Art or engineering?
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Both art and engineering are products of our human skill and creativity. How do we decide on the labels and can the passage of time change our views?
As art has become more ideas-based and less about reproduction of the world around us, engineering’s role in it has grown in importance.
Creating gravity-defying mobiles, rearranging the pieces of an exploded shed, building an inside-out sculpture of a house, and designing a fountain from tipping water hoppers, are all 20th-century works of art whose success is underpinned by engineering.
How much of what we call art or engineering is about context? Do the materials and technology we use matter? And can the passage of time change our views on what is or isn’t art?
The American artist Alexander Calder (1898-1976, below) is best known for creating large mobiles from brightly coloured aluminium shapes of varying weights and densities, hung from extended series of thin metal rods. Earlier in his career, Calder made cartoon-like sculptures of people and animals out of strands and spirals of wire that quivered and danced with any movement of air. He also built working circuses of tiny articulated animals, carts, clowns and acrobats out of discarded household items like cotton reels and cloth.
Calder’s work is about movement and balance. It is thought-provoking, playful and surprising. We don’t hesitate to call it art. But before he studied art, he trained as a mechanical engineer at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, where he excelled in mechanical drawing, descriptive geometry and applied kinetics.
If you read ‘Calder Now’, an illustrated art book that accompanied an exhibition of the same name at the art space Kunsthal Rotterdam, there’s no detailed mention of Calder’s engineering background. Neither is there in the Tate Modern’s book ‘Performing Sculpture’, which accompanied an exhibition of Calder’s work a few years ago. Why not?
Perhaps discussing such practicalities distracts us from a purist intellectual gaze. Once we’re in a gallery, there’s a sense we should look in reverence at the exhibits and not puzzle over whether they have a power supply, how they stay up, and whether the squeaking hinges are intentional.
Yet as art historian Joan M Marter argues in ‘The Engineer Behind Calder’s Art’ in the magazine Mechanical Engineering, Calder’s innovations in handling of materials, space and light are the art. His engineering training in physics and kinetics were integral to it. Marter says that he didn’t shy away from using scientific terminology to explain his method of constructing kinetic devices. The technical precision and the equilibrium found in Calder’s motorised and wind-driven mobiles are indebted to the engineering curriculum at Stevens.
Calder came from a family of artists who encouraged him to experiment with making things. From the age of eight, he had his own tools and a workshop where he could play with wire, sheet metal and wood. For engineers and artists, such spaces are creative sanctuaries. If you look at Calder’s 1920s circus creations, they appear to be > < built entirely from oddments stored over the years in dusty workshop drawers.
Cornelia Parker’s spectacular Turner Prize-nominated sculpture Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991, below) conjures up a cosmic act of creation from an exploded garden shed and its contents. Suspended as a gigantic mobile from invisible string, it is a nod to Calder’s work.
You can’t look at Cold Dark Matter without thinking about how it was made. That’s part of its impact. The task of blowing-up the shed was outsourced to the British Army. The finely balanced, carefully lit array of charred, broken fragments and objects, and the looming shadows they cast, are down to Parker. It’s a work of great beauty that celebrates every shed and workshop, and reminds us of the detritus and destruction from which creativity can spring.
Rachel Whiteread’s monumentally solid, earth-bound castings of ‘negative space’ take us somewhere completely different. Like Parker, Whiteread comes from a traditional art background, having studied painting in Brighton and sculpture at the Slade School of Art in London. Her work is about making us look again at familiar objects we live with.
For her Turner Prize-winning project ‘Untitled’ (House), she made a life-size concrete model of the inside of an entire three-storey condemned terraced house in London’s East End. You can’t create such a work without engineering.
Whiteread used the inside of the house as a mould, forming a cast by spraying a layer of liquid concrete around a metal armature constructed to support the weight of the work. Coating the whole house took over a month and then the concrete took another 10 days to cure and set. Once the concrete set, the exterior brick structure was removed. The whole process took three months.
Because the final sculpture was so heavy, it remained in the same position as the original house; sitting next to an old Roman road as its neighbouring terraces were demolished. It symbolised a human story about history, change and redevelopment. Nothing remains of the sculpture today, sadly. In January 1994, ‘Untitled’ (House) was bulldozed.
You could argue that engineering first got its feet under the art table 100 years ago when the German architect Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus form-follows-function art movement. His utopian vision of combining architecture, sculpture and painting, influenced everything from teapot design to sculpture.
One extraordinary example of this is a modernist fountain created by Welsh artist Richard Huws (1902-1980) for the 1951 Festival of Britain. Before studying sculpture at the ex-Bauhaus-staffed Kunstgewerbeschule Wien (Vienna), Huws had done an apprenticeship at the Cammell Laird shipyard, followed by three years studying naval architecture at Liverpool University. In his fountain design, he combined Bauhaus theories with principles from ship engineering to bring to life the sound of the coast off the Isle of Anglesey in North Wales, where he grew up. The result was a water sculpture unlike any seen before.
Located on the South Bank in London in the festival’s Sea and Ships Pavilion, the fountain was built from a stack of curved, pivoted aluminium hoppers, the largest of which held half a ton of water. Water cascaded down the upper reaches in two streams, one filling the top hopper and one the lower, largest hopper. The hoppers tipped when full; the water from the top hopper cascading down a further sculptural stack, while the largest hopper tipped and emptied at right angles onto curved aluminium forms in the four-metre-wide pool below.
It was one of the most popular festival exhibits and so visually striking it appeared in the fashion magazine Vogue. But it had so many interacting moving parts that, as Huws explained, the sculpture “shook itself to bits before the festival ended” and “I spent most of my time repairing it”.
