Tom Patterson Review

Mind at Work: Kinetic Sculptures Puzzle and Delight.

A Review of Norman Tuck’s Mindless Mechanism Exhibition

at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art.

by Tom Patterson. Winston Salem Journal, 19 Jan. 1992

The Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art is in luck that Norman Tuck lives in Winston-Salem, because it would have cost a small fortune to package and ship the large kinetic sculptures in his solo exhibit here from just about anywhere else.

At a time when SECCA, like many other art centers, has been forced to make significant budget cuts, its staff has taken this opportunity to reduce expenses even further by making Tuck’s one of the longest running exhibits in the center’s history. Filling both of SECCA’s largest galleries, it opened last October and continues until March 8.

With the exception of a few inordinately complex clocks that actually do tell time, Tuck’s sculptures are machines that go through various motions but don’t serve any useful purpose. Appropriately the show is called “Mindless Mechanisms” – a title the artist says was inspired by a comment about his work that New York art dealer Ivan Karp once made.

Tuck’s mechanisms range from about breadbox size to ceiling high, and their endlessly repetitive motions are in some cases powered by small electric motors, in others activated by the viewer according to posted instructions. One of the smaller pieces (Tapping the Juice) appears to operate on electricity generated by six mold-infested lemons.

The simplest of the viewer-activated mechanisms is Flipper, which consists of a disk on an axle that extends beyond its supporting frame to form a hand crank at one end. When the crank is turned, the disk revolves so that the slightly varied images on either side – both showing a hand holding a crank – create a simple animated illustration of the viewer’s activity.

A number of the other pieces are so complex in their interrelated operations that is not easy to figure out how they work – at least not for those of us who are not mechanically inclined. But no matter how intricate and complicated , all of Tuck’s sculptures perform actions so simple and mundane as that of Flipper.

Sky Reaper and XIX, for example, are variations of the same basic idea, each with three large electrically driven paddle-wheel-like structures rotating perpetually so that their frameworks repeatedly intermesh without ever touching. The larger of these, Sky Reaper, is suspended from the ceiling and is made primarily of wood and metal. XIX, a free-standing work, has wheels made of green plastic PVC pipe.

Also similar to each other are two pieces titled Chain Reaction and Theoretical Applied Mechanics. Chain Reaction is a viewer-activated piece consisting of a bicycle chain dangling in a loop from a metal wheel that rotates when an attached hand crank is turned. This action causes the looped bicycle chain to undulate at the bottom, so that it occasionally drags across an upturned wire-bristled brush mounted on its base. Theoretical Applied Mechanics is a more recent and more elaborate, electronically powered device that does essentially the same thing.

Disco is an interactive piece whose mechanics will probably baffle many viewers, as it did me. A long bamboo pole is mounted horizontally atop an upended segment of an automotive engine that protrudes upward from the center of a large, linoleum-covered disc resting a few inches above the floor on small wheels. Somehow, when you stand on the disc, push forward against the roughly waist high bamboo pole and walk forward, the disc spins in the opposite direction so that you end up making no forward progress, regardless of how fast you walk.

Another of the more fascinating interactive works is Terminal Piece, which more than anything else in the show suggests the absurd contraptions drawn by cartoonist Rube Goldberg during the 1930’s. To activate this piece, you pull on a rope suspended near the center of the Main Gallery and connected – by a series of pulleys attached to the ceiling – to a bundle of bamboo sticks resting on the floor at one end of the gallery. Having thus raised the bundle to its upper limit, you release the rope and watch the bundle as it’s very slowly lowered back to the floor by way of a complicated ceiling-mounted device composed primarily of large vertical and horizontal bamboo wheels. The bizarre mechanism brings to mind the myth of Sisyphus, who was condemned to spend eternity alternately rolling a stone to the top of a hill and watching it roll back down again.

On the outdoor sculpture deck of the Main Gallery is a much simpler viewer-activated piece titled Water Wheel. A sheet of clear plastic is loosely stretched between two large metal wheels mounted on a framework that allows them to turn when a viewer activates a crank. A few gallons of water  form a small pool at the bottom of the plastic sheet, but when the crank is turned to rotate the mechanism, the water’s action mimicks that of a stream flowing rapidly downhill.

Back inside the gallery, a sculpture titled Wave Generator suggests the movement of water without actually incorporating any. Another viewer-activated piece, it consists of four long, slender, tapered slabs of lumber whose large ends are attached to another free-standing hand-cranked apparatus. When the crank is turned, these wood slabs move up and down in sequence to create a series of wavelike motions.

Several clocks and clocklike devices in the exhibit incorporate so many varied components and intricately interrelated mechanisms that they defy description. One of these, Timeless, looks like some kind of gigantic Erector-Set construction and is an example of what Tuck calls a “double five-legged gravity escapement.” Operating on a principle similar to that of Terminal Piece, it’s activated by turning yet another crank, which in this case winds a rope bearing a lead weight onto a pulley near the top of the contraption. When the crank is released, the weight yields to the pull of gravity, but this process is drastically slowed by an escapement device fashioned of screws and other metal parts that click rhythmically against each other as a pendulum swings back and forth until the weight reaches the floor.

Public Clock is a similar piece, but it substitutes a wire basket full of marbles for the lead weight. The gradual lowering of the basket powers not only a large pendulum, but also the knifelike metal hands on a clock face at the top of this structure that resemble an outdoor windmill. An electrically powered rewind device automatically raises the basket of marbles when it reaches the bottom of its path.

Viewers with some proficiency in electrical engineering will perhaps be able to decipher the schematic drawings that accompany and explain Tuck’s most mysterious piece, Rotate/Resonate. Don’t ask me how it works, but when you push a button on a wooden box, various numbers start flashing rapidly on a digital readout display while a rimless wheel with six flexible metal spokes rotates above a round hole in the center of the box, which emits a sound resembling a sustained low note played on a cello.

Those who find themselves dizzy from attempting to figure out how some of Tuck’s more complex pieces operate can rest their minds by contemplating a little item he calls Magnetic Attraction. It consists of a small magnet attached to the top of a stand made of a single bent metal rod. To the bottom of the rod is tied a piece of string that is stretched taut as the magnet exerts its pull on a paper clip tied to the to the string's other end. This is one mechanism that doesn't move at all, as the magnet and paper clip remain in perpetually suspended animation, irresistibly attracted to each other yet frozen only a fraction of and inch apart. And we all know how it works.

In a brief interview published in a brochure for this show, Tuck suggests that his sculptures are “to be experienced rather than understood,” and offers them as an alternative to “the overly intellectual work that has characterized the art world in the recent past.” The 25 pieces in this exhibition definitely resist the question so often asked about contemporary artworks: “But what does it mean?” It’s not that they are meaningless, though; they just mean nothing more or less than what they are. Tuck’s work does engage the mind, but it does so in a way that circumvents the intellect, through an accumulation of endlessly repeating movements and sounds whose effects are akin to the hypnosis of certain types of meditation. But even if you are not up for hypnotic or meditative experience, these “Mindless Mechanisms” can be a source of great fun – for the entire family, no less.