When you think sculpture, you immediately think immaculate craftsmanship and chiselled marble, stone or granite. You think of Biblical scenes and characters from classical literature. You think of intense emotion, imitating life as closely as possible. Up until the 20th Century, that’s pretty much what everyone thought of sculpture as a medium of art. What happened next will blow your mind… Well that’s just clickbait. But the concept of sculpture as a medium of expression and art changed drastically in the 20th century.
What is a “Kinetic Sculpture”?
While the classical sculpture gave birth to a number of different techniques and mediums, the one we’re concerned with in this article is the “Kinetic Sculpture”. It isn’t difficult to understand what the term “Kinetic Sculpture” stands for, due to the fact that the word “kinetic” gives away its not so secret, essence. Kinetic refers to anything relating to or resulting from motion. Hence, a Kinetic Sculpture is a type of sculpture which incorporates an element of dynamism or motion. While the concept might be simple to understand, the thoughts and efforts behind these works were a little more complex.
Takis’ Kinetic Sculptures and installation utilizing the electromagnetic forces
The numerous varieties of Kinetic Sculpture include sculptures whose components are moved by air currents, by water; by magnetism, by electromechanical devices or by the participation of the spectator himself. The aim of most kinetic sculptors was(and still is) to make movement itself an integral part of the design of the sculpture and not merely to impart dynamism to an already complete static object. The aesthetic appeal of these sculptures also changed with their continuous movement and their alignment in space and time.
Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Bicycle Wheel’, 1913, is widely accepted as the first ever kinetic sculpture with the rotating wheel, although the medium flourished later in the 20th century. The ‘Bicycle Wheel’ was a part of Duchamp’s ‘Readymades’ series which included some of his most notable works such as the ‘Fresh Window’ and ‘3 Standard Stoppages’ to name a few. The thinking behind these works was to push the boundaries of what was socially acceptable as art. The movement of the bicycle wheel was a by-product of this concept and not the driving force behind this work, which is why there still exists some debate whether his ‘Bicycle Wheel’ truly is the first ever Kinetic Sculpture.
Kinetic Sculpture flourished in the mid 20th century due to the work of a few distinguished artists the most notable being Alexander Calder and Jean Tinguely. Although numerous distinguished artists have been involved with this medium, we’re going to be focussing on these two pioneering artists for the rest of the article.
Alexander Calder (July 22, 1898 – November 11, 1976) was an American artist who used paintings, sculptures, jewelry and even theatre sets as his medium of expression. Yet, Calder is best known for his innovative kinetic sculptures created by bending and twisting metallic wires to create 3 dimensional drawings in space. His metallic sculptures, both kinetic and static, hang with an uncanny yet perfect balance. The precision behind each of these perfectly balanced sculptures was immense and is almost inexplicable. Until of course you realise that Calder excelled at mathematics and had a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Stevens Institute of Technology.
Calder’s sculptures are often confused. While all of them are sculptures and use metal as the primary material, not all of them are Kinetic Sculptures or incorporate movement. His Kinetic Sculptures were christened “mobiles” by Marcel Duchamp himself in 1931. While his larger. Monumental static sculptures were christened “stabiles” by Jean Arp. But there was a clear distinction between the two, as Calder himself so eloquently puts it;
“The mobile has actual movement in itself, while the stabile is back at the old painting idea of implied movement. You have to walk around a stabile or through it- a mobile dances in front of you.”
His mobiles often hung from or were placed on peculiar vantage points but with unnatural balance.These floating metallic arrangements were dynamic in nature and their aesthetic changed with their position in time and space. These “dancing” metallic arrangements are some of Calder’s most notable works.
Another pioneer of Kinetic Sculpture, Swiss artist Jean Tinguely’s work grew in prominence in the 1950s. Tinguely’s sculptures were rooted in satire and Dadaism, representing industrial overproduction and automation with a pinch of dark humour. His automated mechanical sculptures were officially known as “metamechanics”.
Tinguely is best known for his self-constructing and self-destructing Kinetic Sculpture/Performance Piece/Installation, ‘Homage to New York’, 1960. The 30 foot long contraption was pieced together using metal scraps and was set to self destruct at the climax of his 30 minute long performance. Tinguely himself described it as,
Jean Tinguely, ‘Homage to New York’, 1960
“it’s a sculpture, it’s a picture, it’s an accompanist, it’s a poet, it’s decoration—this machine is a situation...the destruction is necessary because this machine is a grandiose spectacle that must live intensely.”
The performance took place at the MoMA Sculpture Garden but tragically/comically, the firefighters intervened as the flames erupted and the performance never played out according to the script.
With this rather unfortunate end to Tinguely’s kinetic masterpiece, we come to an end to our article and we hope it's not quite Tinguely-esque. Mechanical motion began with the invention of the wheel. Similarly, a simple bicycle wheel is all it took to get Kinetic Sculptures rolling. A perfectly strange thought to leave you with. If you like reading about artistic mediums that push boundaries be sure to check out Luminous Beauty: Creating Art through Light and Space.