Language is fluid and so is a well-engineered machine, so why not combine those truths? That is the thinking at play within St Marie φ Walker’s Reflective Sculptures: A Critique of Binary Beliefs, a pair of wall-mounted kinetic sculptures produced as part of the artist duo’s recent MFA show within the University of Waterloo’s Fine Arts program. These large wooden devices are each etched with a simple proverb: ‘being is made’ and ‘I believe what I believe’. While didactic and a bit banal in isolation, these words are brought to life through motion; large pendulums emblazoned with the word ‘meaning’ and the phrase ‘I perceive’ slowly swing back and forth, running interference on each statement’s meaning. ‘Being is made’ flips back and forth from ‘being is meaning’ to ‘meaning is made’ while ‘I believe what I believe’ oscillates between ‘I believe what I perceive’ and ‘I perceive what I believe’.
“We did actually come up with ten different interesting possible phrases, it was hard to decide which ones get to be laser-etched and activated by mechanics,” says Denise St Marie as she and partner Timothy Walker give CAN a guided tour of the contraptions in situ. “We debated a lot about material. If stability is your goal then aluminium is perfect, but we felt that would be predictable and little sterile,” Walker adds. The duo chose wood because of its ‘warm’ psychological associations, and a batch of poplar was reconstituted as laminate panels from which the devices’ parts were cut. “Because they’re not perfectly machined and wood, they’ll warp a bit – we had to allow for some tolerances.”
“At one point during our design process there were two engineers and three artists standing around debating how to stabilize the devices – that was pretty cool. We’d run through a few potential solutions and it was reassuring when the engineers would ask ‘have you thought of this?’ and our response would be ‘yes, we have, and we foresee this problem.’ This dialogue informed two key design decisions: the v-frame and the Scotch yoke reciprocating motion mechanism that drives the pendulum. Powered by a DC geared motor running at 10 RPM, the self-lubricating plastic acetal was used wherever moving parts contact one another to minimize friction; stock countertop connector bolts were used as fasteners to speed up assembly and disassembly of the frame. Charmingly, the generous tolerances result in ‘imperfect’ operation: each sculpture has a signature squeak. Some might consider that a bug but there’s a case to be made that the noise is the soundtrack for the viewer’s cognition, as they sit there, staring at the pendulum swinging between proverb states.
Reflective Sculptures: A Critique of Binary Beliefs are one of several works that were presented within St Marie φ Walker’s graduate show “The Re-Examined Life.” Visitors to the University of Waterloo Art Gallery exhibition could make a ‘withdrawl’ from a mock-bank (where currency signifies ‘compassion’ and ‘laughter’ rather than money) or browse shirts in a mock-showroom (with an ‘inventory’ of dozens of proverbs, each on their own T-shirt), and engage other participatory installations exploring social identity and notions of value.
The duo are a little taken aback when asked if their kinetic sculptures are poems or machines – and an either/or question is presumably not the desired response to an encounter with the devices. Generously, they warm to the idea that the machines are actually poems, or at least achieve similar results. “Poems are just wordplay, after all” they conclude in earnest, speaking to both the question at hand and their fluid use of language across their works.