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Compton Verney opens an exhibition devoted to kinetic art and the history of automata
A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley, photographed by JamesBastable.co.uk / cloudcuckoovalley.com


COMPTON VERNEY.- Roll up, roll up for Compton Verney’s Marvellous Mechanical Museum! A rare opportunity to see an exhibition devoted to kinetic art and the history of automata.

The Marvellous Mechanical Museum reimagines the spectacular automata exhibitions of the 18th century and invites us to step into a world which explores the boundaries of what is lifelike and what is alive and where artists, inventors and engineers collide.

The exhibition traces the history of the early automata shows and androids alongside work by contemporary artists – much of which has never been exhibited publicly before or has been created especially for the show – all of which questions mankind’s fascination with mimicking life forms both human and animal. Appropriately, The Marvellous Mechanical Museum coincides with the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The concept of automata – a Latin word derived from the Greek phrase for ‘acting of one’s own will’ – can be traced back over 2,500 years. In the 17th century, philosopher René Descartes (in his Treatise of Man) presented the idea that much of the human body functions as a machine. In the 18th century the myth of Pygmalion, who created a living sculpture in the form of Galatea (with which he subsequently fell in love) became a key theme for artists and writers. In 1818 Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein shone a spotlight on the creation of alternative beings – be they mechanical, virtual or, in this case, created through electrochemistry. The stage was set for artists to fuse life with art.

The Marvellous Mechanical Museum will include 57 works, dating from 1625 to the present day, which will – quite literally – come to life before your very eyes. The show includes loans from across the UK, including the British Museum, V&A and the Royal Collection. The smallest is an intricate Fabergé elephant that stands just 4cms tall; the largest the 15-metre long A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley by Walt Disney collaborator and famed Chitty Chitty Bang Bang designer Rowland Emett OBE, which he created as a response to Dr Beeching’s infamous railway branch line closures.

In the 18th century clockmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz with his son Henri-Louis and Jean-Frédéric Leschot made a trio of three automatons: the Musician, the Draughtsman and the Writer. When first exhibited in 1775, these creations sparked a golden age of automata which lasted two centuries. (It is believed that Mary Shelley may have visited the Jaquet-Droz androids on her tour of Europe two years before she wrote Frankenstein.) A rare British Museum print of the automata will be on show, as will the Bodleian Library’s collection of promotional material for a number of Georgian android exhibitions.

In addition, London-based Taiwanese artist Ting-Tong Chang, whose work is a mixture of robotics, taxidermy, electronics and sound, will be challenging and exploring the realms of digital possibility. Peng’s Journey into Southern Darkness (2016) is a taxidermy crow that has been intricately engineered to recite rejection letters the artist has received during his career. Chang is also recreating a symbolic version of Jacques de Vaucanson’s Digesting Duck of 1739, which appeared to be able to eat, metabolize and excrete grain and he has also created a mesmerizing response to the Frankenstein legacy.

18th-century dandy John Joseph Merlin enjoyed nothing more than dressing up as a waitress and careening about on roller-skates at parties in order to promote the automata he was creating to wow London society. One of his most famous creations was The Silver Dancer, which was once owned by none other than Charles Babbage but is now sadly lost. For The Marvellous Mechanical Museum it will be recreated for visitors to operate by ‘Fire the Inventor’ and displayed alongside material related to Merlin from the Bodleian Library.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is sure to be Paul Spooner’s contemporary automata organ, which pays homage to the 1907 painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. In Spooner’s Demoiselles (2017), never previously exhibited, the artist pays tribute to women in art and history: the characters of Picasso’s original paintings come to life and move around Manet’s Olympia; Joan of Arc is surrounded by wafting flames; Margaret Thatcher pops in and out, stealing a milk bottle; plus much more…

The exhibition also celebrates German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann’s uncanny short story The Sandman (1816), which explores an ill-fated love affair between a man and a clockwork doll who the former believes to be real. Taking this story as his inspiration, illustrator Stuart Patience has in turn created a series of new works for The Marvellous Mechanical Museum.

Introducing a slightly more sinister tone to the exhibition will be Tim Lewis’ Crimson Prince, a four-metre high creation of a moving hand that suggests technology is poised to take over, as well as a new work by artist Harrison Pearce (winner of the 2017 Ingram Collection Young Contemporary Talent Purchase Prize), whose practice references philosophical ideas about the mind, language and human experience in the context of new technologies and post digital cultures.

Curator Antonia Harrison says: “Originally the inspiration for the exhibition came from an automata piece in our own Folk-Art collection at Compton Verney ‘Model of a Potter’s Workshop’. I became interested in why automata hold a particular fascination for us. They are windows into replica worlds and it seems at key moments in history they have represented the human condition and allowed us to view ourselves. It is really interesting to look at the legacy of automata in relation to artists now and our current relationship with technology and where it is taking us.”

Professor Steven Parissien, Compton Verney’s Chief Executive, says: “We are delighted to have an opportunity to shine a light on such a fascinating yet often overlooked intersection between highly skilled engineering, craftsmanship and fine art in The Marvellous Mechanical Museum.”

Running concurrently with The Marvellous Mechanical Museum, is Rodney Peppé’s World of Invention. Rodney’s career as a toy-, automaton- and model-maker, children’s author and illustrator, creator of children’s TV series,graphic designer and artist means that there are manywonderful things to see and enjoy.

Often creating amazing models from household rubbish and recycled materials, Rodney’s gentle sense of humour and huge imagination will transport visitors of all ages to a magical world where an old boot can become a mansion for mice, a tin kettle transforms into a pirate ship, and a simple basket can take to the air as an ingenious flying machine.

Inspired by the wonderful imagination of fellow artist Sam Smith and by automated Victorian toys, Peppé’s playful, circus-themed creations hark back to the enchantment of a traditional village green circus, complete with moving carousel.





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