Automata is Art That Moves, and Moves You

In a new exhibit at the Morris Museum, whimsical robots and sculptures come to life with the push of a button or the turn of a crank.

The Aetherologist by Brett King.

“The Aetherologist” by Brett King. Photo by Paul Cory

With the push of a button or the turn of a crank, 27 whimsical robots and sculptures come to life in a new exhibit at the Morris Museum. The museum has long boasted a remarkable collection of interactive mechanical artifacts; the current exhibit and a related convention this month draw fresh attention to the historical works.

Sixteen national and international artists are represented in A Cache of Kinetic Art: Curious Characters, the first exhibition in what the museum promises will be a four-year series on interactive art.

“The fascinating aspect of automata, as well as present-day kineticism, is the implementation of machine technology to recreate lifelike forms,” says Michele Marinelli, curator of the Murtogh D. Guinness Collection, a wing that displays 150 antique mechanical musical instruments and moving figures—known as automata—from the late 16th through early 20th centuries. “Interaction with the art elevates the visitor’s experience,” she adds.

The Curious Characters exhibition, which runs through June 20, stirs excitement and awe—much like strolling down the boardwalk as a child.

Deposit a quarter into The Mesmerist, by New Jersey artist Lawrence Berzon, to reveal a hypnotist with glowing eyes.

Press a knob on Wade Warman’s That Little Voice, and a wooden hand with a pointed finger wags up and down as a voice booms, “I expected better from you.”

The Mesmerist by Lawrence Berzon.

“The Mesmerist” by Lawrence Berzon. Photo courtesy of the artist

Floribots, mechanical flowers resembling paper fortune tellers, created by Australian artist Geoffrey Drake-Brockman, grow before your eyes, then retract back into their pots.

Brett King’s The Aetherologist, a talking, mechanical meteorologist, uses a glowing globe to explain the weather. To assemble his creation, King cobbled together a 1940s radio, a glass eye, vintage salt and pepper shakers, and other found objects. “I love the feel of working with antique objects and bringing them back to life,” says the North Carolina-based software engineer.

In addition to being featured in the juried show, King is the founder of AutomataCon, a biannual convention at the museum billed as a celebration of moving figures for collectors, artists and enthusiasts.

The first AutomataCon was held at the museum in 2016. King was a member of a Facebook group for automata lovers from around the world; the virtual community wanted a place to meet in person. He chose the Morris Museum as the convention site because of the Guinness Collection. “Automata were the robots of the Victorian age,” explains King.

Bird of Paradise by Chris Fitch.

“Bird of Paradise” by Chris Fitch. Photo courtesy of the artist

Guinness, a scion of the Guinness brewing family, collected and maintained music boxes from Germany, Switzerland, France and even New Jersey throughout his life; his collection was awarded to the museum in 2003 following his death. The automata range from small wind-up figurines to a Poppers “REX” Orchestrion, an impressive piece that contains multiple instruments. An additional 600 objects are in viewable storage.

At this year’s May 18-20 AutomataCon, visitors can attend historical presentations, watch films about automata and learn art techniques. Children can build their own pieces with cardboard and wires.

Connecting historical automata with the kinetic art series and convention was a logical step for the museum.

“We found that [building] automata is not a lost art,” says Cleveland Johnson, the museum’s executive director. “This tradition that goes back thousands of years is still alive and well.”

Morris Museum, Tues-Sat, 11 am-5 pm; Sun, noon-5 pm; $7-$10; AutomataCon, $30-$95 including museum admission.

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