Kinetic Art and the Age of Robotics - What Can We Expect?

December 4, 2015

Derived from the Greek word kinesis, representing motion or change in Aristotelian philosophy, Kinetic art refers to works that feature real or apparent movement. In its widest definition, it includes a number of different art forms, media types and styles. Since the early twentieth century, artists strived to introduce movement into their work, partly to explore the possibilities of motion, partly to explore the element of time, and partly to reflect the importance of the machine and technology in the modern world. Embracing a huge array of different forms, ranging from cinematic and animation art, to performance art, land art and stroboscopic or light-related artwork (Lumino Kinetic art), this vast movement explored and further developed our nature of vision. With today’s kinetic artists pushing the envelope with the latest technological achievements, solar power, sound waves and fiber optics are just some of the elements incorporated in the modern version of this artistic expression. Robotic art is another extension which falls under the broad umbrella of kinetic art, representing the ultimate connection between art and machine, between creativity and automated technology. So, how far has this art form come? What is the history behind it and what is the future vision we can expect to see? Let us examine the origins, development and influence of this ground-breaking, dynamism-based visual experience that is called Kinetic Art.

Jean Tinguely - Metamechanics steel
Jean Tinguely - Metamechanics

History and Origins

Although the idea of Kinetic Art wasn’t established as a major artistic movement until the 1950s, its origins date back to the early 1920s. The conceptual introduction of movement into art goes back to Futurism, where the actual word “kinetic” was first used in the visual arts in the Realistic Manifesto (1920). Kinetic Sculpture (Standing Wave), created by Naum Gabo in 1919-20, was an electrically powered strip of wire which oscillated rapidly from side to side, creating a motion-like illusion of solid matter. This work represented one of the first attempts to show how mass could dissolve into subtle effects of movement and light in order to create a completely fresh visual experience. Soon after, Alexander Rodchenko, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Marcel Duchamp and others started involving mechanical movement into their artwork. Vibrating wires, suspended plywood and junk art were the first pieces of art focusing on motion as the core of the aesthetics. The theoretical foresight of the Futurists influenced many creators, among them, Alexander Calder stood out with his Mobiles and Stabiles. Weightless linear sculptures which could move, turn and dance in the air were named mobiles and stabiles. Calder quickly became one of the leading names behind the notion of moving sculpture.

To go even further back in history, interest in Kinetic art could be traced back to 1913, in the Dada and Constructivist movements. Jean Tinguely, a Swiss painter and sculptor, and several other artists were fascinated by the possibilities of movement in art and wanted to explore the potential to create interactive relationships which would encompass a visual experience beyond the boundaries of traditional, static objects. The Swiss author was one of the first people to create sculptures that had an active presence which would provide a different experience for the viewer both in the gallery and outside. Anthropomorphic assemblages of motors and light, fused with brightly colored metal wheels were the first signature pieces of this innovative art form. Optical illusions and mechanical movement were combined to produce the sensation of movability. However, after a decade, Op art movement became increasingly more popular and many artists lost interest in kinetics. It was not until 1955 that Kinetic Art actually became an international success, pursued by artists like Takis, Soto, Agam and Schoffer, when it was officially recognized as a movement in the 1955 exhibition Le mouvement at Galerie Denise René in Paris.

