Visual art exhibitions and events with a platform for critical writing
Felix Thorn: Felix's Machines
15 November - 18 January
Reviewed by: David Mollin »
Felix's machines are born from the domestic, from the artist's bedroom, much in the same way that a lot of dance music comes to life. The music is generated by a laptop linked to an intricately built music machine which sits in the corner of the gallery, stacked on the floor and with the help of small emulsion-painted white shelves, one on top of another until roughly head-height. A set of glockenspiel keys, piano hammers, drums animated by springs, solenoids and motors play Thorn's own compositions; an elaborate structure that has become his own composition, with LED lights following the rhythm of the music intermittently. The gallery is darkened to enhance the rhythmical effects of the LEDs, which themselves give us blinking glimpses of the more frantic mechanical activities of the keys. It is all quite beautiful, like a dark fairytale, and funny too.
In an interview, Thorn states that he started making these machines out of frustration that people did not appreciate his music. This could be understood as the Bergsonian comic moment; the cuckoo clock, the mechanical collapse of the human, when his own aspirations for his music as music and his own frustration at the lack of response, turns the music itself into the mechanical version of what music is to the listener. He implicates the viewer, or audience, who was initially this listener, and presents him/her with their own contemporary demands personified, simplified, mechanised, exhausted and on the edge of collapse, those same demands that were previously unappreciative. The audience hears something of contemporary avant-garde electronic music, picking out subtle sub-divisions, the music's aspirations and ambitions, but those aspirations go nowhere; they are physically trapped, ever-circling, absurd and on display, flickering quite beautifully in the darkness. Buzzing like trapped little fireflies, and scuttling like little musical mice on a wheel in the corner. Like Charlie Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy, choreographed to the sound of the piano in a darkened room.
The comic is also in the clear effort involved in constructing this machine, contrasted with the deft flexing of moving parts, like Oliver Hardy's fat little fingers as they tip and tap, up and down the construction. The machine is elaborate, and yet seems designed to be precarious. It is in its daintiness that Felix's creation evokes the music box, though unlike its classic forbearer, whose exquisite tune plays from a solid construction, here the very composition threatens the physical structure of the instrument, as it builds to little shrill crescendos, rattles, vibrations and speedy staccatos. It harks back to the time of the American stock market crash, when sales for such machines as the player piano ceased, with the coming of the gramophone. You could hardly get one of those machines up a long flight of stairs in L.A. without it coming to pieces in a precise dance to the sound of its own playing. A time when music boxes remained elegant like fine snuff and gentlemen flickered until their starched white shirts sprang open in their own faces.
While Gasworks Gallery is a slightly odd affair, with doors leading off to various residencies and Thorn's work shown in a drafty hallway, they have attempted, with a nod to Beaconsfield up the road, to curate the broader background of this work via a night of experimental DJ sets presented by Lumin, with a separate DJ set by Eileen Simpson and Ben White, followed by a performance of a new composition made in collaboration with Thorn. It is a tribute to Thorn that he can move seamlessly back and forth between various contexts of presentation and performance, and be of interest to all parties, but there is no doubt that the machine is doing something very particular on its own here, in the corner of this darkened space, something more akin to the initial impetus that led Thorn to build the work in his bedroom. It is smart work that compresses and traps both his music and contemporary expectations of sound in galleries, in an act of near silver-screen choreography; a matter of timing that displaces both category and aspiration, and even, one might say, curatorial aspiration, in subtle and sophisticated comic style.
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