Movement Tells Stories

Tower Hill exhibition of Arthur Ganson's kinetic sculptures showcases a puppeteer's creative marriage of art and engineering.
Posted Monday, March 5, 2007

WILMINGTON -- It begins with a grown man playing with an artichoke petal. He makes it walk. Slowly, because the manner in which the petal has dried, with its top end bowing forward and its sides curling toward the center, reminds the man of a monk.

And monks, they're pensive, always thinking, so the man decides to make the monk walk in circles, slowly.

This man, like any man, can't be everywhere at once. So he builds a machine whose job is to play with the artichoke petal. The machine, Arthur Ganson hopes, will share with faceless strangers what its inventor imagined.

This piece, one of 15 in an exhibition at Tower Hill School, is made of many pieces. They turn and clink and move beneath the metal disc on which the artichoke walks, guided in its circular path by an arm that rotates from the disc's center. The monk steps slowly, with little hops, again and again.

It is called "Machine with Artichoke Petal Number 2" (1999). "A Few Machines: Kinetic Sculpture" is on display through March 16 in the school's Pierre S. du Pont Art Center. Ganson, 51, lives in Somerville, Mass. He has been making kinetic sculptures for 27 years, and he maintains an ongoing exhibition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Museum in Cambridge.

He was an artist in residence from 1995-99 at MIT. There, beside a cauldron of furious mathematical minds, was a man who at the University of New Hampshire earned a degree in fine arts. Sculpture.

Pure imagination and the analytic nature of science, he has found, are inseparable. MIT, then, is a profound but appropriate venue.

"There is something about the act of solving problems, and asking questions, and the joy of inventing, which I think is common to all activities of engineering and design," Ganson says. "So from an engineering point of view, I feel embraced, and that makes me feel really good.

"I'm kind of an outsider in a way. I'm not familiar with many of the equations. There are limited things that I can calculate. Most of my work is pure intuition, and most of it's spatial. I also feel like MIT is an environment where they understand that there are deep interconnections."

Engineering, art, mechanics, design -- all of it, he says, is a blur.

"When I'm working, every engineering decision is coupled with an aesthetic decision," he says. "Every decision has to be aware of the implication of all realms."

We're getting too deep. Let's step back.

In high school, Ganson was obsessed with computer programming. He loved the aesthetics of code, but something was missing. Programming left him a bit cold, he says, because he was playing only with code.

He began college in the pre-med program. Wanted to be a surgeon. Wanted to work with his hands.

"It was always satisfying," Ganson says, "to be manipulating things."

He remembers going to The Puppet Showplace Theatre in Boston, where he watched Bruce Schwartz perform with rod marionettes.

"And basically, he was just sitting there," Ganson says. "And he had these little puppets on a table in front of him. And he was controlling them. His left hand was controlling the head, and his right hand had two rods that controlled the arms. And he's right there. Nothing's hidden. But he had such amazing control over these puppets that he just disappeared."

While at UNH, Ganson spent a couple of summers in a puppet truck, scooting from place to place, putting on little shows for strangers. Around that same time, during his second year at UNH, he built his first machine.

At Tower Hill, his machines have a spacious temporary home. They are relatively small, often standing atop a modest pedestal with an extension cord snaking toward the nearest outlet, a tail for Ganson's pet.

Some machines are in perpetual motion. "Machine with Abandoned Doll" (2001), tucked between the doors to two bathrooms, houses a factory of small metal trinkets, bent and undulating, spinning and guiding the eight wires that sprout like reeds to support the back of a soiled doll's head, its arms, its hips and its legs. Each wire slowly moves up, then down, moving with it one doll part. The result is a remarkably lifelike animation set to a soundtrack not of cries or of giggles but of the machinery clinking below.

Some machines are powered by the press of a red button. "Machine with Wishbone" (1988) connects a contraption that might most easily be described as a circus bicycle to an upright wishbone. It seems to walk, moving each leg at the command of the machine while also seeming to pull it.

And some machines are powered by hand, by the turn of a crank. "Machine with Black-Eyed Peas" (1997) is a shallow black box containing a sea of black-eyed peas. On the outside of one end, an arrangement of six wiry sprockets, coils and a rod lead to a small crank on the right side. Turn it, and the bed of black-eyed peas undulates. The dark marks on cream-colored surfaces play tricks on the eyes, asking them to focus on shifting targets. It's dizzying, frustrating.

As with the other machines, Ganson chose to expose the mechanics. He's right there. Nothing's hidden.

"I don't want these to be magic tricks," he says. "I love the machine and want to celebrate it. So, therefore, the machine is the vehicle but also the subject."

A lot of these pieces, Ganson says, start when he plays with an object. He's the puppeteer, and he's playing with the object.

"Then I start making the machine, which is like the perfect stand-in for me. It's the perfect puppeteer."


Watch videos of some of Ganson's creations, along with conceptual sketches and photographs, at

Contact Christopher Yasiejko at 324-2778 or

WHAT: Arthur Ganson's "A Few Machines: Kinetic Sculpture"

WHERE: Pierre S. du Pont Art Center, Tower Hill School, 2813 W. 17th St., Wilmington.

WHEN: 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri., through March 16

ADMISSION: Free. Call 575-0550

Reprinted with Permission of the News Journal