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Automata History Comes Alive in the ‘Marvellous Mechanical Museum’

The new exhibition at Compton Verney features a Fabergé elephant with swinging trunk and a gigantic kinetic sculpture by Rowland Emett

Fabergé Silver Elephant Automaton Royal Collection Trust (© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018)
smithsonian.com

It’s fitting that the European renaissance of automata, or kinetic sculptures designed to mimic human movement, began with a clockmaker—like their timekeeping counterparts, automata operate on cue, launching into carefully choreographed routines that blur the boundaries between mechanical oscillations and that intangible spark of life.

It was Swiss-born watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz’s 1770s creation, “The Writer,” that brought about that golden-age of automata. Though the animated sculpture might appear to be an ordinary doll at first blush, the little boy's body is made up of 6,000 moving parts that allow it to scribble out an array of messages, dip a goose feather into an inkwell and blink with unseeing eyes.

While “The Writer” is not amongst the 57 works on display in the Marvellous Mechanical Museum, a new exhibition at the Compton Verney Art Gallery in Warwickshire, England, its influence on the eclectic art form is evident, local outlet the Banbury Guardian notes.

Compton Verney’s exhibition spans nearly 500 years, juxtaposing traditional miniatures like a Fabergé elephant gifted to England’s George V by his family for Christmas 1929 with contemporary works, including Paul Spooner’s “Les Demoiselles,” a 3-D rendition of Picasso’s cubist masterpiece, and illustrator Stuart Patience’s adaptation of "The Sandman," E.T.A. Hoffmann's short story about the doomed romance between a young man and an automaton.

The show’s biggest draw will likely be a gigantic fantasy railway line crafted by Rowland Emett, a kinetic sculptor who brought Chitty Chitty Bang Bang inventor Caractacus Potts’ wacky creations to life in the 1968 film adaptation. According to The Guardian’s Maev Kennedy, Emett considered “A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley,” a depiction of a summer’s day alongside the mythical Far Tottering and Oyster Creek railway, his greatest work. The contraption releases a cacophony of sound, allowing viewers to reminisce on the golden era of the British railway, and curator Antonia Harrison tells Kennedy that the whimsical creation “just makes you feel happy.”

Thousands of years before Jaquet-Droz was born, humans dreamed of stretching the limits of technological ingenuity: The word automata, which is derived from the Greek phrase for acting of one’s own will, connotes the human desire to merge with machine, while the ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion, notably adapted by George Bernard Shaw into both a play and a musical, revolves around a sculptor fated to fall in love with his own creation.

Today, automata continues to entice and enthrall, yet in their mirroring of humanity, they trigger uncertainty, too. As the Independent’s Michael Glover writes, “Strange fears swim up from the depths when we stare at machines that move somewhat as we move, do the tasks that we do, articulate life and motion.”

The Marvellous Mechanical Museum is on exhibit at the Compton Verney Art Gallery in Warwickshire until September 30, 2018.

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