ZieherSmith: February 12 – March 14, 2009
The history of the moving image is a history written by victors. The victors were electricians: Maxwell, Westinghouse, Marconi, et al. But you’ve probably never heard of their defeated mechanical challengers Willoughby Smith, Paul Gottlieb Nipkow, and Vladimir Zworykin. There was a time when the mechanical television seemed poised to become the world standard, until, to make a long and hotly contested story short, World War II proved the commercial viability of the good ol’ vacuum tube television and cemented its place in history.
Like an anthropologist researching extinct Homo sapien lineages, Mike Womack’s current show at ZieherSmith, High Grade Empty, excavates the forgotten history of the mechanical television, diagnoses why the forces of selective evolution passed on it, and considers what might have happened if it hadn’t. “Metronome,” a churning machine that hulks like an illuminated elephant in the back of the darkened gallery, is his reclamation of that dead-end ancestry. Its grainy black-and-white image dances across its face, taking cues (I found out later) from a vertical band of pulsating LEDs in the back of the gallery. What that fuzzy light actually is takes some squinting and head cocking; however, the retinal contortions pay off when the familiar footage of the Hindenburg flying above the Manhattan skyline is recognized.
It’s no mystery that the story ends in tragedy; everyone knows in two minutes the hydrogen-filled craft will go down in flames in New Jersey. The newsreel footage of the doomed voyage has become a symbol of the technology’s awkward tween years, in terms of both the subject and the medium. Like the ill-fated zeppelin, the mechanical television represents a failed experiment that in hindsight looks almost magnificently wrongheaded.
The large, perforated spinning disks of early mechanical televisions required high rpms to emit an uninterrupted image, and because of this they occasionally disengaged from their housing and turned into dangerous projectiles. Womack finds the same thing in these crude machines that a figure painter might find in a Giotto or a Cimabue; there’s something terribly beautiful about almost getting it right.
The terrible beauty of Womack’s piece is the combination of elegance and ungainliness that can only be appreciated fully when the piece grinds to a halt. Only then do we see the spit-and-bubblegum construction of mirrored helical columns that reflect the impulses of light. What we also see when it’s not at full-tilt, is a sculptor’s love of craft and modeling as it happens to relate to mechanics. “Metronome,” and even the constructed protective barrier in front of it, have the overwrought, clumsy charm of a Rube Goldberg or a Jean Tinguely or a Professor-on-Gilligan’s-Island coconut car, where the quixotic and the dreamy blend with an inventive use of materials to create something altogether unique.
“Nothing Can Be Perfectly Empty,” is quieter (literally and figuratively) and more naked in its breakdown of technology and its basement-and-toolshed engineering. It features six standard flashlights, whose white light is filtered red, green, or blue through post-consumer plastic, then channeled through various reflective devices until it ends up on the surface of a standard frosted lightbulb: the simplest RGB projection television in existence, maybe. In jarring contrast, the housing for the optics, the wood support for the tubes, and the armature for the flashlights and magnifying glasses are gorgeously overcomplicated, a perfect metaphor for the balance of order and disorder, triumph and failure, that has characterized the implacable surge of technological progress since the Industrial Revolution.
The third piece, “Ghosting,” represents the simplest and only completely mechanical device in the show. While the others use electric light, “Ghosting” uses only a candle, a flayed soft drink can and plastic bag to create the most stripped-down “television” imaginable. In addition to being a completely transfixing sculptural object, “Ghosting” functions as a bracketing element for the less decipherable “Metronome.” Without it, the show’s mechanics would be lost in its kinetics and light, triggering a knee-jerk reaction to lump this work with others that are too science-y to be art and too arty to be science.
Womack’s exploration of materials and his idealist take on technology comprise a nostalgic nod to past movements such as Constructivism and Futurism, which flourished at a time when technology and art were allies, not enemies. Like the mechanical television and the zeppelin, those “isms,” too, represent dead-end technologies, but how can anyone resist the starry-eyed idealism of Vladimir Tatlin or László Moholy-Nagy in the face of today’s jaundiced expectations of sanitized perfection? When so much art about the moving image is a slick critique or a warning about the dangers of accelerated visual culture, Womack’s desire to head backward with an antique toolbox and a touch of sentimentality is appreciated.