Animated Sculptures: Figuration and Movement   [extracts]

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Animated Sculptures

If one takes the term ‘Kinetic Art’ in its broadest sense, my artwork can be described as part of the Kinetic Art movement, which implies the use of motion in visual art. In France, where I live, following the vogue of the 1960s, the definition of Kinetic Art came to embrace the idea of abstraction, geometricality and technology, associated with the work of artists such as Agam, Vasarely, Schöffer, Soto, etc.
From the start, I have taken a different approach in my work. My first mobile objects, influenced by my earlier paintings, were puppet caricatures reminiscent of the work of Georg Grosz. At the same time (1967-1969) a number of artists, of which I was one, formed the group ‘Automat’ [1], whose name recalled the figurative automata of the 18th century. But the allusion stopped there. Figuration was more than just a starting point; it was a challenge. We did not want to fall into the trap of imitating the way living things and objects move in reality.
Today, I prefer to describe my works as ‘animated sculptures’. The word ‘animated’, in its accepted double sense of ‘moving’ and ‘alive’, corresponds well to the meaning of my work, and would fit other experiments and the works of other artists. Actually, I prefer to use the word to describe a type of artwork rather than a style or tendency.
In 1968, while I was cutting out the pieces for making flat, silhouette puppets, the idea came to me of chopping up puppet bodies into a series of slices or lamellae, like slices of bread or sausage, and then making each lamella move so as to impart an undulating motion to the entire body. These lamellae are undoubtedly the most characteristic element of my work. They constitute the anatomy of my sculptures. (…) The thin lamellae oscillate, some more than others, each one slightly out of phase with the next, and are driven by an electrical mechanism which is hidden from the viewer’s sight. (…) 
In my static sculptures, particularly the large ones, there is a more marked displacement of the lamellae, superimposed like geological strata. In this way distortions and effects of spatial anamorphosis are produced. In immobile works, these breaks of continuity have a dynamizing effect, in contrast to the continuous oscillation of the lamellae in my animated works which produce a sense of rest.

Figuration, but not too much

My sculptures are figurative. Their distortions and animation derive their meaning from the relationship between the sculptures and their model, between the representation of the object and the object represented. But the relationship is far from clear-cut, because when movement is introduced the sculptures appear both more real and less real at one and the same time.
This raises the question of the choice of subject. To make an object representing a moving object move may seem to be futile and superfluous, too imitative and aesthetically pointless, except if it does not move or try to move in the same way; except if it takes the same liberties with reality as is done with form and colour in art; except if movement expresses something more than just the literal description of a gesture or action. I therefore represented motionless parts of the human body (like the skull) by abnormal motion (Fig. 1); showed fists swaying, and faces and breasts in asymmetrical distortion (Fig. 2)  (…) The work of art is often too close to its model. 
In my more recent works, I have sought a somewhat broader approach. I chose, not hands or faces, but the print of a hand on a window pane, the impression of a face on a pillow, or the feet on a mat (Fig. 4), or else, eliminating the visible human element completely, I made mobile rulers that give distorted measurements (Fig. 5), clock faces that seem to deform time, books animated as if the stories were leaping out of the pages (Fig. 6). The movement is based on a play of opposites. Applied to normally inert objects, realism gives way to irrealism, and because of this, the movement adds new meaning.

Movement, but not too much

In my first mobile objects-the puppets referred to earlier-the movement occurred in an abrupt, violent fashion. It was the movement that brought about a change between two states resulting in two images of the object. (…)
I have gone into this description of my puppets, though they now seem far behind me, in order to contrast them with the special movements of my animated lamellae sculptures. The movement of the latter is autonomous, continuous and uniform, without passing from one moment of rest to another and without any motion or series of motions that can be clearly pinpointed. The sculpture is characterized by a state of mobility, the form of the sculpture being defined by this kind of permanent fluidity, by the transitoriness of the shapes that never return-even when at rest-to their original form, that of the whole object as it looked before it was deformed by the displacement of the lamellae produced by the mechanism.
However, the sculpture represents something external to itself, something familiar, easily identified by the viewer-a face, the imprint of a hand, a ruler-an object in constant motion, [308] twisting and undulating, approaching a shape it will never actually reach.

