“Chain Reaction: Rube Goldberg and Contemporary Art,” an exhibit on view at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) until Dec. 16, draws on the museum’s large collection of Rube Goldberg cartoons, juxtaposing the drawings with contemporary art that engages similar issues. The exhibit, which is part of WCMA’s 75th anniversary season, was organized by Ian Berry, curator at the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, organized the exhibit.
Goldberg’s spirited drawings depict crazy machines that perform simple tasks through three times as many steps as are actually required. These cartoons and sketches serve as a backdrop for the exhibit’s more dynamic – and often interactive – works of contemporary art.
The exhibit begins in an unorthodox location, an out-of-the-way corner at the base of the stairs leading to the art history department. The work placed there, however – Jeanne Silverthorne’s Scream – thrives on this location, its many pipes and wires sprawling up the walls and two staircases to create an engaging work that is experienced over time and motion.
The intersection of the machine and the human are evident as you travel through the installation, which represents a scream as a mechanized chain reaction. Electrical wiring, security cameras, surge protectors and an alarm bell hang within the context of close-up images of the human stomach, gallbladder and mouth. Silverthorne herself occupies a place in the work as a small doll-like figure curled up on a pedestal, seemingly regarding her work.
Directly inside the second-floor exhibit entrance, your eye follows Scream’s sound bubbles, which spill from the mouth/vacuum cleaner-like funnel onto the floor on front of the exhibition label, to Arthur Ganson’s petite and playful Margo’s Other Cat.
A dollhouse chair twirls almost weightlessly in the air, repeatedly bouncing off a small plastic cat, which is mounted on a rolling platform. Although the physics of the setup are noteworthy (the only object moving in the work is the platform; the chair, attached to a round weight, merely reacts to its motion), it is watching the cat undergo this constant assault that is so pitiable, yet evilly humorous. The effect is mesmerizing. Truly, if there weren’t so many other interesting pieces to look at in the gallery, I could easily stand wide-eyed and gaping – and perfectly amused – for hours.
William Bergman’s Regret allows for a high degree of physical interaction. Comprised of a crank, an oversized hourglass, a drill and a stone slab, the piece requires a human hand to put it in motion. Similar to the silly sequential setups of Goldberg’s cartoon inventions, a chain reaction that ends with the drill boring a hole in the stone is set into motion by the cranking of the handle.
Ultimately, the repetition of this action – in fact, 66 hours of it – forms the letters of the word “regret.” The drilling of the word into the stone slab underlies this emotion’s permanency and universality within human experience.
Martin Kersel’s Attempt to Raise the Temperature of a Container of Water by Yelling at It also engages with issues raised by Goldberg’s cartoons, specifically the inventions’ lack of efficacy.
Resembling the order of a scientific experiment, the piece tests a silly hypothesis. No matter how much or how loudly the recorded voice yells, the temperature registering on the device will not drastically increase. Although it at first seems quite funny to hear this deep voice yelling “I’m trying to raise the temperature of this water by yelling at it” with increasing volume and rapidity, his evident frustration also makes you feel sorry for him. The work hints that this same poignancy seems to be present in Goldberg’s cartoon inventions, as well.
Steven Brower’s Beyond Good and Evil touches on the ironic qualities of Goldberg’s cartoons, but with a frightening touch of reality. Depicting a plan of an amusement park, which recreates the destruction and pollution of real life, the work includes a miniature World Trade Center with one bombed-out tower.
Ironically, Browser constructed the piece three months before the Sept. 11 tragedy even occurred, and the label includes a note stating such. In the aftermath of the bombings and the ensuing conflict over the appropriateness of creating art at this time, the work’s frank engagement with this subject matter points to art’s relevance for reflection and coping.
“Chain Reaction” creates many fascinating links between the work of Rube Goldberg and that of contemporary artists. The works’ interactive dimension involves the viewer in the experience of art, making the works and their ideas come to life. The exhibit also creates an interesting companion exhibit for Louis Bourgeois’ Eyes. As opposed to Bourgeois’ more sensual, organic creations, many of the exhibit’s contemporary artists present a more whimsical look at the machine parallels to the human body and experience.