Artist Chico MacMurtrie and Amorphic Robot Works (ARW), his Brooklyn-based artist and engineer collective, articulate physical and metaphysical truths about human existence through pneumatic pumps and high-tensile fabric. Two of their installations, currently on view at Wood Street Galleries, explore both the literal and metaphorical physics that define our experience of the world at large.
Formed in 1991, ARW now has more than 60 international crew members. Having helped MacMurtrie bring more than 250 mechanical sculptures to life, the group has stated that it is moving toward creating a sophisticated humanoid. Wood Street hosts two of its experiments, which straddle the line between philosophy and science. On the gallery's third floor is the physically spare but visually arresting "Sixteen Birds," and on the second is the conceptually compelling "Inflatable Architectural Body."
"Sixteen Birds" spans half the length of that second-floor space in a suspended arc suggesting both arrested Futurist-style motion and the pre-formation flight path of Canada geese. Yet, the birds are not realistic. Composed of long, seamed cones of white, high-tensile sailing fabric, they play on the linear signifier for birds: mustache-shaped slashes, which suggest the avian but deny the actual. There are no downy feathers, no leathery beaks, only inflated cloth.
However, this serves MacMurtrie's conceptual ends. No illusion of reality distracts from the artist's thematic purpose. MacMurtrie and ARW aim to reveal cause-and-effect interactions, which are themselves unseen abstractions. Over a period of minutes, the birds flap their wings slowly and then randomly deflate, becoming moribund-looking husks that simulate life's foreshortened trajectory.
"Inflatable Architectural Body" is also composed of illuminated, inflatable white fabric, fashioned into a series of interconnected cylindrical air bladders hung from the ceiling. A series of plastic balls act as joints between air-filled tubes. In an explanatory statement, MacMurtrie notes that with this work, he is "modeling nature on a microscopic, fractal level."
The shape of the fully inflated "Architectural Body" makes the nexus between physical and biological sciences more obvious: Similar linear networks conduct both energy and electrical pulses. The sculpture emulates theoretical molecular models and the human body's tiniest pathways, like veins and capillaries. Here, MacMurtrie and ARW show the essential similarity of all earthly systems, whether organic or mineral, thus expanding the idea of architecture to include nature's most basic structures.
Vital to understanding MacMurtrie's theme is recognizing that each work fundamentally depends on viewers. Viewers mimic Newton's First Law by initiating the motion sensors that activate the installation's components. The works respond by inflating or beginning flight cycles. While most artists' installations depend on passive viewer presence for hypothetical completion, they can still exist as a coherent whole without an observer. By comparison, MacMurtrie's work makes the viewer an active (if perhaps unwitting) part of the work's life cycle. Thus he points up the largely undetected but powerful cause-and-effect physics that underlie all human interactions.
MacMurtrie's works, in their abstraction, embody the hypothetical. They are themselves physical ontologies, or scientific models defining theoretical knowledge. For the human mind limited in knowledge, MacMurtrie and ARW demonstrate the physics of unseen systems, which linger intangibly beyond the boundaries of human consciousness. "Sixteen Birds" and "Architectural Body" deftly arrest, map out and comprehend an expansive knowledge base that cannot yet be fully digested.
Sixteen Birds and Inflatable Architectural Body continues through April 4. Wood Street Galleries, 601 Wood St., Downtown. 412-471-5605 or www.woodstreetgalleries.org