CAMBRIDGE — If the pleasure people take in going to exhibitions were somehow equivalent to compound interest, accruing to the host museum, Arthur Ganson’s kinetic sculptures would have made the MIT Museum the richest museum in town. Ganson’s work has been on display since the museum opened in 1995. Tens of thousands of people have seen his sculptures and interacted with them. I’m yet to meet one who didn’t love them.
“Gestural Engineering: The Sculpture of Arthur Ganson,” was reopened this fall after a renovation and re-do. The sculptures themselves — which tend to be simple, poetic gestures set in motion by fiendishly tricky back-of-house mechanical operations, with both sides of the equation visible to the viewer — were restored. The controls by which audiences can activate them were replaced and improved. (Most now involve foot pedals).
Wall texts give brief descriptions by Ganson himself about what he was trying to do and how he sees each work. “Child Watching Ball,” for instance, which shows a baby doll’s head seeming to follow with its eyes the movements of a blue ball attached to a gyroscopically spinning wheel, is accompanied by the following explanation:
“In the first version of this piece, the child just looked up and down. But the piece fell apart because it was tin-lead solder. When I made it again, I decided to have the head track left and right, too. That’s what led to the interesting mechanism, the little slider. I have no idea how the solution popped into my head.”
That’s a great label. You come away better informed about both the process and the mechanics, but with a sense of the mystery of creation intact. Too many writers of wall labels put their energy into bringing things down in the world.
Ganson was born in 1955. He studied art history at the University of New Hampshire and taught himself engineering. His work is a deeply satisfying synthesis of two pursuits that people tend to regard separately. He was given an exhibition at MIT in 1994 and was an artist-in-residence there in ’95.
He is interested in “gestures” — physical actions that express feelings and ideas. Some are exceedingly small: “Alone,” for instance, shows a very small plastic figure sitting like Simeon Stylites (the Syriac saint who sat atop a pillar outside Aleppo for 47 years) on a platform at the top of a very tall steel rod. His head moves almost imperceptibly back and forth.
Ganson says he thinks of himself as “a cross between a mechanical engineer and a choreographer.” If so, “Alone” is an exceedingly minimalist dance.
“I once thought of making an exhibition,” Ganson writes on another label, “where all the pieces were on pedestals with wheels, and were powered by viewers pushing them.”
“Inchworm” is an example: You push along a cart, and by an invisible mechanism three slug-like shapes made from blue steel mesh appear to move, by repeatedly contracting and extending themselves, against a field of feather boas. It’s gross and gorgeous all at once, and I want one in my house.
Ganson’s mechanics can be breathtakingly elaborate; but the effects, as I said, are charmingly simple. “Margot’s Cat,” named after Ganson’s art history teacher in college, who had many cats, is an ornate, upholstered dollhouse chair that spins in the air as it bounces up and down over a Persian cat. The cat seems to be purring away obliviously on a stretch of Persian carpet that slides back and forth horizontally. The chair’s tumbling movements are more or less vertical.
You can’t describe the piece without making it sound absurd. In fact, it’s unbelievably rational and elegant.
The same goes for “Cory’s Yellow Chair,” which is truly a work of genius. A metal chain connected to pulley wheels makes the shape of a dark star attached to a wall painted dark gray. The points of the star have bent arms extending outward. As they rotate, the thin ends of each arm, to which fragmented pieces of a yellow chair are attached, come together, accelerating as they go, in the middle of the star to form — voila! — the bright yellow chair.
For a brief moment, the chair is miraculously whole. But a second later, it is flying apart again. Oh, how I love this piece! I could watch it for hours.
There are many other memorable works in this show — poetically conceived, superbly engineered, and patiently fabricated. Some are essentially abstract: “Untitled Fragile Machine,” for instance, is like a particularly elaborate Alexander Calder sculpture come to life in ways Calder wouldn’t have begun to know how to engineer.
“Machine with Oil” (Ganson’s unimpeachable label says simply: “If I was a machine, what would I love to do? Bathe myself in oil, of course”) could be thought of as a self-basting Picasso.
You will have years, possibly decades, to see this show. The sooner you do, the happier you will be.
GESTURAL ENGINEERING: The Sculpture of Arthur Ganson
At: MIT Museum, 265 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge. 617-253-5927, mitmuseum.mit.eduSebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SebastianSmee.