M.I.T. for Art? You Bet!

M.I.T. For Art Lovers?

The words "art "and "M.I.T." are seldom uttered in the same sentence. Yet recently I found myself at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reveling among delights both technological and aesthetically pleasing.

One enters the museum through a display of robots large and small, complex and simple. Given my own right-brained propensity for the humanities, I was more fascinated by robotic design than function–my favorites being those whose features appealed most to my whimsical and human sides. Don't ask me how any of them work, but I liked the cartoon and sci-fi-looking ones and those that had a mad scientist feel about them, like one that reminded me of Frankenstein's dog.  

The occasion for going to M.I.T. was its recent reopening of a gallery featuring the work of Arthur Ganson (1955-). It originally opened in 1995, year one of Ganson's four-year artist-in-residence term with the Mechanical Engineering Department. If mechanical engineering and artist sound like a contradiction, get thee to M.I.T. and see the reconfigured exhibition space titled Gestural Engineering: The Sculpture of Arthur Ganson. Ganson is something of a geek Renaissance man­–a sculptor, inventor, musician, and engineer. I liken him to a more sophisticated version of Rube Goldberg. His creations have all of Goldberg's whimsy and devotion to because-I-can impracticality, but Ganson could (if pressed) explain the science behind his machines. After all, you need to be able to do some serious math to create a simply row of interlocking gears calibrated such that it will take 13.7 billion years for the last gear to make one rotation. It also takes contemplation to make fascinating an installation that is little more than a scoop bucket that gathers motor oil and dumps it in a thick light-refracting cascade. His title? Machine with Oil–and it doesn't come with a pretentious artist's statement claiming it to be a metaphor for anything! Ditto Cory's Yellow Chair, which is a miniature chair perched precariously upon a stone and dodging a small plastic cat.
Ganson's kinetic sculptures are also driven by moxie. Another creation fascinates though it is little more than a gearbox that moves set of slender rods topped by thin slips of paper. The gears and small jets of air cause the paper to move like clouds. I stood before it mesmerized, though even I could see it was a dead simple machine. Other Ganson wonders such as Small Towers of 6 Gears are more overtly sculptural and delicate and others–such as one that looks as if a wishbone man is pulling a post- apocalyptic locomotive are deliciously. Ganson is also fixated on how things come to gather and apart. Another small yellow chair exhibit is a wall installation in which a yellow chair is prised apart by a gear arrangement that takes those parts to star points and then snaps them back together at the blink of an eye. It's akin to a scientist's version of a sand mandala, except that it repeatedly constructs, deconstructs, and reconstructs. Go see this exhibit and repeat this mantra: "M.I.T. It's not just for geeks."

While you're there, check out a small exhibit devoted to holography. M.I.T. professor Stephen Benton is often credited with developing the first true hologram—for Polaroid in 1968, but this exhibit sheds some light—if I may!–on the prehistory and subsequent  development of holography.

My humanist brain was entertained even more by a gallery devoted to M.I.T. pioneers in the field of photography. It includes two of my favorites: Harold "Doc" Edgerton (1903-90) and Berenice Abbott. Is there anyone who doesn't know Edgerton's famed photo of a milk splash rising like a white crown? Yeah–but do you know how he did it? You can both learn about the techniques of strobe lighting and experiment with making you own images. Pretty cool! 

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) is among the more famous names in photographic history and any museum worth its salt has a few of her images in its collection. She is known for her large format camera work, especially architectural detail, cityscapes, and Depression Era urban social documents. Lesser known, but just as important, are Abbott's photos used in science textbooks, especially works bordering on abstraction that demonstrate physics principles.

This gallery is full of marvels for anyone who has pointed a lens at a subject and wondered what happens to produce the images. It's small, but choice and a stroll through photographic milestones from Eadweard Muybridge's slow-motion shots to the present.

So…the next time you're in Cambridge, Massachusetts, take the Red Line to Kendall and check out the M.I.T. Museum. M.I.T. for Art? You Bet!

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