New York

Robert Chambers

Kinetic sculpture, having successfully weathered its dismissal as “Novelty art” by Clement Greenberg, is generally discussed in terms of two opposing Modernist traditions, grounded in conflicting attitudes toward technology. On the one hand, artists working in the Constructivist tradition of Naum Gabo and Lászlo Moholy-Nagy have celebrated the logic of the machine. On the other, those who partake of the Dadaist lineage associated with Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, and more recently Jean Tinguely, have cynically opposed mechanization, satirizing technology by means of the irrational and the absurd.

Robert Chambers is a young sculptor who is working with one foot firmly planted in each tradition. His heavy-metal, kinetic, and often interactive works combine Constructivist precision in design, execution, and finish, with Dadaist eruptions of humor and absurdity. The four elements in this installation, Untitled, 1991, are therefore rife with internal contradictions. One component, entitled Wind Funnel, involves a motor-driven turbine-blower that emits deafening blasts of air through a large metal cone at timed intervals. At first this contraption inspires awe, but over time its purpose is revealed to be a meaningless exercise in technological bluster.

Although the various works in this installation are self-sufficient, they are nevertheless unified by their arrangement in space as well as by the cacophonous noise they produce. Tympani Sets, consists of four large aluminum sheets propped up in a neat row like so many easels. The viewer is invited to manipulate each sheet from a concave to a convex position by alternately pushing and pulling attached knobs, producing a loud clanging noise in the process.

Chambers is at his best when he allows his mechanical prowess to be unraveled by an encounter with the viewer/participant. Bowls is composed of three identical constructions; in each, a sizeable cast-iron bowl is attached to a flexible support that allows it to be manipulated. By repeatedly pushing on a vertical bar, the bowl is set rocking, in turn causing a shot-put ball inside to circle faster and faster until (for the persistent participant) it leaps awkwardly out and onto the floor. Tower is a tall, pyramidal construction with a long protruding arm, which is meant to be pushed around the perimeter in order to set an elaborate system of belt-driven gears in motion. This activates a vacuum pump, which periodically adjusts its equilibrium with a flatulent hiss—a humorous denouement to the drama of participation.

Chambers favors low-tech machine muscle over high-tech information-age sophistication, and indeed his fascination with the machine suggests a certain nostalgia for an industrial era that has been superseded by the age of the microchip. For the viewer, this installation provides a rare moment of bodily grounding in the art context, a refreshing respite from the dominant atmosphere of media-induced vertigo.

Jenifer P. Borum