Ting-Tong Chang: Clockwork Dreams
17 July – 15 August, 2015
In the exhibition, the former “Breathe” artist-in-residence Ting-Tong Chang will present a new body of work investigating the history of automatons in Europe as a means of exploring utopian visions. The word “automaton” is the latinization of the Greek αὐτόματον, automaton, (neuter) “acting of one’s own will”. It is often used to describe self-moving machines, especially those that have been made to resemble human or animal actions.
In 1739, the French engineer Jacques de Vaucanson created the Digesting Duck. The piece had over 400 moving parts in each wing alone, and could flap its wings, drink water, digest grain, and defecate. By creating this clockwork marvel, Vaucanson pioneered the simulation of living things. He was convinced that there was no significant difference between human and machines—the bones, muscles and organs could be replaced with cogs, pistons and cams. Ultimately, human mind is nothing but a complex mechanism.
Commissioned by Archbishop Andreas Jakob Graf Dietrichstein in 1752, Mechanical Theatre is an automaton in a form of an entire city. A tower-like palace is depicted in which court life of the 18th century is shown by means of water-driven marionettes. This palace is surrounded by a by a three-storey building in a semicircle, partly giving a view into its interior. Industrious activity rules in and around this building: a total of 141 mobile and 52 immobile little figures demonstrate all manner of professions and trades of the period. As the machine comes to life, figurines begin to move, the city becomes a vast mechanical opera—a harmonious and orderly city at work. The magnificent Mechanical Theatre represents Dietrichstein’s vision of a perfect society—a city populated by well-behaved and obedient subjects.
Vaucanson and Dietrichstein inspired numerous automatons that were created since the 18th century. They have entertained kings and princess, taught moral lesson to citizens and raise deep philosophical questions. Above all, they are technical sophistication that embodies utopian visions and political dreams.
By creating automatons, Chang is constructing a fantastical utopian island populated by automaton. These “talking automaton” often consist of absurd dialogues and narratives that reflect collective consciousness. The topic explores socio-politically loaded issues – from conceptions of death to politics, the uncanny to the absurd. Saturated with a sense of pathos, these narratives undermine themselves with a self- defeating humor, playfully calling into question the sincerity and authority of the narrator and, consequently, the artist.
The exhibition opens with the donation box So Far So Good, which consists of a fish tank sitting on top of a wooden plinth. Inside the box will be a fish automaton suspended by nylon cords. Under the waxy skin of the fish, there will be a plastic skeleton and three coordinated motors, which control its head, mouth, fin and tail. Every time a member of the audience donates a coin, the automaton will simulate a fish’s swim—it will move its mouth, shake its head, flap its tail and start a 5 minutes speech. Speaking in a South London accent, the fish will reveal a personal story from underwater the Thames River—a polluted hellhole inherent to the Industrial Revolution. The underwater world was a violent place overflowed with drugs, gang crime and racial conflict, consequence of the mutation from a welfare state into a dystopia nightmare.