It is, in a sense, like the shimmering image of an object immersed in water. The moving image in no way corresponds to the movement of the object but determines the form of the object that the spectator actually sees. Here two pieces of information are given: one about the object; the other about the liquid the object is immersed in: its viscosity, transparency,
motion, etc. But the viewer must know that a ruler is a ruler, so that from the waves and crests formed on the surface of the water he can decide for himself how distorted what he sees really is, or is not.
Hence my approach is the opposite of the one that consists in representing movement in painting. To take a famous and obvious example, Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Nu descendant un escalier’ (Nude Descending a Staircase) seeks to express in form and colour the movement of a body in space. I try -in my own little way- to express through real movement, the qualities of a body at rest.
The lamellae move back and forth very slowly. I have tried to refine the movement of my sculptures, by varying the speed, amplitude and frequency of the oscillations and the thickness of  the lamellae. On observing the performance of my works, I noted that they operated best at a rhythm approaching that of ordinary breathing. A phrase by Akira Kurosawa has confirmed this idea for me: ‘I always edit a film’ he recently said, ‘to correspond with the rhythm of ordinary breathing.’ I think that the eye can be misled by slow movement which is sustained and uninterrupted. In Pol Bury’s works, which often appear motionless to the unwary eye, the suspense comes from the fact that the viewer, knowing that the work in reality is not motionless, is all keyed up in the expectation of the changes that may or may not occur: the ball that stops dead just as it is about to drop, the little cylinder that unexpectedly pops up and is gone in a flash. In my own artworks there is no suspense of this kind: the eye is fixed on the motion of the object itself, like that of the stalking hunter fixed on the flight of his prey. For this, slow movement is necessary. What is also necessary is that the viewer and the object breathe in unison.
Some of my sculptures thus operate at extremely slow speeds which, when combined with the very slight oscillations of their lamellae, result in almost imperceptible movement. I like this paradox-something immobile represented by a mobile that seems immobile. I try to present my works in such a way that only a certain angle of view or special lighting that draws attention to the shadows projected makes it possible to perceive the movement.

Technology, but not too much

I attach importance to technology only in so far as it helps to make my sculptures move properly and unobtrusively. The mechanism is simple, self-operating (thanks to its electric motors) and hidden from view. I am not interested in scientific innovations or technological gadgetry. The automata of ancient days, with their highly ingenious clockwork, were experiments of the most advanced techniques of their times, like certain  robots today. Some artists try to emphasize the aesthetic aspect of these new discoveries. My work has nothing to do with this kind of approach. The purpose of concealing the operating mechanism is not to keep it secret but to create an illusion which the viewer is, in a sense, party to. Sometimes, when I have shown [309] my artworks to children, I have actually let them see the mechanism. In one case, it was a door, and sticking through it, a head and a hand holding the door handle. After I covered up the mechanism again, one of the children asked me if behind that door (that is, the place where the child had just seen a number of small motors and cam-shafts) there was the rest of the body of the person. This was a very pertinent question indeed. When one stops to think about it, behind a painting representing a landscape there is, of course, the wall the painting is hanging on. It is this double perception, seeing the canvas on the wall and the landscape on the canvas, that brings added aesthetic enjoyment.
Thus, my works appear as animated sculptures, made up of mobile lamellae installed on top of or in objects that serve as a support or a casing for the mechanism, or as the body of the sculpture itself. Sometimes these objects form the pedestal of the work, the part least likely to be noticed. But, more often than not, they are part and parcel of the work of art. I like to use old wooden panels and discarded, time-worn furniture. I love the contrast between the precision of the concealed machinery and the clumsy, arbitrary signs of wear and tear on the furniture. To these relics of former usefulness, the animated parts, swaying and pulsating gently, add the dimension of passing time.

[1] Bertholo, Gamarra, Lanati, Lublin, Guidot, Marcos, Tallon, Vanarsky.

© Vanarsky, Jack. “Animated Sculptures: Figuration and Movement”. in Leonardo, Vol. 15, No. 4 (Autumn, 1982), pp. 306-309, The MIT Press.
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