The story of modern kinetic art begins a century ago, when Marcel Duchamp thought to mount a bicycle wheel on a stool. He found it comforting to watch the turning wheel, and when he first displayed “Bicycle Wheel,” he invited viewers to spin it.
Since then, kinetic artists have experimented with mechanics, invisible forces such as gravity and electro-magnetism, and computers. “5000 Moving Parts,” now in motion at the MIT Museum, checks in with some contemporary masters of the moving sculpture. The works on view, run by motors, magnets, flywheels, human power, and microprocessors, are elegant and ambitious.
Often they raise the question: How could things so mechanical move with such organic grace? John Douglas Powers’s large-scale, intricate sculptures “Ialu” and “Haliades” play with waves. In “Ialu,” scores of sticks mounted upright on wooden beams flutter and tilt as a motor moves the beams. The sticks sway, they lean into one another, then rise and lean the other way, like reeds in a blustery marsh. A video of the sky is projected on the wall behind them.
Powers’s canny use of sound amplifies the lulling effect. The machinery squeaks and groans. If you listen long enough, those noises transform into a seaside concert: gulls cawing, the wind moaning. “Ialu” refers to an Egyptian myth of paradise, a wetland with fish and fowl to feed those who live there after death.
“Haliades” name checks ancient Greek oceanic nymphs. It utilizes similar motorized cranks to move gold-painted wooden rods that lie in rows over two platforms. In motion, the rods undulate with sensual languor, catching the light as they rise and fall. The movement is something like the ocean’s, but more muscular and feline — a lynx giving chase.
Many of the works bring us back to our own bodies. Arthur Ganson, kinetic sculptor and longtime darling of the MIT Museum, here collaborates with sound artist Christina Campanella on the topic of respiration.
Ganson’s “Machine With Breath” features a lung of sorts: a black cylinder with accordion folds. It compresses mechanically, then releases, at a slow, meditative pace. Unremarkable as it is visually, I could have sat there watching it for an hour, breathing with it.
“BREATHE,” Campanella’s soundtrack available on headphones, originates from a microphone inside Ganson’s apparatus. A low bass accompanies the whistling wind of respiration, and wee chirrs remind us this is a creaky machine. Again, the contemplative rhythm delivered me out of my chatty head right into my own breath and flesh.
Anne Lilly has for years made pristine stainless steel sculptures, often featuring several rods connected to gears. They look like machines until they start to dance, tilting and circling in unexpected concert. Two such smaller pieces are here, including one, “To Caress,” which sweetly tickles your hand with swaying fronds of metal. But her new, large-scale interactive work, “To Conjugate,” takes her in new directions.
You’ll need a partner for this one. That grounds it in the nature of relationships, collaboration, and the balance of power. Two people sit back to back in tractor seats, and one by one push up from the floor, as if on a seesaw. The seats connect to a pair of old red flywheels that once helped run a horse-drawn fire engine. With these materials, the artist forsakes the perfect gleam of stainless steel for the patina of antiques, and the whiff of history weaves with the complicated give-and-take of partnering.
As the flywheels gain momentum, they take over the work, and move the seats up and down. That’s a moment of letting go and being carried. A delight.
The other two works in “5000 Moving Parts” are headier, though no less fun.
When the Greek artist Takis was a fellow at MIT in 1968, he built “Electro-Magnetic I, No. 13.” This is the oldest piece in the show, intended to anchor us in kinetic artists’ mid-20th-century fascination with magnets. In 1960, Takis had used a magnetic field to suspend the poet Sanford Beiles in a Paris gallery. He cheekily took credit for sending a man into space six months before the Soviets.
This piece, made as NASA readied to send astronauts to the moon, looks lunar — a pale orb, dramatically lit. It’s magnetized and tethered above a large magnet, so it bobs and weaves erratically, never coming to rest, making an antic counterpoint to Ganson’s calming “Machine With Breath” next door.
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer utilizes a scanner in his “Please Empty Your Pockets,” which makes his work the most 21st century of the bunch. If you place your keys on the illuminated conveyor belt that passes under the scanner, an image of them will appear on the other side, along with pictures of other people’s keys, phones, and even badminton birdies that have previously passed through. The work remembers up to 600,000 objects and presents them in new arrays each time it scans something new.
“Please Empty Your Pockets” touches on the traces we leave behind, and how we identify with the objects we carry. It’s rather haunting, yet also has the whizz-bang dazzle of any new interactive toy, which may last but a few minutes. It’s fun, but so much of the other work in “5000 Moving Parts” is truly moving.