Not only does Bruce Grenville see a clear connection between
Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times,
Sigmund Freud’s writings, The Terminator
and Pablo Picasso, he thinks you should too.
The sprawling cross-cultural, multi-media exhibit he’s curated,
The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture currently occupying
most of the second story of the Edmonton Art Gallery (EAG), explores
our society’s deep cultural fascination with machines and
Grenville’s project pays special attention to the challenge
presented by idea/image of the cyborg – beings that are part-human,
part-machine – and uses a wide swath of visual artifacts to
make his point.
Objects on display range from mainstream, historic works of art
you’d expect to see in an art gallery – more traditional
than not artworks by Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Lewis Hine, Jacob
Epstein – to popular culture products. Non-traditional objects
on display include: an iron lung, video clips and models from the
Arnold Schwarzenegger movie The Terminator,
a playset and action figures from the TV’s The
Six Million Dollar Man, avant-garde projects from North America
and Asia, as well as examples of cartoon artwork plucked from Japanese
manga and anime.
“This project started 10 years ago when I was at the Mendel
Art Gallery (in Saskatoon) and there was a lot of interest in the
subject in a variety of forms,” says Grenville, a former EAG
senior curator. “At the time they had invested over a million
dollars in a virtual reality lab at the Banff Centre not to mention
all the games and movies there were coming out featuring cyborgs.”
(The Terminator, the memorable movie
about the relentless cyborg from 2029 directed by Canadian-born
James Cameron, was released in 1984, while the Paul Verhoeven-directed
cyborg-cop-satire Robocop debuted in 1987.)
“I realized this was a huge discourse and that I’d
have to move across all of this material and open up a dialog between
The fine intellectual and moral line between
ourselves and increasingly intelligent objects
The end result is an eloquent, deeply
narrative-based show that walks a viewer through 400 years of cultural
obsession with machines and how we draw that fine intellectual and
moral line between ourselves and our increasingly intelligent objects.
Starting with René Descartes’ 17th century meditation
that human beings were akin to organic machines (man as machine),
the exhibit documents various shifts in attitudes towards the mechanical
from Lewis Hines photographs of men with “heroic machines”
to cubist art which fragmented the human figure and “blurred
the lines”, allowing for an artistic penetration of the geometric
mechanical realm into the organic.
Moving deeper into the 20th century past the mechanically-fueled
mayhem of World War I, we see a culture increasingly ill at ease
with the horrific possibility of human/machine hybridization. With
Fritz Lang’s 1926 Metropolis and
Chaplin’s 1936 Modern Times, the
image of a menacing machines and horrific robots directly threatening
humans emerge artistically.
By the time we reach the present day, images of cyborgs and robots
are deeply polarized – killing machines like the Terminator
or the deeply erotic like Star Trek’s
sexy “Seven of Nine” – reflecting a deep ambiguity
with the possibility of mechanical intelligence.
Western dualism and Japanese animism
Grenville’s show contrasts this deeply dualistic western
discourse about the imaginary divide between soul-possessing humans
and inanimate machines with incredibly divergent Japanese ideas
“They have a different relation to the machine and technology,”
says the Vancouver-based curator.
Japan’s religious and philosophical history allows machines
to share animistic spirits, moving their artistic robot/cyborgs
beyond the limiting fear/fascination, good/evil, machine/human dualisms
found in western culture. So, while America produces frightening
entities like Star Trek’s Borg,
Grenville underlines far more positive cyborg/robot entities from
Asia like the cherubic Astro Boy who’s programmed to be helpful
Originally presented in Vancouver, several works of art couldn’t
travel to the Edmonton showing. Grenville decided to fill this gap
with Edmonton work built along the same theme, including Blair Brennan’s
quirky branding iron typewriter – a huge, desk-sized Rube
Goldberg-esk contraption that burns/writes three-inch high letters
unto cow hides.
A “Junkyard Wars” fan, Brennan wanted to create a
machine that was needlessly complex and also makes physical the
relationship between the body and language.
In effect, says Grenville, Brennan has created a machine that
‘writes’ directly on the body (on skins) and underlines
via its physical reality that “language is violence”.