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The Museum Turns Into A Production Hall - Art Machines Machine Art at Museum Tinguely
Jean Tinguely (1925-1991), Méta-Matic No. 6, 1959, Iron tripod, wooden wheels, sculpted metal plate, rubber bands, metal rods, electric motor (all painted black): 50 x 70 x 30 cm. Museum Tinguely, Basel. © 2008, ProLitteris, Zürich. © Photo: Christian Baur, Basel.

BASEL.-We all agree that art is created by artists. But what happens when machines start producing art? Do artists become simple engineers? What lies behind the artist’s withdrawal from the creative act, and what is its bearing on the originality and the uniqueness of the artwork? What can we then consider as the artwork: the machine, the final product or the process of creation? The exhibition jointly conceived and elaborated by Katharina Dohm of the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt and Heinz Stahlhut of the Museum Tinguely, Basel, opens with a presentation of Jean Tinguely’s drawing machines dating back to the 1950s followed by art machines down to the present day; all of these have a common feature: they produce their own art. These machines created by Angela Bulloch, Olafur Eliasson, Damien Hirst, Rebecca Horn, Jon Kessler, Tim Lewis, Lia, Miltos Manetas, Cornelia Sollfrank, Antoine Zgraggen and Andreas Zybach transform the Museum Tinguely, Basel, into a production hall. Depending on the mechanical process involved, visitors may keep certain works such as drawings produced by Jean Tinguely’s Meta-Matics and certified stamped sheets produced by Damien Hirst’s or Olafur Eliasson’s machines.

“People’s basic trust in machine activity, the basis of our industrial revolution and our affluence, is fundamentally alien to art’s self-understanding; and so art was very reticent to use machines to create itself. But to create a machine as an artwork and to shift responsibility to it for the development of further works of art abrogates the artist’s autonomy and transfers creativity to an apparatus. This raises an issue that is very much in vogue in view of today’s permanent shifting frontiers between the individual and technology.” (Guido Magnaguagno, Director Museum Tinguely and Max Hollein, Director, Schirn).

“If one accepts the general assumption that artists, not machines, are the originators and creators of works of art, then the discrepancy between the two could not be greater. For while the machine is conceived with an aim toward qualities like repeatability of production processes, art, as traditionally understood, is characterised by uniqueness. Tied to this is the idea of the artistic individual as a creative genius. And this concept gives rise to the question – serious as well as ironical – posed in this exhibition.” (Katharina Dohm and Heinz Stahlhut, curators of the exhibition)

To create a machine as an artwork and to entrust it with the responsibility of developing further artworks is a radical step. It means delegating creativity to a piece of equipment. Do such art machines then possess a “soul”? Indeed, they develop a dynamic of their own and enable the creation of an artwork that is an independent work – but they lack the capacity to lead the work to its conclusion. The machine with its automatic process does not posses the faculty of decision nor the possibility of selection. What is produced are mechanical works of art lacking the factor finality, but they are nevertheless a fundamental avowal of and testimony to the sovereignty of the machine and the basic belief in the possibilities of creative production beyond the act of the individual.

The exhibition “Art Machines Machine Art” opens with 20th century works by Jean Tinguely that raise the issue of the machine as an independent creative apparatus in the most original manner. His Méta-Matics that were first exhibited in Paris in 1959 and earned him his international renown are motor-driven drawing machines that enable the spectator to produce abstract drawings. The discrepancy between the material character of the Méta-Matics and their function, which is to produce art, can well be interpreted as an ironic comment on the overriding belief in those days in technical progress. It further also translates a reflex of the art context of the 1950s: the mechanically produced drawings are in keeping with the Tachist style in painting and thus reduce ad absurdum the idea of gestural abstraction as the direct expression of an artistic individual. This work group doubtless forms the historical basis of the exhibition. Grouped around it is a selection of works that share a common trait: the creative act is delegated by the artist to the machine – a process that was only possible at the end of the second world war when a generation of young artists appeared on the scene and broke with one of the best kept taboos of European art: the concept of the original work of art. The selection reflects this process in the most various art media such as painting, drawing, sculpture, video and ends with the greatest “art machine” ever, the World Wide Web, without, however, affording a definitive answer.

The visitor to the exhibition will encounter machines such as Rebecca Horn’s Preussische Brautmaschine and Michael Beutler’s installation Proper en Droog that concluded production before the exhibition’s opening, whereas Roxy Paine’s SCUMAK #2 produces throughout the duration of the exhibition, in this case organic-like sculptures. The drawing machines Making Beautiful Drawings by Damien Hirst and The endless study by Olafur Eliasson both require the involvement of the visitor and pose the basic question as to the relationship between onlooker and artwork. Whilst a physical phenomenon is at the source of Eliasson’s work, Hirst addresses the issue of the creative genius. Andreas Zybach’s Sich selbst reproduzierender Sockel contrary to its title does not auto-reproduce but requires an input by the visitor in the same manner that Angela Bulloch’s Blue Horizon needs an external impulse to begin drawing. Jon Kessler’s video installation Desert produces sunsets without end, and Tim Lewis’ Auto-Dali Prosthetic non-stop scrawls signatures. Pawel Althamer’s Extrusion Machine (Bottle Machine) produces blasphemous plastic bottles; thanks to Antoine Zgraggen’s Grosser Hammer and his Zerquetscherin the visitor can get rid of unwanted objects, and Tue Greenfort’s Mobile Trinkglaswerkstatt transforms glass bottles into drinking glasses. Finally, with the works of Lia, Miltos Manetas and Cornelia Sollfrank the “Méta art machine” enters into play – the World Wide Web – extending the possibility of democratising art production, as did Tinguely’s works in the 1950s.

The relationship between artist, artwork and onlooker is the theme, but not always at the basis of all the exhibits. The art machine enables furthermore the participation of the public and mass-produced art, thus breaking significantly with the aura of non-reproducible art. Even though the onlooker is not directly involved in the creation of some of the works, he/she does gain an insight into its production and is thus led to reflect on the issue as to where the work of art begins. The artist, however, will never disappear completely from the work of art. The art machine remains a tool as long as it functions within the parameters of the artist. It is only if and when it starts to act independently and react to situations autonomously that the whole question of authorship can change. The creativity of the art machine is apparent only when it works without control and haphazardly. The machine may be able to produce without the presence of the artist but it cannot exist without the artist’s concept.

An exhibition of the Museum Tinguely, Basel and Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt. Curators: Heinz Stahlhut (Museum Tinguely) / Katharina Dohm (Schirn).

Participating artists: Pawel Althamer, Michael Beutler, Angela Bulloch, Olafur Eliasson, Tue Greenfort, Damien Hirst, Rebecca Horn, Jon Kessler, Tim Lewis, Lia, Miltos Manetas, Roxy Paine, Steven Pippin, Cornelia Sollfrank, Jean Tinguely, Antoine Zgraggen, Andreas Zybach.

Catalogue: Art Machines

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March 4, 2008

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