Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Rage for the Machine

The Machine at Marly was built on the Seine river in France in 1684. A series of gigantic wheels in the river, it drove pumps that carried water uphill to an aqueduct. It was for a time the largest work of integrated machinery in the world. To find out more about the machine, I strongly recommend an click around this interesting little site, which is where I first discovered it. The story has a number of fascinating little corners - for instance part of the machine, a wooden tower, was moved to the Paris observatory after it was no longer needed on the site. The astonomer Cassini (of Saturn fame) used it to mount long telescopes.

The recycling of the tower by Cassini serves as a good example of the varying use of parts of the machine. It was built to supply water to the palaces of the ancien regime, a monstrous misuse of resources typical of absolutism, but by 1963 parts of it were being used to generate electricity. But I came across the site about it while looking for something else entirely (a picture of a spillway to accampany an end-of-year post), entering via the page of images of the machine. For a time I couldn't tell what the machine was actually for, but that didn't decrease my interest. It made me think of this aside from a recent LRB essay on the work of the eccentric Russian poet Daniil Kharms:
One visitor to his apartment reported seeing a contraption made of bits of metal, wooden boards, springs, a bicycle wheel and empty jars; Kharms said it was ‘a machine’, and, when asked what kind, replied: ‘No kind. Just a machine.’

No kind, just a machine, a line that for me nicely justifies a lot of modern art and poetry. It doesn't have to do anything. But coming across the Marly site also reminded me that machines are interesting in themselves. When I was young, I had a collection of "Technic" Lego, which could be used to build quite complicated machines. The difficulty, for me, was always trying to think of what I could build with it - and so I would build complicated apparatuses of gears and settings and pistons that didn't actually do anything.

I suppose this was a kind of kinetic scuplture; I saw what I believe to have been a Tinguely at a very early age and was delighted by its shuddering motions, its noise, its mischievous lack of utility. Duchamp compared watching the spinning of his "Bicycle Wheel" to watching the crackling of a fire, a really effective analogy for that kind of pleasant, purposeless absorption in the processes of a moving object. It's the same kind of idle pleasure that comes from watching a machine in motion, regardless of its purpose. The Science Museum has changed a lot since I was first taken there as a small child, but I'm reassured to see that children haven't changed as well - amid all the apparently enthralling touchscreens, the object that still really holds the attention is the gigantic working steam engine. It doesn't do anything, it the sense of drive any productive machines or generate any power, but that doesn't seem to put anyone off. It's really a giant version of Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel.

All this, I suppose, connects back to the constructivists, who were (Duchamp aside) among the first to describe and advocate kinetic art, and Vladimir Tatlin's tower, mentioned previously. The Bolshevik avant-garde liked the idea of kinetic machine art, hymning as it did industrialisation and modernity rather than dead Tsarist heroes and saints, but purposeless art was a little too wasteful, bougeois and decadent for them. The sculptures Tatlin proposed would actually be useful - his Monument to the Third International, the tower, would contain a congress hall for the Bolshevik world government as well as offices and a boradcasting centre. Smaller monuments could serve as loudspeakers or platforms for speeches.

Purposeful sculpture isn't so farfetched. Minus the Bolshevik ideology, there are a couple of instances in London. The statue of James Henry Greathead at Bank includes a Tube ventilation shaft in its plinth. And Rodney Gordon's brutalist Faraday Memorial at Elephant conceals a London Underground electricity substation. I like how appropriate these uses are, given Greathead's connection with tunnelling and Faraday's connection with electricity.

The Faraday Memorial. Image taken from the Flickr stream of a shadow of my future self and used under a Creative Commons licence.

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