5,000 Moving Parts

On view through November 2014

Why is Kinetic Art Disconnected from Art History?


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Several months ago, Vik Muniz came by the MIT Museum as part of his stint as a Visiting Artist on campus.  I was pleased to help show him around our exhibits, and delighted to discover that Vik is a long-standing fan of Arthur Ganson.  Arthur's work has been on exhibit here for almost 20 years, and our Exhibits Manager has collected dozens of comment books that attest to the huge number of visitors who fall in love with Arthur's work, and the many visitors who travel great distances to see it.

Although Arthur has been recognized widely - he's given a TED talk and he's spoken for the Long Now Foundation - his work hasn't taken off in the contemporary art world in ways that I might have imagined it would.  On our Museum tour, Muniz, whose work is frequently covered by the contemporary art press, began talking about how kinetic art is pretty much ignored in art history.  Muniz speculated that the reason is that the critics aren't necessary to its interpretation. Almost anyone can "get" a kinetic work right away, with or without an advanced degree in art history.

As I've begun to work on 5000 Moving Parts, I've started to think there's more to the story. The easy answer is that there's a lot of pretty minor kinetic art out there.  But that's too easy. There's negligible work in every art form.  Then there's the troublesome issue of maintenance.  The Tinguely Museum in Basel employs two fulltime conservators to keep Tinguely's hulking, spewing works hulking and spewing.  Arthur Ganson once told me that selling a work can mean a lifelong relationship with the buyer, making himself available to repair and tweak.

When Martha Buskirk wrote The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art several years ago, she looked at how the relationship between artists and museums was changing, especially in works made of materials that were designed to deteriorate rapidly. Her cover image is of a Janine Antoni lard sculpture that’s in a late stage of collapse.

I was teaching from Buskirk’s book when it came out, and I was so intrigued by her observations that I began trying to learn more about working in a museum. What, I wondered, was behind those decisions that were radically changing how artists and museums would work together? Who was making them and what was being considered?

For the next several months, I’ll be trying to answer those questions and a few more as we develop the MIT Museum’s new kinetic art exhibition.  Why make a kinetic art exhibition? What is it about this form that creates a condition in which the work is simultaneously adored by the public and ignored in the critical discourse?My aims for this exhibition are to show work that has all the depth and richness of the best work in any medium, and to give our visitors an experience that they will (a) never forget and (b) value.

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