5,000 Moving Parts

On view through November 2014

A full day in Alabama

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I spent more time than I'd expected to in John Douglas Powers' studio in Birmingham, Alabama yesterday, making a quick decision about which of his works to bring to the MIT Museum for 5000 Moving Parts, and then being utterly captivated by listening to and watching Ialu, one of his works made with reeds. I liked the work on video, but it's so much more complicated and subtle in person. As with almost all works of art, there really is no substitute for experiencing Ialu.

From the video, I'd thought that the motion of the piece was pretty much closed - that it operated in a cycle that a viewer would quickly discern.  But what I couldn't see in the video, and what was immediately apparent in person, is that the reeds are flexible, so they gently bump into each other, creating random, unexpected motion that doesn't repeat. It was a revelation. I watched the piece for what seemed like a very long and thoroughly satisfying time.

I also hadn't noticed on the video that the reeds are painted gold. When I asked John about their color, he said that he'd begun to imagine the Ialu after he'd visited a temple in Japan that was filled with gold-colored statues of the Buddha. Following that experience, he began to think about images of paradise, many of which describe fields of plant life swaying in the wind. So, gold reeds. The play of light on them is wonderful.

And although the sound of the piece on the video is obviously important (and one of the reasons that I was so drawn to it), the squeaks and shudders of the machinery are much richer in person than they are in the recording. I was hearing suggestions of birds, and water, and the life of a wetland.

Being in the same room with Ialu confirmed the idea I've been exploring here, that what makes kinetic art so compelling is the complete kinesthetic experience - seeing, walking, bending, straining to hear, and staying with the work for a long time. The average time museum visitors spend looking at a painting is well under a minute. (But there are exceptions. See this James Elkins article about museum goers who visit works repeatedly and for long periods of time.) Maybe we'll need a bench for this piece. Ialu will reward persistence.

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