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The Marvellous Mechanical Museum at Compton Verney

In a world where we are becoming dependent on computers and are being introduced to burgeoning virtual reality technology, it seems that the relationship between man and machine has never been so prominent. But the human fascination with technological experimentation is, in fact, nothing new, as Compton Verney’s latest exhibition demonstrates. Scheduled in correspondence with the Year of Engineering and the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (who reportedly was inspired to create her monster by the famous automata of Pierre Jaquet-Droz) The Marvellous Mechanical Museum looks back to the spectacular automata exhibitions of the 18 Century, and charts artists’ experiments with clockwork and robotics through the ages, from humorous to chilling depictions of man’s relationship with the machine.

What’s fascinating about Compton Verney’s exhibition is that whilst they do display a variety of antiquated artefacts – such as a minute Elephant Automaton (c.1900) on loan from her majesty the Queen - there are also contemporary responses to historical objects, a stand out work being Ting-Tong Chang’s Digesting Goose (2018). Chang’s work reimagines the famous Digesting Duck by 18th Century French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson, which is no longer in existence. When activated the taxidermy bird, with a very aggressive glower, moves its limbs independently as it lectures you about your gut bacteria. Whilst features such as this are largely humorous – if slightly creepy – other modern commissions for the show have a greater socio-political edge.

Image Credit: Fabergé Silver Elephant Automaton, Royal Collection Trust, (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018
The Machinery, a collaborative performance by Caroline Radcliffe and Sarah Agliss is projected in a darkened room of the gallery, fittingly next to a rousing quotation from Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. It is refreshing to see a dance film included in such a high profile exhibition, particularly of this theme, as dance is arguably one of the best art forms to discuss the relationship between man and machine, due to its medium literally being the human body. Furthermore, dance has a rich history of “machine dances” such as those by 20th Century German choreographers Rudolf Laban and Oskar Schlemmer, which are briefly alluded to in the exhibition. Much like these choreographers from the 1920s/30s, Radcliffe and Agliss’ piece explores the dehumanising labour industrial workers are consigned to through the performance of repetitive clog dance steps, and has been filmed to focus on the performer’s feet, therefore adding to the sense of dehumanisation and depersonalisation of the worker. Set to the sounds of a cotton mill and a call centre, the performance also cleverly draws parallels between the Industrial Revolution and today, revealing that despite the allusion that modern technology makes our lives easier, we are actually turning into slaves of the machine.

Image Credit: Defence Cascade (2018), Harrison Pearce. Photographed by Emily May.
Harrison Pearce’s Defence Cascade (2018) also seemingly reflects this notion. In the installation inflated silicone forms are suspended amidst an austere metal structure, and are prodded by automated rods. Set to contrastingly beautiful music by composer Alex Mills, which is punctuated by the industrial sounds of the mechanised device, the art work looks like a science experiment, or some kind of torture device, and you may find yourself anthropomorphising the poor, inflated bags which are at the mercy of their mechanical environment.

But it’s not all darkness and torture as the final room or “Arcade” of the exhibition displays a series of inventive automata toys. Utilising technology for joy and entertainment purposes, many of the toys on display are interactive or coin operated and perfect for curious kids and adults alike. Rowland Emmet’s 1984 kinetic sculpture A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley – which celebrates the golden age of train travel before the 1960s branch-line closures – is a particularly charming and impressive highlight.

Image Credit: A Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley, Rowland Emmet, 1984. Photographed by James Bastable.
This being said there is a fine line between sweet and disturbing, and even some of these seemingly innocent arcade games can have a spooky undertone or an element of satire. Beware of Keith Newstead’s A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing (2006), which will make you jump with a wolf suddenly devouring its prey after you’ve been turning the wooden handle for half a minute! Also don’t miss Paul Spooner’s dextrous Demoiselles (2017), which may seem to merely be a pleasant marionette scene with an organ playing the can-can, but is in fact made up of female effigies from art history such as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and Manet’s Olympia (1863) which bring up conversations around the presentations of women in art.

Image Credit: Demoiselles, Paul Spooner 2017
You can however escape from the social commentary in the accompanying Rodney Peppé’s World of Invention exhibition, which explores the life and work of the prolific toy maker, illustrator and graphic designer. His vast, colourful and joyful output for children, and an impressive mechanical toy depicting the 12 days of Christmas using 12 different types of mechanisms in particular, prove that engaging with engineering and mechanics doesn’t have to be cold and concerning, and that the line between science and art is not as definitive as we think.

Image Credit: Compton Verney via Facebook
It’s worth making a day out of your visit to Compton Verney, as with its extensive collections – including the world’s largest collection of British Folk Art – and its beautiful Capability Brown landscaped grounds, it really is a destination gallery. And let’s face it, after being subjected to the industrialism of the Mechanical Museum, you might want a wander by the lake for a dehumanisation detox!
The Marvellous Mechanical Museum runs until 30 September 2018 at Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park, Warwickshire, CV35 9HZ