Bob Potts - Cosmographic Voyager
Bob Potts - Cosmographic Voyager

The Rise and Fall of the Kinetic Art Movement

Early works of kinetic art included experimentation with both actual and virtual movement. Through mechanized motion in artworks, artists embraced the technology and tried to spread it to other areas of everyday life. However, not all of the practitioners shared the same perception of machines and modern technology. Those who borrowed much from Dada also picked up the anarchic strain, satirical attitude and a somewhat skeptical view of the potential of technology to improve human life. One of the pioneering artists in Kinetic Art, Jean Tinguely, strived to convey a more anarchic, satirical viewpoint of machines and movement, suggesting that rather than serving the humanity, the machine might become the master. Either way, the geometric abstraction as a traditional style was in decline in the post-war period, but the Kinetic art movement brought a revitalization of that tradition. Utilization of mechanical or natural motion represented a newly-formed relationship between art and technology. Kineticism was spread across several forms of art, painting, drawing, and sculpture were just some of the mediums used to convey the art of movement. 1960s rolled in, and the decade saw a considerable success for the movement and its practitioners. The artists were garnering international recognition and started winning various prestigious awards for painting, sculpture and other areas in their work. The entire notion of a radical art movement began to lose its strength as it got more and more accepted by the art world. The avant-garde spirit faded, anti-establishment ethos was getting further and further lost in the general trend which followed Kineticism. Ironically, reaching worldwide success and acceptance was actually what caused the downfall of the movement. As it became just another successful art style, the following generations lost interest and Kinetic art spiraled down to its decline, giving way to the rise of the Op artists.

Giles Walker - Peepshow steel
Giles Walker - Peepshow

Robotic Art

With mechanical elements such as motors, machines and electrically powered systems brought to focus in Kinetic Art, the automated technology developed with time and Robotic art became a style of its own under the umbrella of Kinetic art. As electronic media and technology bloomed, robotics became a popular medium of experimentation. The first hydraulic sculptures were the genesis of contemporary robotic art, and their origins can be traced back to the 1960s. Nam June Paik, Shuya Abe and Tom Shannon were the pioneering names of this futuristic art style. The cybernetic interaction between the viewer and the artwork was a fresh way of conveying social messages. Automated installations and computer-aided performance art quickly became integral parts of several other art forms. Robotic art continued to develop as the technology blossomed through the decades. Nowadays, a great number of kinetic sculptors, scrap artists and creators incorporate robotic creations in their artwork. With the ever-expanding influence of technology, Robotic artists continue to develop a complex and fascinating body of work, pushing the creative expression of the digital age into different directions. As the tech discoveries grow, so will the artists find never-before used ways to incorporate it into their work.

Left: Marcel Duchamp - Bicycle Wheel, 1913 - sold for 1.6 million dollars at an auction in 2002 / Arc of Petal
Left: Marcel Duchamp - Bicycle Wheel, 1913 - sold for 1.6 million dollars at an auction in 2002 / Right: Alexander Calder - Arc of Petal

Kinetic Art Today

Today, Kinetic Art doesn’t exist according to critics. However, its influence can be found in many modern works, and creators keep drawing inspiration from the movement, some staying true to its basic principles, some simply adopting the concept and completely reinventing the outcome. The MIT Museum displayed an exhibition in 2013, entitled 5000 Moving Parts, which showcased the works of Takis, Arthur Ganson, Anne Lilly, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and John Douglas Powers. The show was presented as an inaugural “year of kinetic art” at the Museum, including special programming related to the artform. Authors from all over the world include principles of kinetic art in their work even today. Illusion, space and perception are explored through the works which mimic forms and movements found in nature. Recently, Kinetic Art saw a considerable rise according to The price index of kinetic artists rose by 128 percent in the past ten years. For instance, in 2007, artwork by Naum Gabo, one of the fathers of kinetic art, sold for astounding 1.1 million pounds ($2.1 million). Marcel Duchamp’s famous Bicycle Wheel from 1913, was sold for 1.6 million dollars back in 2002. Motorized sculptures of Jean Tinguely are high on the art market, so are the artworks of Alexander Calder. So, even though the art style is no longer active in its original form, Kinetic art still shows signs of life in today’s scene and market. Dynamism remains a unique fascination of today’s artists and Kinetic Art serves as a well of inspiration for the future generations. The perpetual motion of kineticism keeps on going.

All images used for illustrative purposes only
Featured images: Rosaline de Thélin, TIME SMILES, Homos Luminosos, 2008 - 2010 ; Jean Tinguely - Homage to NY, 1960 ; Dwight Eschliman - Hand of Man

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