Categorized | Reviews

Alan Rath @ Hosfelt

by David M. Roth

Zag, 2013, feathers, fiberglass, aluminum, electronics, 68 x 37 x 90"

The first thing to know about the electronic “aviary” that Alan Rath has created in Irrational Exuberance, is that it is not is not a reference to Alan Greenspan’s warning about inflated asset values.  Rather,  it’s about the artist’s hope for how people might react to his feather-clad, kinetic sculptures. Their movements, which mimic tribal dances and animal-mating rituals, bypass reason entirely.  They light up a part of the brain that craves unfiltered joy.  

In their quiescent state they don’t seem capable of much; they look like exactly what they are: feathers attached to slender, flexible tubes and speaker cones, some on tripods, others wall-mounted. Yet when activated by heat and motion they flutter, pulsate, spin, sway, shake, shimmy, thrust, quaver, vibrate and twitch at unpredictable intervals — carving lines in space that make them seem positively animate, like what Jean Tinguely might have created had he been a digital-era artist addicted to Wild Kingdom.   
Stand close to Forever, a vagina-shaped contraption with tentacles, and it will embrace you – if only for a brief instant — before retracting its “limbs”.  Zag, a speaker cone with ostrich feathers shaped like pom-poms, preens alluringly while a phallus-shaped object tracks the in-and-out motion of the speaker.  Iota is a piece of tubing with a pheasant's feather attached.  At rest it looks like a microphone stand.  Whisked to and fro by an unseen motor, it induces a state of almost helpless overstimulation, like what a cat experiences when teased with a feather-on-a-stick.
This exotic, robotic subspecies is the product of more than 15 years of machine programming – a direct outgrowth of Rath’s training at MIT, where, in addition to earning a degree in electrical engineering, he worked in the Visual Language Workshop, the Architecture Machine Group and the Center for Advanced Visual Studies, helping other artists realize their visions before deciding to become an artist himself.   Starting in the early 1990s, Rath built a substantial career characterized most prominently by CRT-based video sculptures which featured shifty eyeballs, wagging tongues and contorted faces. 
Forever, 2012, pheasant feathers, aluminum, polyethylene, fiberglass, electronics, motors, 90 x 60 x 12"
They were widely seen as comments on the dehumanizing effects of the virtual life, but also as keen observations about our conflicted relationships with technology.  However now that the contours of the debate over all things technological has shifted so dramatically, it seems fitting that Rath, a pioneer in this, realm, has moved on, too.
With the current series, his aim, contrary to appearances, was not to simulate animal behavior; it was to extend the physical reach of robotic sculptures he was building in the late 1990s. “It was the last joint on a mechanical arm,” he explains.  “A way to explore the dynamics of flexing” and to examine the “contrast between man-made and nature.” 

“It was one thing to build the machine” with a select repertoire of gestures; it was another to figure out how it could move in a way that might be interesting. To “impose structure on these movements” Rath looked to music because “that was the one area where people had organized events in time.”  He declines to say what types of music inspire him or what aspects of music find their way into his art. What he does express is a fascination with how music, despite its “constraints” (i.e. chords, rhythms, bar lines) “can be experienced so emotionally.”  He also cites, as inspirations, two other phenomena with built-in contradictions: airplanes and bicycles, both of which are “statically unstable but dynamically stable.” 

Absolutely, 2012, pheasant feathers, aluminum,  180 x 144 x 144"

To bring those qualities into his work, Rath built two computer systems: one to process machine language, the other to provide real-time simulation of physical behavior.  The latter machine he likens to “big tablet of paper” on which you can draw and “refine a lot of failures.” 

Though Rath’s art is enabled by “thousands and thousands of lines of code” it’s “not about technology; The goal, he says, is “to make joyful things.”
That stance sets him apart from other artist/engineers who call out technology’s dangers and those who engage in data mapping – translating streams of digital information (traffic, weather, Twitter posts) into tangible outputs, usually with some interactive element built in to appease public art audiences.  
Echoing the late Roger Ebert who warned against placing intellect above intuition, Rath says: “The thing to think about," when looking at his art "is whether you enjoy it.  Whether it pleases you.  Do you respond to it?  I wanted to get beyond a message that could be distilled with words." 
Allan Rath: Irrational Exuberance @ Hosfelt Gallery through May 18, 2013. 
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.  

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