Archives for the month of: March, 2013


When a machine is invented, metaphors follow. For instance, Jerónimo de Ayanz y Beaumont (1553 – 1613) invented a steam-powered water pump for draining mines. It was patented in 1606. One day it occurred to William Harvey that the heart is a pump, he published his findings in 1628. These dates from Wikipedia support what I’m saying – I’m going to trust Wikipedia on this one. I like machines and metaphors.

The image at the top is Jean Tinguely’s Homage to New York, 1960. It was a machine designed to destroy itself. Intentional futility is poignant, and if the futility suggests something about ourselves, I’d call it art.

What follows are some quotes from artists who emerged in the early 20th century:

Jean Cocteau, “The case of the gramophone convinces me that poetry is moving into an unknown world. The subordinate role of machines is going to end. We shall have to collaborate with them”.fn1

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, “We are developing and proclaiming a great new idea that runs through modern life: the idea of mechanical beauty. We therefore exalt love for the machine, that love we notice flaming on the cheeks of mechanics scorched and smeared with coal. Have you never seen a mechanic lovingly at work on the great powerful body of his locomotive?”.fn2

Vladimir Evgrafovich Tatlin, “I am waiting for well-equipped artistic ‘depots’ where an artist’s psychic machine might be repaired as necessary”.fn3

Tristan Tzara, “Dialectics is an amusing machine that leads us (in banal fashion) to the opinions which we would have held in any case”.fn4

Paul Valery, “A poem is really a kind of machine for producing the poetic state of mind by means of words”.fn5

In the last couple of years, two other art machines have come to my attention. Both have Tinguely’s poignant futility.

The Belgian artist Wim Delvoye has made a number of machines that manufacture feces – put food in the top and wait. His Disney themed website is also worth a look.

Arthur Ganson made a machine that consists of interconnected gears driven by an electric motor at 200 rpm with each of its twelve stages reducing speed and increasing torque by a factor of 50. The final gear in the series is encased in concrete and will take two trillion years to make one rotation.

The futility of all these examples is pretty obvious and I see them as metaphors of our hopes and bodily realities.

But enough about machines. there’s also a beautiful futility in the following two works:

Agnes Denes
In 1982 Agnes Denes planted a field of wheat in the Battery Park landfill, New York.

spiral jetty 2
In 1970 Robert Smithson constructed Spiral Jetty on the shore of Great Salt Lake, near Rozel Point, Utah. It’s 1500 feet long and 15 feet wide.

Oh what strange and wondrous things there are.

fn1 Jean Cocteau, The Art of Cinema, André Bernard and Claude Gauteur eds., Robin Buss trans., New York: Marion Boyars, 1992, “A Wonderful and Dangerous Weapon in a Poet’s Hands”, p. 31.

fn2 Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Marinetti Selected Writings, R. W. Flint ed., R. W. Flint and A. A. Coppotelli trans., New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972, “War, the World’s only Hygiene” (1911-1915), p. 90.

fn3 Vladimir Evgrafovich Tatlin, Tatlin, Larissa Alekseevna Zhadova ed., P. Filotas, M. Julian, E. Lockwood, D. Macknight, E Polgar, C. Wright trans., London: Thames and Hudson, 1988, “My answer to “Letter to the Futurists”” p. 185.

fn4 Tristan Tzara, Dada Almanach, Richard Huelsenbeck ed., M. Green, D. Wynand, T. Hale, B. Wright, A. Melville and S. Barnett trans., London: Atlas Press, 1993, “Dada Manifesto, 1918” p.127.

fn5 Paul Valery, The Art of Poetry, Denise Folliot trans., London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958, “Poetry and Abstract Thought” p. 79

PHOTO CREDITS: Cloaca from ; Arthur Ganson’s machine from ; Wheat field photo, Agnes Denes ; The photo of Cocteau looks like a Man Ray kind of thing. I wish I knew who to credit for the others. It’s easier to find things on the internet than it is to find out who created them when. If anyone has advice on this subject, it would be greatly appreciated. I’m a stickler for footnotes.



By Stephen Eric Armstrong, artist, January, 2001

Numerous boxes that market and protect things like pharmaceuticals, soda crackers and nails enter my home. I have been saving these boxes, carefully undoing them, and then painting them. This process:

1. Redeems (almost Biblically) commodified objects to a context of personal value by way of laborious embellishment with gesso and paint. Late Capitalism’s colonization of the individual is reversed by the exercise of taste. Artists must be earnest and diligent if they are to succeed in the great task of ideological intervention. We are not to be envied in this hard work.

