HANOVER, N.H. — What you're looking at is a replica of a V12 Mercedes-Benz engine. Needless to say, it's not a faithful replica — but forms of faith do, obscurely, come into it.
Rather, it's an extravagantly ornate re-creation made from 53 materials, among them middle atlas white cedar wood, mother-of-pearl, yellow copper, nickel-plated copper, forged iron, recycled aluminum, nickel silver, and cow bone. Quite a lot of cow bone.
The work takes some explaining, but before that, it rewards a lot of close looking. It is the brainchild of Eric van Hove, a globe-trotting artist, activist, and writer who was born in Algeria in 1975, grew up in Cameroon, lives and works in Brussels and Marrakech, and was last seen rising in a balloon over Mount Fuji.
That last part is but a rumor, but it's no less plausible than anything else van Hove has done. What's more, he did study in Tokyo, and has a master's degree in traditional Japanese calligraphy and a PhD from the Tokyo University of the Arts.
This work, called "V12 Laraki," has a lot of calligraphy all over it — but it's not Japanese calligraphy, it's Arabic. The piece is an important new acquisition by the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, and it's the centerpiece of "Inventory," a terrific show of recently purchased contemporary African art from the collection, installed by curator Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi.
The work's title refers to the Laraki Fulgura, a sexy luxury sports car designed by the celebrated Moroccan designer Abdeslam Laraki. The Fulgura was first unveiled in 2004 at the International Geneva Motor Fair, where much was made of the fact that all its parts were sourced locally in Morocco. Only the high-performance engine, built by Mercedes in Germany, was imported.
Van Hove saw this discrepancy as an opportunity. He partnered with 43 traditional craftsmen from across Morocco, commissioning metalworkers, woodworkers, bone-carvers, leatherworkers, and many others to replicate every one of the German engine's 455 component parts.
In the process of its creation, the sculpture did an almost insane amount of traveling back and forth across the country as the parts were crafted and assembled over nine months. The craftsmen used traditional materials and methods, some of which date back more than 1,000 years.
The result is a genuinely remarkable object. It's not beautiful per se. It's too much of a mash-up, too mongrel for that. But it is both dazzling and aromatic (the wood gives off a lovely scent). It also functions as part homage, part reproach.
The homage is not only to 21st-century car designers and engine makers, whose creations are fantastically intricate and precise, but to the dazzling craft traditions of the Maghreb, which are no less so.
The rebuke, I suppose, is to those who would let a globalized ideal of rationalization, homogeneity, and standardization prevail over that which is locally and spiritually rooted, handmade, and proudly distinctive.
Can we live with such ambivalence? Can we be of two minds? If van Hove's sculpture can, so, I suspect, can we.
V12 Laraki by Eric van Hove
At Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College . 603-646-2808. hoodmuseum.dartmouth.edu
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.