Wednesday, 19 January 2011

THE TASTE OF METALLIC KISSES

What topic has been more intriguing for artists than the sympathy of mortal flesh for mortal flesh?

From the beginning it has been Topic A: "Always Interesting."


Prehistoric kiss, 3500BCE


Nefertiti's kiss, 1350 BCE


John Gannam, Good Housekeeping 1954

While the ballet between living organisms continues to fascinate, the more recent relationship between organisms and machines has emerged to command the attention of artists, sometimes in profound ways.

After the industrial revolution, artists began to look at engines, gears and wires (which were born with a function but no inherent design) and integrate them into nature's laws of design as if they were some new species of flower. For example, the first locomotives were raucous, clanking intruders that frightened horses and scarred the landscape but artists such as Turner and Monet began to place them in an aesthetic framework.

And consider how artists projected notions of beauty onto flying machines:

Illustrator Henry Reuterdahl imagined airships of the future for one of the earliest science fiction stories. In the following picture, a beam of light zaps an airship over the ocean at night. Reuterdahl did not strive for technical accuracy but instead depicted the machine using the same naturalistic approach he used for the sea gull.


"She falls stern first, our beam upon her; slides like a lost soul down that pitiless ladder of light, and the Atlantic takes her."

N.C. Wyeth, too, used his powerful imagination to conjure up this lyrical vision of early aircraft:


Colliers

As machines have expanded into more important and intricate roles, their relationships with human beings have become more open ended. Artists' observations have graduated beyond the external designs of machines, sometimes assigning them character and personality.

Compare French illustrator G. Dutriac's early depiction of technology from the sky, a pyramid of light triumphing over the primitive and savage Berbers fighting on horseback in North Africa...


1911

...with Picasso's pyramid of light from a later airplane (depicted as an electric light bulb placed in the fearsome eye of a wrathful machine-deity in the sky). The two beams share a similar shape, but you can tell the moral character of the machine has changed dramatically.


Guernica

Just as God is supposed to have breathed life into Adam, thereby transforming inert dust into a living being, artists imbue lifeless machines with character, meaning and even moral content. Artists "design" the character of the machine, and then take as their subject the relationship between the character of a human and the character of the machine.

For you skeptics out there saying, "yeah, but machines will never make it past first base in their relationships with humans," I refer you to the work of Ashley Wood, who has built a career on the aesthetics of juxtaposing the tender places of nubile women against giant war robots:



Or painter Phil Hale, who vividly pits human muscle and sinew against machinery in an endless, iconic struggle.



Living organisms now have no choice but to share the stage with machines. It remains to be seen whether their relationship offers artists opportunities for Shakespearean level profundity, or whether this new relationship is just the thrill of encountering something different that by the way vibrates.

Perhaps our relationships with machines only appear more profound as relationships between humans become more superficial. When mortal flesh is downgraded to the status of mere meat, interactions with machines can begin to seem pretty interesting by comparison.