You may find yourself compelled to tread lightly, as though among large beasts that can and do stampede. But don't worry, folks: For the most part, the creatures at Wood Street Galleries' Physical Conditions are involved with activities and routines that do not concern you.
Perhaps echoing the natural world -- albeit ironically -- works by the four artists featured in Physical Conditions robotically carry out tasks that are not meant to please or serve humans. And, ah, there's the rub.
Bertrand Russell, the British logician and philosopher, might serve as a strangely insightful narrator for this show. Russell has written: "There will still be things that machines cannot do. They will not produce great art or great literature or great philosophy; they will not be able to discover the secret springs of happiness in the human heart; they will know nothing of love and friendship."
As if in response, the curtains of Wood Street's second floor are dashed open (most shows are darkened) for the work of Denmark's Henrik Menne. Three upright machines together fill the room, each concerned with its own production. One is a sculptor of strange green cylinders that suggest ant mounds or beehives. Another, called "56L," is building what looks like a large spider's nest. And yet another is constructing a stalactite-like protrusion. It does so with a simple gesture (a hot droplet plummeting into a jet of air) that might evoke either tears or laughter -- really?
Has this machine done in two days what takes nature a century? And here it is in a gallery, something that would make Bertrand Russell roll over in his grave.
Menne's work hums away with a sense of rare mechanical independence, and viewers may find themselves disturbed and awed that a heat lamp, wax and a small fan have so easily unraveled ideas about a machine's ability to make a great artwork.
"56L," first created in 2004, consists of solid glue, a fan, iron, a heating element and an engine. The machine is slender and stands slightly taller than a person, lending a human intimacy. "56L" dispenses a small molten thread of glue that is tossed across the gallery by a fan slowly tracking left to right and back, accumulating on whatever is placed in front of it.
This particular work, tasked with covering a ladder, has been produced in multiple locations. But one could alter the environment, or the object to be covered. Indeed, each of Menne's works would yield curious variations depending on the environment they were placed in, inviting viewers to imagine alternate terrains.
If this notion is not challenging enough, on Wood Street's upper floor sits the whirling, confrontational arm of "Spatial Sounds," by Marnix de Nijs and Edwin van der Heide, of the Netherlands. A speaker is attached to the end of a long steel beam that's fixed horizontally on an engine and rotating about the space at waist height. The speaker spouts sweet and repelling sounds in response to viewer presence. At first, the low corral that surrounds "Spatial Sounds" feels like a fence blocking potential play with an audience. But as this sculpture effectively manages to "spin into a rage," the boundary seems necessary: protective.
Nearby sits Donato Piccolo's "Hurricane," a discrete, shoulder-high glass case in which rain whips about and pools below in a tiny, wild and lonely storm. As I sit before it, I am confronted with the windy evidence that there dwells in machines a potential to depart from the slavery of humans and mind their own darn business-- whatever that strange business may be.
At day's end, though, won't they all wind down with dead AA batteries? Be unplugged? Won't they run out of material to sculpt with, or humans to yell at? The answer is yes, and somehow offers relief. An awareness of this comfort is something viewers may find surprisingly enriching.
Physical Conditions continues through Sept. 25. Wood Street Galleries, 601 Wood St., Downtown. 412-471-5605 or www.woodstreetgalleries.org