Thursday, September 10, 2009


Although I found the work of Sylvie Rosenthal at the ICFF, I'm not really labeling this post as such. She does use forms from furniture in a symbolic way and also to sort of control the way one interacts with the pieces. But in talking to her, which I'm so glad I did, I discovered what she's doing is so much more. In such a fascinating way, her work rides these fine lines between furniture, sculpture, and machinery, and all with a fantastic sense of humor.

It seems one of her biggest influences was her childhood experiences at the Eli Whitney Museum (EWM), a children's museum in Hamden, Connecticut, that holds what sound like the most amazing workshops. The way she speaks about it, as I told her, reminded me of how awestruck I was visiting the Henry Ford Museum as a kid, which I've mentioned before. I only went there once or twice, though. Rosenthal spent many an afternoon at the EWM taking workshops, where she built boats and carved out a one-quarter scale model of the Nile River and made all kinds of crazy machines. She later became an instructor for them and even spent one day a week there while in school, an arrangement that required a special meeting between her parents and her school's administration.

Eli Whitney's major contribution to industry, Rosenthal told me, was not actually the cotton gin, but the concept of interchangeable parts. Before this, if you had, say, a revolver with a broken part, you'd have had to hire a smith to create a new one from scratch. Whitney made it possible to just go to the manufacturer and replace the damaged part with an identical new one.

Honestly, hearing about the EWM, I was a bit jealous. I would have LOVED a place like that when I was a kid. In fact, I probably would be an engineer or something right now, had I had that opportunity. I regret nothing, of course.

That in mind, it's no wonder her work has gone in the direction it has, and not because of any particular interest in automata, which was what I first assumed.

There's also something to her work that reminds me of those gypsy fortune teller arcade games, although far less creepy, because they answer questions.

--Photo courtesy Mr. Mickey Man.
If I had an arcade, I'd have one of these, but I'd put it in some spooky, dark back corner and let it get dusty and cobwebbed so people would think it was haunted or something.

Rosenthal said she's always collecting weird things. She has a drawer full of curiosities in her studio, in fact, for inspiration. I admitted to her that I have a giant plastic housefly head in my living room, the reasons for which I thought she'd understand:

While Rosenthal was visiting a friend out in Texas, her friend's mother decided she might like a little animal skull found on their desert ranch, presumably from some type of rodent or something. "I really don't need an animal skull," she said, but her hostess insisted she take it. She said that since cattle tycoons put bull horns on the front of their Cadillacs, she might put this little skull on the hood of her car, but later reconsidered.

In any case, that trip led eventually to these somewhat early pieces, this is Two Hermits on an Adjoining Mountain:

Click for larger.
After she told me about the desert trip, it occurred to me that the pieces have this very Old West Saloon kind of quality to them. Evidently the skulls are from some kind of possum. For sure they should be referred to as "varmints" as often as possible.

Anyhow, it's a cabinet to store your favorite moonshine:

The possums--or I guess they're possum ghosts--help you decide things; when you turn the crank, they nod "yes." As Rosenthal explained: "Should I have a drink?"


"Should I have another?"



"Yes." So on and so forth. She told me she's always loved those very basic one-liner jokes that just never get old. I agreed, and actually I laughed a lot during our conversation.

Here's a couple others, still rustic in an awesome way, but less obvious in style, perhaps. The first one of the three was O'Possum Whiskey, with just one skull:
Here you can see the crank mechanism a little closer:

And this is Pagditt Ranch #4, also with two soothsaying skulls:

We talked quite a bit about Leonardo DaVinci. Rosenthal said she'd referred back to his work a number of times. She works out all the mechanical elements herself, in order to get the pieces to do what she wants them to do. It's required her to look back at mechanical solutions from centuries earlier. This kind of stuff has always fascinated me, too, and it's what I think I love most about her work. In our very sophisticated Digital Age, the true genius of we humans' ability to create complex mechanical objects I think has been sadly forgotten. This is one of the things her work celebrates so beautifully. I mean, think about early mechanical adding machines:

--Image understood to be in the public domain.
William S. Burroughs, the grandfather of the famous author, patented that in 1888. It did all the adding that an electronic calculator could do, but using nothing but wheels, levers, and gears. It's astonishing. With all our advanced knowledge of integrated circuitry, I think there are few people alive today who could even conceive of how such a thing might work, much less figure out the specifics (maybe some clock-makers here and there). I can't help but feel that's somehow a shame.

