Martha Whittington‘s exhibition of sculpted objects at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia (MOCA GA) entitled deus ex machina recalls “the moment when machines became gods and workers became machines,” according to a phrase freshly painted in antiquated script on the space’s far wall. From the look of the objects themselves, I imagine that Whittington might place that moment somewhere between the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the opening of the twentieth century, though it could just as easily be another imagined time.
The objects suggest the shift in society from field to factory. There’s an obvious anxiety about the moment: it’s an unpleasant, alienating time when some natural proclivity in humans for productivity and industriousness is exploited for material profit and at a spiritual cost. This mood is best articulated when the dancers of Beacon Dance under the direction of choreographer D. Patton White activate the objects at performances occurring at various times throughout the exhibition.
Whittington gives a gorgeous tightness and precision to her sculptures. They appear polished, monolithic, almost detail-less at first glance, but examination reveals their almost obsessive handmade craftsmanship. The needle of a Victrola is sewn to its arm with leather straps showing an airless exactitude in the perfectly even stitching. Canvas booths with porthole screens in felt cases display instructional videos of repetitive tasks: when not working with the machines, performers watch videos showing them how to work. Straps, stiff felt aprons, polished steel wheels, a wheelchair for one of the performers, mirrored eggs pulled from pigeon-breasted black bags, a hand-cranked gramophone that makes a plaintive high-pitched wail to call workers to and away from work—these objects don’t waste an atom’s worth of space.
But the overall purpose, the endgame of all that efficiency, remains disturbingly elusive. Paired with Beacon Dance’s choreography, the artwork enacts a constant dialogue between the seen labor of the performers using the machines and the unseen labor of the sculptor: the carving, cutting, chiseling, sewing, and building that occupy the working artist’s life.
There’s a tidiness to the exhibit, a simplicity that functions both in its asset and against it. By subtracting extraneous details in favor of fresh-from-the-factory cleanliness, the works make it clear that the moment is being recalled to the present, brushing away any sense of dustiness or nostalgia. It impresses with its sharp lines, polished surfaces, and snugly fitting joints, but the cleanliness occasionally gives way to sparseness.
The white cube of a gallery space can rarefy an object, pulling out its fascinating characteristics, and at other times rob it of its vitality. I did wonder what the performance might look like at a venue like the Goat Farm Arts Center or MASS Collective—some place that shows the bruises of history, perhaps with the objects themselves showing some bruises, as well.
I longed for more activity in the performance, too. There was clever activation of the ladders with a rope hung between them supported by a long staff, but there was an overarching somber stillness through much of the choreographed work. It needed more doing, more business, more activity, and less rigidity and slowness.
Still, deus ex machina takes a fascinating, provocative stance through its self-reflexive, hall-of-mirrors examination of effort and industriousness. For what purpose is all that measuring, carving, chiseling, polishing, and making? In the end, as the exhibition’s title suggests, Whittington just keeps her head down as she goes about the tedious but necessary task of trying to pull a god out of the machine.
Beacon Dance returns to MOCA GA for a final performance at 1PM this Saturday, October 6, 2012, which also serves as the closing date for Martha Whittington’s exhibition.