As someone who builds a lot of stuff, poorly, I have a technical interest in Jeff Shore’s works.
Upon encountering What Comes Around Goes Around, a sprawling, ad-hoc construction of wood, wire and gizmos, the first thing I want to know is how it works. I peer into cracks, trace wire pathways and listen for hidden motors. To me, Shore’s installation is a puzzle, teasing me by revealing parts of its inner workings and hiding others, but what one thinks of Jeff Shore’s baroque technological contraptions depends strongly on whether one is interested in unraveling their technical mysteries or not.
My uncle John was a whittler; he once made me a device he called a do-nothing machine. When you turn the crank, wooden pegs slide frantically back and forth without getting anywhere, but do it so cleverly that you don’t care. What Comes Around Goes Around has four main units: a tacky aluminum foil box about the size and shape of a baby grand piano, an upright booth of translucent film like rice paper with a small window, a grouping of colored paper lanterns which chime, and a home theater with pushbuttons. Briefly, it works like this: a viewer seated at the home theater pushes buttons which control the movement of a small camera (located in the upright booth) and watches the resulting changing pictures. A separate mechanism inside the baby grand piano strikes chimes, which are picked up by a microphone and transmitted to the home theater as accompaniment to the camera picture. In the hallway, the chiming lanterns sound in sympathy with the chimes inside the grand piano. The picture’s not that interesting, nor are the chimes musical. What’s interesting isn’t the effect that the technology produces, but the technology itself.
Techno-art is usually very primitive, technically. The aesthetic of mechanical intricacy is nothing new; and, ironically, its success never relies on technical proficiency, but on its ability to fascinate. Alan Rath, Moholy-Nagy, Brian Conley (who currently has an installation at ArtPace in San Antonio), and a thousand other would-be Leonardos succeed only so far as they capture the imagination. Even Leonardo himself is better known for his unworkable flying machines than for his functional but dull canals.
What Comes Around Goes Around is pleasantly theatrical, spotlighting bells, lights, and funky construction and downplaying the dry details of the electronics used to create the effects. As usual, Shore’s work has a traditionally sculptural concern with materials, putting together foam, foil, wood and wire as if they were a cubist collage.
All images courtesy the artists and the Galveston Art Center.
Bill Davenport is an artist and writer from Houston.