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Interview: Arthur Ganson

Even if you haven’t heard the name Arthur Ganson, you’ve likely seen his witty kinetic sculptures: a machine that oils itself in a way that almost seems naughty, a chair that flies apart and comes back together in seconds, a tiny wishbone doomed to carry a huge wheeled monster machine behind it, and so on. Ganson is an MIT artist-in-residence and one of the pre-eminent artists in a field that he pretty much created. This month, Axiom Gallery presents “Move Me,” featuring some of his new work, along with works by Chris Fitch, Tom Haney, Steve Hollinger and Erica Von Schilgen. Recently Ganson spoke with TOB about his legacy, Legos and how his new work relates to the death of Bin Laden.

TOB: You’re kind of the granddaddy of this burgeoning style of kinetic art. Have you heard from younger artists you’ve influenced?

Arthur Ganson: Young artist have told me that they saw my work and it inspired them to do their own thing and kind of opened up the possibility of looking at machines and technology in a humanistic way. My own work is so simple that maybe the effect is that it’s a catalyst for other artists to have faith in their own voice.

Your “Machine with Concrete” piece is mindblowing, [the one with a rapidly moving gear at one end, and then a bunch of gears with the ratios breaking down until the final gear moves so slow it’s imbedded in concrete]. Did you know someone reproduced it with Legos?

Yes, and it’s great. I want to make my own vertical version of that made with Legos so that the motor is on the top driving the gears down onto a hotplate. That way the machine itself will melt into a pool of plastic and become the base—in about two trillion years.

Some have described your work as being like Rube Goldberg, but you’d never stick in a gear spinning around just because it looks interesting or funny, right?

That’s correct. In Rube Goldberg’s drawings, everything had a particular function, but his imaginations were completely impossible or impractical in the real world. I was influenced by him though, his humor, quirkiness and inventiveness. Sculpturally I feel I was much more influenced by Jean Tinguely, a Swiss sculptor. His was the most beautiful expression of energy and passion and emotion.

Has anyone in robotics ever approached you to try to help in humanizing their work?

I was recently approached by someone in the robotics field to use their very sophisticated robotics technology for the purpose of making art. I’ve met with many robotics groups at MIT and I think there’s a lot of cross-pollination. There must be some reason they wanted my pieces there. Maybe it’s because it offers the possibility of looking at mechanisms and machinery with a different energy.

What is it like being an artist at a place like MIT?

One of the robot engineers at MIT commented once that they’re making these amazing things and yet I’m the one getting all the attention. I said I was playing with the absurd and people were responding; that if a robot is purely utilitarian then somehow it has a harder time capturing people’s imagination and allowing them to dream into it.

What work have you done recently?

I’ve been making pieces that are more personal, more spiritual. I have two new pieces in the Axiom show that in some ways are very different from what I’ve done, and I’m not really sure how well they work as pieces. One is called “The First Noble Truth,” which in Buddhism refers to suffering. It’s supposed to be silly. There is a little figure that is constantly being hit in the head. The other I call “Machine for Softening Hardened Hearts.” I had been thinking what it means to label people and actions as evil, which is so appropriate given what just happened with Bin Laden. The piece has an image of Adolf Hitler. You turn the crank and there’s a little soft pom-pom gently moving over his heart area. I guess I don’t believe in evil. I think when really bad things happen it’s because there’s a misalignment, a disharmony and a sickness. If we imagine that there is evil that we can wipe out through violence it will never stop, the cycle will always continue.  

What does the future hold?

I’m not going to be taking any exhibition commitments past the end of the year. I’m giving myself a kind of sabbatical, and part of that is to explore what music is for me. I’ve gotten very involved in violin, fiddle and viola, and I want to play more guitar. I made a decision that music is important to me, it can’t just be in the background.