Saturday, September 06, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 14

It is a common experience of handymen at some point in their lives to turn their handy skills to the making of art. It may not be art that would find its way into a gallery, say, or a museum, it may not even rise to the level of “Sunday painter,” but it does spring from an authentic desire to make beauty of what had previously been craft, to lift off from the launch pad of practicality into the stratosphere of the sublime. My father felt that impulse, perhaps especially strongly when his eldest daughter went off to study art in college and then embarked upon a career as a professional artist. I imagine he must have thought there was a segment of his genome that had not yet been exploited. And so he turned part of the basement workshop into a studio, from which in subsequent years emerged a series of sculptures and paintings.

Well, no. “Emerged” is not the right word. His first production, as I recall, was a sculpture of entwined male and female forms, which he chiseled from a two-foot length of log. Upon its completion, he triumphantly brought it upstairs and put it on display on the bookcase in the living room—much to my mother’s displeasure, which she expressed in her usual deadpan way. “Well, then, where should I put it?” he asked. “How about in the fireplace,” she replied, sotto voce. It was not a pleasant moment. He grabbed up the sculpture in his arms and retreated to the basement, which now became a studio/gallery.

Being a handyman does not confer artistic talent or taste, but the creation of art, no matter how clumsy or trite, confers a certain dignity on personal craft, even if it does not embellish the wider culture. On the other hand, there are examples of mechanical craft and high art going happily together.

I am reminded of the whimsical machines of the artist Arthur Ganson, which I have encountered in galleries on several occasions—devilishly clever contraptions that have an almost organic feel about them, which possibly derives from their sense of humor. Here are a few of Ganson’s creations:

  • A machine made of pulleys and levers that spends its time scooping machine oil from a pool at its base and pouring it over itself. The oil glides sensuously down over the mechanism, back into the pool. Ahhh! 
  • A machine mounted on wheels that you push like a barrow. As it rolls, a cogged mechanism causes an artificial hand to write on a white piece of paper “Faster!” The faster you roll the cart, the more maniacally the machine scrawls its urgent message. What a hoot! 
  • A train of twelve worm gears, each gear driving the next at a fifty-times slower rate. The first motor-driven gear whirls furiously. The last gear is set in concrete. I’m not sure what made this funny, but I laughed uproariously.

It is great to be around machines that make you laugh. We spend most of our days with machines that haven’t a funny bone in their bodies, machines that turn us into dour button-pushers, machines that conceal their workings in casings that cannot be opened, machines that invalidate their warranties if you even think about repairing them on your own, machines that are more likely to evoke a groan than a smile. Ganson’s machines may be crafted on the workbench, but they hold their own on the museum floor.

In 1738, the mechanical wizard Jacques Vaucanson demonstrated his masterpiece before the court of Louis XV, a copper duck that ate, drank, quacked, flapped its wings, splashed about, and, to the astonishment of all, digested its food and excreted the remains. It was a witty beginning for the age of machines. The king’s courtiers had a good laugh. Descriptions of Victorian inventions in early editions of Scientific American also suggest a sense of whimsy. Electric jewels. Cuckoo watches. A mustache food-and-drink guard that clips into the nostrils. The Victorians seemed to have liked whacky combinations. A hammock mounted on a tricycle that allows the cyclist occasional rest. A camera hat. A rocking chair connected to a cradle and butter churn that employs “hitherto wasted female power” to soothe the baby and make butter while keeping the hands free for “darning, sewing or other light work.” Sexist, maybe, but Victorian inventors at least understood that machines are our servants rather than the other way round.

Of course, it is the artists who teach us not to take our machines too seriously. The Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp saw the humorous possibilities of a bicycle wheel mounted on a stool, or an ordinary urinal turned upside down and titled “Fountain”. His masterpiece, a glass construction called “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even,” although not quite a machine, is full of wires and painted mechanisms. Duchamp found it necessary to invent a new “amusing physics” to describe this last work, including terms like “oscillating density,” “uncontrollable weight,” and “emancipated metal,” terms that might have come easily to my father’s lips and certainly given him a laugh. The undisputed master of whimsical machines was the Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely, who contrived spindly wire devices that thumbed their noses at Swiss order and efficiency. Tinguely sculptures are said to invariably produce laughter as they click, whir and clatter unpredictably. His most famous sculpture was called “Homage to New York,” a vast white contraption of wheels, motors, pulleys and wires that was designed to destroy itself in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art. The machine balked short of suicide, but caused an uproarious commotion before the fire department arrived to put it out of its misery. Tinguely was delighted with the unexpected outcome. “For me,” he said, “the machine is above all an instrument that permits me to be poetic. If you respect the machine, if you enter into a game with the machine, then perhaps you can make a truly joyous machine—by joyous I mean free. That’s a marvelous thing, don’t you think?”

Yes, I do so think, and that is something I learned from my handyman father. Some years ago, when I first encountered Arthur Ganson’s work, I asked the artist what he was up to. He replied that he is not interested in making political statements. “My machines are investigations of thoughts, dreams, and ideas,” he said. “They are about invention, about play, about a childlike way of looking at the world. They are about not taking the world too seriously.” I suspect that deep down Ganson takes the world more seriously than do those of us who take ourselves too seriously. Like Jean Tinguely before him, he seems to believe that a spirit of play lies at the heart of creation. And it is that, the spirit of play, which distinguishes the handyman from the professional. When my father was in the basement with his mallet and chisel he was hard at play, and play is its own reward.

Some years ago, Ganson had an exhibit at the galley of the college where I worked until retirement. One of his creations especially touched me. It was called “The Accumulation of Time.” Ganson set the machine going when the exhibit opened. A furiously whirring motor is geared down so that it unreels from a sort of tower a blood-red thread, slowly, ever so slowly, imperceptibly slowly, to accumulate on a white pedestal below. Day by day the tangled red heap slowly grows. Will the spool last till the end of the exhibit? Will someone be watching when the last inch of thread falls into the pile? I thought of my father’s dream, of being a ball of twine bouncing down a spiral staircase, unwinding as he goes.