Afterwards, he was commissioned to design similar fountains across the world including in London, Tokyo and New York. Perfecting a way to counter wear-and-tear caused by the tipping action of the larger hoppers took him a lifetime. He achieved this in his only remaining fountain. It’s in Liverpool and was commissioned in the 1960s when Huws was lecturing in design at the Liverpool University School of Architecture.
From his shipbuilding experience, Huws knew that vessels with large free surface areas capsize easily. He used mathematics to design a hopper shape in which, as it tips, the “free surface builds up to a maximum and then decreases as the counterbalancing tail comes into play”. In other words, he devised a self-righting vessel in which the remaining water is the weight that brings the hopper into position for refilling. A perfect example of Bauhaus ‘form-follows-function’, or engineering and art working in harmony.
Huws’ fountains were art when they were working. Were they engineering when they stopped?
Despite the structural complexity and careful engineering underpinning the art of Calder, Parker, Whiteread and Huws, all their work embodies aesthetic ideals of balance and beauty. In other words, these objects really please the eye. We can say, too, that they express deep truths and ideas in simple ways, which is one of the definitions of art. And in doing so, they alter the way we look at and think about the world around us.
What about beautifully engineered functional objects? Marianne Brandt (1893-1983), for instance, was a German painter and Bauhaus photographer and designer who specialised in metalwork. Today her everyday items, including ashtrays and teapots, specifically the Model No MT 49 teapot (1924), are considered works of art. Does categorising it in that way change the way we think about teapots? Or about tea?
Engineering and art both rely on human skill, ingenuity and creativity. How we label the outcome of these human efforts is not cut and dried. Engineering is how we physically extend our human capabilities by creating useful, functional materials, objects, tools and machines. Brandt’s teapot is an engineered thing. It may make exquisite tea, but is there any specific external characteristic we can point to that makes us appreciate it as art?
Wheelwright Robert Hurford is commissioned by museums and private collectors to reconstruct ancient vehicles such as chariots and medieval carts. He’s featured on Channel 4’s ‘Time Team’ and the 2017 documentary ‘Building Pharaoh’s Chariot’, when he reconstructed a 3,600-year-old Egyptian chariot.
Many would say that Hurford makes works of art. He thinks how we categorise ‘engineered’ objects as art is down to many factors: aesthetics, engineering, science, fashion, history and economics.
For instance, he owns a collection of lawn rollers mainly for their decorative appeal. “There was a vogue, mostly in the early 20th century, for Mr Smith in his suburban lawned house to vie with Mr Jones in his not dissimilar lawned residence in the matter of a fine, generally green painted, garden roller. From an early farmer’s example made of granite, the collection moves to increasingly sophisticated cast iron ones with balance weights to keep the handle up,” he explains.
The collection passes through small and larger specimens with wrought iron handles, and settles with “a welter of variants having malleable cast handles, some have water tanks cast within, one has its balance weights outside the drum casting”, he says.
Many influences brought about the manufacture of this minor engineering marvel. “They wouldn’t exist without a perceived need, even if that need is ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ or just embellishing one’s garden. Which, I think, is largely why I have them,” Hurford adds.
Hurford believes tradition and familiarity underlie some of our aesthetic appreciation of historical engineered objects such as cars or lawn rollers. That’s why we decide they are art, even when they are not in a gallery.
He also points out that mathematical proportion and curved forms such as volutes and parabolas may combine to provide a universally appealing underlying aesthetic. Perhaps, too, we recognise what we see in nature. “The forms of natural things, particularly plants and perhaps especially trees, feed the imagination and provide examples to follow, and they do so by the same method – familiarity. Added to that, affection, borne of the fulfilment of needs,” Hurford concludes.
The theory that humans enjoy looking at curved shapes goes back a long way. In the 18th century, English artist William Hogarth (1697-1764) wrote a book about why curves were central to aesthetics. In ‘The Analysis of Beauty’, he analysed solid shapes, like the human body, as described by lines. He distinguishes lines as straight, curving, waving and, finally, as the serpentine line, which combines waving and curving. I suspect he would have liked Brandt’s teapot, and perhaps curvaceous garden rollers too.
Is there any scientific evidence for Hogarth’s theory? In their 2016 paper ‘Do observers like curvature or do they dislike angularity?’ in the British Journal of Psychology, psychology researchers Letizia Palumbo and Marco Bertamini from the University of Liverpool describe a series of experiments that do suggest we find curved shapes visually very pleasant but that we don’t avoid looking at angular spiky shapes: we’re neutral about them.
If we think about art as changing how we see ourselves and the world, it makes total sense that time and historical distance may make us look afresh at engineered objects.
Richard Buckminster Fuller, American architect, writer, inventor and designer of the geodesic dome, has a good answer: “When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”
Art or engineering? Time may be the ultimate judge. And the presence of curvy lines.
Few of us have heard of Susan Kare, but if you’ve clicked on a computer icon to throw away files, to save a document, or to launch an app, you have benefitted from her designs.
User interfaces look like they do because in the 1980s, Kare designed typefaces and graphic elements for the Apple Macintosh. She spent the following decades designing user interface elements for many companies.
Her archive of sketches on graph paper was recently acquired by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.
Kare also created the proportional fonts for the Macintosh. “At the time, most digital typefaces were monospaced, meaning that narrow and broad characters alike (e.g. both ‘I’ and ‘M’) used the same on-screen space,” writes Eric Hintz, a historian with the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian Institution.
Typeface design imposed more rigorous constraints. Each letter had to fit in a space of just 9x7 dots, so they looked jaggedy, he writes. “Kare began with the bold operating system font, originally called Elefont, and decided that ‘it might look cleaner if the lines were only ever horizontal, vertical, or at 45-degree angles’. That system typeface, later renamed Chicago, provided the textual look for two of Apple’s biggest products – the Macintosh and the iPod – for over 20 years.”
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