An important part of the story of making the inanimate come to life.
The Centre Pompidou is such a pleasingly outrageous violation of the architecture of Old Paris. There’s nothing quite like seeing the colourful guts of a building on the outside. One of its principal delights is the Stravinsky Fountain, a little pond just beyond the northwest corner, which plays host to 16 kinetic sculptures.
Sculpture that moves has been around for a long time. In the 18th century, a Frenchman called Jacques de Vaucanson created a mechanical duck which both ingested its food and then excreted it again. The aristocrats couldn’t get enough of this sort of thing. The gardens of the stately homes of Europe were full of fantastical mechanised devices.
Why limited to the aristocracy though? Because they were so expensive to make. Many of them were frolicsome water features, primed to give all those wig-heads and towering beehive hairdos a good soaking for looking so ridiculous.
Why limited to the aristocracy though?
But by the late 18th century, museums of automata had brought mechanical wonders to much wider audiences. Throughout the 19th century, automata were often much less sophisticated, much less serious and thought-provoking; in fact, much more the kind of pure entertainment you might describe as throwaway. Why though? Could it be because by then too many men were behaving like automata themselves in factories?Automata also became tamed by domestication.
The Victorians created mechanical dolls for the bedroom or the nursery – often on a disturbingly large scale. The Romanovs commissioned the House of Fabergé to create luxury eggs which often contained an element of mechanised surprise.
An important part of the story of making the inanimate come to life is a literary one, of course. Yes, I am referring to Frankenstein whose bicentenary is being celebrated this year, another unnerving invention guaranteed to keep us all awake at nights.
Articulate life and motion.
No, it’s more than that because, in making the human and the animal seem to come alive, and perhaps even pose a threat to humankind itself, we are not merely demonstrating how the ingenuity of individual makers enables mankind to take significant technological strides, but also tapping into primal fears, and perhaps entering unexplored realms of the uncanny.
Aren’t we at risk of being, in the end, defined – and perhaps even surpassed or revenged upon – by these moving things that we make?Doesn’t redundancy beckon? How long a hop is it from a 17th century automaton to the super-subtle robotics of our own day
How the cinema snapped it up!
You are now able to get up close to a display of automata of past and present at a country house in Warwickshire called Compton Verney, a sequestered estate in Warwickshire, part Capability Brown, part Robert Adam. It was brought back to life as an important art centre in 2004, having been rescued from dereliction by Peter Moores, the son of a Liverpool pools magnate.