2. Plays with the fundamental notion that a painting is a flat thing that offers a virtual, or apparent, volume. The boxes were not flat when I found them, but of course, they were flat at some earlier time on a factory floor somewhere, but this is irrelevant because the point is, they were designed to be folded and glued, or possibly stapled, and not be flat, and when most of us encounter them they aren’t flat, and we don’t generally understand them as being flat, but I made them flat and then I painted them to suggest illusory volumes of celestial proportions. But, simultaneously, and contradictorily, these illusory volumes look like nothing more than paint on cardboard. These paintings demonstrate the letter of Clement Greenberg without the spirit, or the spirit without the letter, or perhaps neither, or even both. Moreover, they could equally be regarded as Minimalism deconstructed. There is a lonely grandeur in such subtleties.

3. Celebrates the ordinary, that inevitable place where we all live. The boxes document the private life of a household as it is reflected in its consumer choices. Marx said that commercial relations falsify human relations – this process needs to be turned around, and this can only be accomplished by remembering who we are – we the people, who truly own this world. These boxes are cargo-cult totems for personal lives lost in global commercial culture. They reclaim a folk tradition and re-integrate the individual into meaningful social constellations. (see #1)

4. Sets up a figure/ground tension on a painted surface that has no clearly discernible figure on a ground, and is, indeed, only ground and nothing else. This tension is achieved by way of the peculiar shapes of the boxes. The shapes cause our perceptual mechanisms to seize upon the entire painted surface as a figure, while the ground becomes the framing materials I suppose, or even the entire world in which the figure exists. These paintings deny the figure/ground relation, but by so doing, export that relation into the real world, becoming in the process, virtual sculpture. (see #2)

5. Etc.

Originally published in Wegway No. 7, Fall 2004.

(But I still find it kind of amusing and worth putting out there again. I initially wrote it to accompany a two person show I had at the SPIN Gallery in Toronto with Gary Michael Dault, but I only ever received one comment about it. Happily it was someone who thought it was funny. So basically, nobody read it, and I suppose in a way that was part of the point. Who, after all, actually reads the dreck usually found in artists’ statements? Roy Lichtenstein said, “ Philosophers rarely, if ever, create art and artists’ philosophy is equally moronic. What artists think they are doing and how they are later seen is always in contradiction; witness the writings of the Futurists, Purists, and even Mondrian.”* A bit harsh perhaps, but more or less true.)

(I might write a future post that compares the above quote with something Susan Sontag said)

(I might also write a future post about the hot conflict between the Formalist Party (items 2 and 4 in the artist statement) and the Ideological Interventionist Party (items 1 and 3). The Formalists are presently in a minority position)

*Roy Lichtenstein, “Interview with Philip Smith,” Arts Magazine (November 1977), p. 26.

Marcel Duchamp made a number of Rotoreliefs by applying various patterns to discs and then rotating them with an electric motor. The film he made of them in 1926 was called Anemic Cinema and, just as the pieces themselves did, it successfully generated virtual sculptures through optical illusion. There are versions of this film in circulation on the internet, YouTube and Vimeo for instance, with a musical sound track added and there are also colour versions floating around. But the original was made in 1926, so it’s safe to say it’s a silent film. I found the added sound track distracting – three dimensionality suddenly popping up is more than stimulating enough on its own. Colour films of the works though, add to the effect.

Why would he call it Anemic Cinema? I think this question gets to the heart of the matter. To answer it, the viewer needs to clarify an understanding of what sculpture is and what cinema is. Must sculpture actually be three dimensional, or would virtual three dimensionality suffice? A major theme in Duchamp’s work is to push viewers to define terms and make the necessary and sufficient conditions explicit. If a urinal can be art, then the question is “Why?”.

Duchamp’s film refines the sculpture problem even further. Now there isn’t even a disc and a motor, but rather, an image of a disc that seems to rotate because of the presentation speed of progressive images, in other words, a movie. That’s about as virtual as a sculpture can get.

But I think “anemic” relates strictly to film as opposed to sculpture. A film is a virtual event, non narrative and abstract films included. Michael Snow’s La Region Centrale, 1971, is a virtual event just as much as Gone with the Wind. I think that’s just what film is. The events you witness in a movie aren’t really happening, you just knowingly take them as real during the viewing.

In 1926, an era before anyone thought of making a kinetic sculpture, an image of a sculpture would be static, just like an image of a painting, time is unnecessary, they’re not events. As an aside, I searched when Calder made his first mobiles and Wikipedia gives a date of 1932 plus the incidental information that Duchamp was the person who gave them that name.

What we find is, Duchamp had a wry sense of humour. Anemic Cinema is a film of a sculpture that requires motion to generate a stable shape. It might as well be a still photograph but it can’t be. Anemic indeed.

The image of Rotoreliefs came from here:

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