The piece that immediately brought Leonardo to my mind was Perfectio Complimentil:

The bird has climbed up that ladder to its perch, and is preparing to take flight. Turning the crank at the bottom, somewhat obviously, makes the wings flap. It becomes an allegory for taking chances, for clawing your way to the top and taking that leap of faith, perhaps not knowing if your instinct for flying will hold out or your wings are strong enough yet. Rosenthal studied woodworking and furniture design at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where she said she learned woodworking purely by hand before being permitted the use of machine tools. All her woodwork is crafted by her own hand, with an acute attention to detail.

She also studied industrial welding at Austin Community College in Texas, however. So more impressively, perhaps--though she has occasionally purchased a screw or bit here and there--for the most part, all the metal parts are made from scratch, fabricated by the artist herself.

Along similar lines, and going a bit further in helping you to make life's difficult decisions, is A Confident Perch:

You can ask the bird a question and it will nod and flap its wings. Then you can see there's metal dice (also handmade by the artist) in those cubby holes. There's this interesting contrast here, she pointed out, between the bird and the dice: the bird only says "yes." So with the bird: different question, same answer; with the dice: same question, different answer (most times). In a very philosophical sort of way, the piece gives you the strategic options to control what your results will be, how your question will be answered, depending on how you choose to pose the question, and how you choose to determine its answer.

Each die has a different group of possible answers. One says "kind of stupid," "mildly stupid," "stupid," "really stupid," "really really stupid," and "totally stupid." Another offers "disaster," "debacle," "inspired," "brilliant," "genius," and "did you lose weight?" Yet another die warns "mildly f*cked," "f*cked," "really f*cked," "really really f*cked," "totally f*cked," and "completely f*cked." That's for dire situations, clearly. A piece similar to this with the answer bird and the dice stored in little drawers is called, appropriately, The Advisor.

The piece on display at the show, which Rosenthal kindly cranked up for me, is a vanity set called Birdie Suite:

Click that.
She said she liked the idea of a vanity because it's a piece of furniture typically used by only one person, unlike, say, a dining table or hall credenza. The user therefore becomes much more personally and intimately connected to this particular piece. It goes back to what I said above about using the symbolism of a piece of furniture to affect the meaning of the piece. Here the always agreeable birdie serves a different purpose, being perched on the mirror: "Do I look attractive today?"


"Do these pants make my butt look hot?"


"Is this shirt a good color for me?"

"Yes." Someone might be inclined to ask Rosenthal to create a mechanical spouse.

One of her more recent pieces, Gently Drifting, is more of a kinetic sculpture to inspire contemplation:
The little white chair, to me, seemed to be in a position of honor, like where Cleopatra would sit. Rosenthal said it was more a place for deep thought, there alone at the back of the boat, facing forward to reflect on where one is going.

Turning the crank, not surprisingly, makes the boat rock gently back and forth. You can see some of the boards are missing. I said "the boat would sink, wouldn't it?" But she explained that it isn't that the boat is broken or falling apart, rather that it's somehow incomplete, in the sense that it's the conceptual suggestion of a boat, the symbolism of the object divorced from literal functionality.

In talking about this piece, I asked her if she'd ever considered using electric motors to power these. She made a really good point, that she much prefers the interactive quality they have, that in order to set them in motion, you have to physically operate the crank. I mentioned the Yaacov Agam sculpture, Three x Three Interplay (1971), that I really hope Lincoln Center decides to reinstall outside Alice Tully Hall (but fear they won't), which is similarly and quite delightfully operated by a crank.

It's true, I thought, that if motorized, you might think ...Drifting was cool for a couple hours, but then you'd likely forget that it was there, bobbing along. She also said she far prefers the simple mechanical quality, and doesn't want to have to deal with switches or motion sensors or wires or electric plugs and all that nonsense. It's much more charmingly pure this way, without question. A lot of her work, but maybe this one in particular, very much reminded me of some of the things I said about Alexander Calder.

Last but not least is her Le Serpent qui a mange la theiere deux, a commissioned piece for a teapot show. But Rosenthal's expertise is in woodwork, not ceramics, so she realized she wasn't going to be making a normal vessel for tea. Made of wood, obviously, it's not a functioning teapot. But she told me these teapot collector people are a crazy bunch, and often collect teapots that can't actually be used. It made me a little curious to go to one of these teapot shows, in fact. Hers is a teapot that's been eaten by a snake:

If you lift the lid, it's attached to a cylinder with a little drawer in it that holds one of the answer dice. The idea, she said, came from the book The Little Prince--originally published in French, hence the French title of her teapot.

©2009, Ryan Witte

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