned by an electric motor, that feeds a length of
thick ball chain (picture an old light pull only larger, or
the thing your teen wears around his neck) through a metal
tube where it gathers in a coiled heap on a round platter
before being pulled down through a hole in the middle of the
platter and back into the tube. That’s the entire mechanism,
but in action it creates infinite arrangements of the chain,
lifelike random movement, and a pleasing sound to boot.
Sometimes, it takes genius to see the beauty in a thing so
simple as that.
In two large rooms next to the Ganson exhibition is a collection
of 50 photographs by Edgerton, an MIT denizen of an earlier
generation. Famous for his invention and use of stroboscopic
flash to record infinitesimal slices of time and capture otherwise
invisible phenomena, Edgerton was a scientist first and foremost.
But the graceful beauty of many of his photographs brought
him into the realm of art.
In the show at the Berkshire, there are fine examples of all
his best-known pictures (a kicking boot buried halfway into
an as-yet unlaunched football, a drop of milk splashing up
into a perfect crown, and a bullet flying free of the apple
it has just transformed into a peeling puff of cotton), as
well as a generous selection of others less famous.
A few pictures of birds in action caught my attention: one
that shows a pair of finches frozen mid-battle, and another
in which three hummingbirds hover around a woman’s bemused
face. The hummingbirds are each caught in a different characteristic
pose, producing a living example of ornithological illustration
Most of the Edgerton photographs are in black-and-white, but
many are in color, usually with good reason. For example,
a shot of a bullet having just bisected a playing card makes
excellent use of the visual beauty of the card, a Jack of
But, for me, the gray and silver tones of the black-and-white
work are Edgerton’s best medium, especially where form and
rhythm are expressed. A number of these pieces record dance
movement or sports. In a large 1938 print of a man hitting
a softball (the ball, captured at the point of impact, is
wrapped halfway around the bat), the smooth contours of the
athlete’s muscular body are reminiscent of much later work
by fashion photographer Bruce Weber.
Another large black-and-white print captures 17 overlapping
images of a woman skipping rope. Though her happy expression
barely changes in the half-second it took to make all 17 exposures,
the white rope traces a world of wonderful shapes all around
Clearly, Edgerton was master of the medium he pioneered; more
than a half-century after many of these pictures were made,
they still have the ability to delight and astonish.