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Slicing time: Harold Edgerton’s magic bullet.

How It Works
By David Brickman

Artful Mechanisms: The Kinetic Sculptures of Arthur Ganson

Seeing the Unseen: Photographs by Harold E. Edgerton

The Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, Mass., through Nov. 3

Two 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.

Inspired “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 crank.

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 invention.

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 style.

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 diamonds.

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 the skipper.

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.

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