DAVID BOBIER DOMESTIC EFFECTS
Acadia University Art Gallery, Wolfville, N.S. 8 April-1 May 1988
St. Marys University Art Gallery, Halifax, N.S. 17 May-12 June 1988
Memorial U. Art Gallery, St. John's, Nfld. 21 July -21 1988 August
[First published in Vancouver''s Vanguard magazine in the September/October issue, 1988, 38]
Let's begin with an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1968 called The Machine, curated by K. G. Pontus Hulten, director of Sweden's Moderna Museet at the time (this is not a review of a 1968-9 exhibition, but it does touch on the notion of recycling critical writing the way artists recycle historical styles.)
We want to put David Bobier's 'machine-geo' art in perspective (with something like Durer's device?); I will let readers gauge for themselves how the Venice Biennale's Roland Brener and Michel Goulet and other machine artists can be pulled into the orbit of this discussion (see Bruce Ferguson in Vanguard Summer 1988). The perspective will include talk about Bobier's art past and his current situation on the faculty at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick.
The Machine exhibition included 220 works ranging from Leonardo's drawings to Picabia's painting (not the palimpsest painter, but the other Picabia, of works like Girl Born Without a Mother, 1917), to Oldenburg and Tinguely.
Time magazine's coverage of the exhibition of December 6, 1968 attested to its popularity: photo-coverage included a playful Jean Tinguely and spectators throwing balls into a whimsical machine (indeed the word "whimsical" is part of the vocabulary of machine art).
Explanations by the 1968 curator are startling. For example, Hulten believed that a disgust with war machines of the forties turned post-war artists away from machine art. If general statements like that have any validity, what are we to make of a resurgence of machine art in the context of continuing world-wide warfare? Hulten believed that the ultimate machine, the atom bomb, was the ultimate turn-off for artists of the fifties. Why should anything have changed?
Machine-art must not connote warfare to the contemporary artist or viewer; also, we are expected to disassociate it from both the frivolity of a Rube Goldberg cartoon and the terror of Marinetti's Futurist manifesto. As we walk within an exhibition of contemporary machine art, nobody fears the click of a mine-trigger.
Machine art reminds us of Marshall MacLuan's characterization of humans as "servo-mechanisms" -- things that serve machines -- and it makes us wonder why artists, whether Bobier or even Duchamp, are willing to submit themselves to their own mechanical creations in play rituals.
Proudhun articulated the problem for artists as early as 1865, long before MacLuan, but before ideas about divided and abandoned subjectivity in 20th century theory completely excised the (Descartes') ghost in the machine/body. Somehow, in ways that Proudhun probably could never understand, contemporary anthropomorphized machine-art assumes that the differences between Courbet's Stonebreakers and machines are irrelevant:
"In general, our machines, masterpieces of precision, are more skillful than ourselves; they do better than we do, provided that what we ask of them requires intelligence or even dexterity; once they are in movement, they replace us with great advantage. They have only one fault: they do not go into motion themselves, but need someone to watch over them and control them and even to serve them. Who, then, is the servitor of the machine? Man. Man-serf - this is the latest term of modern industrialization." Serf or servo-mechanism: there are important points here: Proudhon's text was written out of reflection about the socialist realism of Courbet's The Stonebreakers, the realist ode to alienated labour; secondly, it may have been made within a (pre-futurist) consciousness which was already beginning to acknowledge the possibility of things like bridges and other engineered forms as art (Tom Peters of Cornell University is currently working out he details of such a thesis).
However, a (stretched) point might be advanced that as early as 1865 the parameters of a rejection of "machine aesthetics" by socially-minded artists had been sketched out (we can say this only retrospectively or allegorically) by Proudhun, rejected in favour of socialist/realist painting. Canadian heirs of the critical tradition like Barry Lord continue to convincingly espouse variations Proudhon's view.
David Bobier's exhibition is called Domestic Effects; it takes machine art into the home in a play of references using parts of vents, tubs, plumbing and mechanical flotsam in sculptures which look like they were made in a basement or garage: a homemade look. Prints displayed continue the washbasin home mechanics around the walls.
According to Bobier, I wasn't the only viewer of this exhibition who was reminded of Duchamp's remark that America's contribution to modern life consisted in its plumbing and bridges : but the work is not just a Baroque play on Duchamp or plumbing.
Bobier's experience in London, Ontario with artist/teachers like Graham Wright, Peter Borowsky, Don Bonham and Murray Favro closes down the aperture on the work. His stint at graduate school in industrial Windsor is also important: it is likely that immersion the materials of industrial Windsor led to Bobier's reflection on the dead industrial base of Sackville, New Brunswick (former home of the Enterprise and Fawcett businesses; current home to a revitalized art department and gallery at Mount Allison University).
There is a story about one of his pieces owned by fellow Sackville artist Terry Graff. It was installed in Graff's house; he sold the house, but the new owners assumed the work was part of the home's heating system and did not want Graff to remove it. Sources for Bobier's works exist in old heating machines depicted in his collection of found photographs of Sackville's industrial product lines. It should not be news to anyone that most contemporary homeowners understand nothing about the systems that animate their houses. It is important, I think, when seeing Bobier's work in an art gallery, to imagine the richness some of the pieces can take take on in a domestic (site-specific) environment. Many of them could almost disappear in the vent-hung basements of many suburbs.
Like the marine artist who would rather be sailing, Bobier personally gives off the impression that tinkering in the garage like somebody's dad is at least as amusing as being an artist: this is what we should keep in mind - how wonderfully bizarre his work can be if we forget that it is made by an artist/academic conscious of the latest crises in machine-art.