New York

Arnaldo Morales

De Chiara/Stewart

In his first solo show in New York, thirty-one-year-old Puerto Rico-born Arnaldo Morales displayed what he calls “electrobjetos”—interactive anthropomorphic automatons meticulously fashioned in polished aluminum and stainless steel and powered by small motors and air compressors compressors. He anchored one to each of the four walls of the gallery’s front room and suspended the title piece, Triobegun Ironik, No. 98, 1998, from the ceiling.

The aesthetic here is Popular Mechanics meets the Critical Art Ensemble’s Flesh Machine, with a conceptual focus on the emotional inadequacies and contrivances of human communication. Triobegun Ironik, No. 98 is a pneumatic “conversation piece” consisting of three pistol-grip impact air drivers equally spaced around a hanging armature and connected to an overhead air compressor. Viewers are invited to step up to one of the three tools. With one person on each driver pulling the trigger, a three-way “conversation” is carried out through insistent but ineffectual bursts of compressed air by way of flexible extension tubes that meet in the center. No matter how the three participants vary the frequency of their “shots,” they are unable to escape the dull aggressive prodding of the machinery. They can just walk away, of course, but if they choose to engage in the conversation, the content of their discourse is enforced by the structure through which they attempt to communicate.

Dengue, No. 98, 1998, is a mosquito-like apparatus featuring an impact driver with a long table leg projecting from it. When the trigger of the driver is depressed, the business end of the leg kicks forward with constrained but considerable force. The title first makes one think of dengue fever, that bone-crushing influenza carried by mosquitoes, but dengue in Spanish also translates as “affectation, coyness, or prudery.” This Dengue is a sad sex machine, a tool to hurt the one you love. Craving contact, it can only punch and injure.

From a distance, Tatauee, No. 97, 1997, resembles something one might see in a dentist’s office: What looks like a small, handheld drill (it’s actually a tattoo machine) is mounted on a retractable arm bracketed to the wall. But when the visitor approaches, the arm lashes violently outward, then slowly recoils. The motion recalls the strike of a snake or scorpion, but the most deliciously sinister detail of the piece is the way the tool settles back into its bracket after recoiling, with a crisp metallic click like the sound a revolver makes when one eases the cocked hammer down.

For sheer raw menace, however, nothing here succeeds like Electropure, 1998, which transforms an ordinary kitchen mixer into a truly shocking appliance. When activated, a corkscrew slowly turns inside a metal bowl half-filled with water. Peering over its rim, we see the blue arc of 15,000 volts travel up the electrified screw and quickly step back.

A good deal of the appeal of Morales’s machines lies in the way they tap into that particular mix of ingenuity and menace at the heart of technology’s promise. But there is something more here—a longing for connection that gives the best of these works a different kind of poignancy. P.E., No. 98, 1998 (the initials of which could stand for public or physical education), is a sleek vehicle designed for a child. It looks like a souped-up bicycle, but in place of the front wheel is a large open reciprocating electric-knife blade, flanked by two hooked pincers like those used in prosthetic hands. Seated on the little metal saddle, the child is able to activate the blade with the foot pedal and the pincers with the handlebar grips. This is a ride with attitude—“Who’re you calling hyperactive?”—that transforms the power vacuum of childhood into an aesthetic-prosthetic weapon.

David Levi Strauss