A rare opportunity to see an exhibition devoted to kinetic art and the history of automata is coming to Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park this weekend.
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 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.
The Marvellous Mechanical Museum will include 57 works, dating from 1625 to the present day, which will come to life before visitors’ 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 four cms 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 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. A British Museum print of the automata will be on show, as will a 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.
The 18th century dandy John Joseph Merlin enjoyed nothing more than dressing up as a waitress and careering 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.
Introducing a slightly more sinister tone to the exhibition will be Tim Lewis’s Crimson Prince, a four-metre high creation of a moving hand that suggests technology is poised to take over.
The exhibition runs from this Saturday, June 30, to Sunday, September 30.