The human body is a complex machine- we know this. If a sculpture’s framework evokes the body, you can bet that it, too, is complex. Bejamin Reiss’s sculpture Automobile (2009-2012), a life-size tower of colorful gizmos and surprises, bears an uncanny resemblance to the human body in its intricacy: gears, tubes, a spool of yarn; wisdom teeth and macaroni embalmed in resin; a sliced potato; a headless chicken. These elements, all appearing to be in conversation with one another, bedeck a wooden frame on wheels. There are so many component parts one must echo the artist’s diligence in studying it.
At once playful and sophisticated, Automobile begs to be touched and understood. Some components are more easily identifiable than others: the deformed, molten wheel at the tip of the sculpture; the ignition just beneath it; the pedals on either side of the wooden frame; the pistons in the center. They vaguely call to mind the human anatomy: the wheel, a head; the pedals, arms; the engine, a heart.
The attempt to understand is the basis of Automobile’s inception. Around the time that his mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, it dawned on Reiss that he had no idea how a car worked. He ventured to explore this process and the corollaries of his unawareness-- deprivation and loss.
Automobile is so kinetic in appearance you want it to come to life; you expect it to. And in a way, it is alive. It is the product of years of exploration, contemplation, and grappling. Automobile is not only an attempt to understand the body, but a creative sanctuary to explore other narratives, both social and personal. It is a mechanical organism and an emotional organism (a soundboard, as described by Reiss). It is his circle in the sand.
Just as bright eyes can reflect a healthy diet (eat your spinach and sweet potatoes), Automobile represents a similar system of complex, causal relationships. Everything is connected, evidently or not, in the tapestry of his narrative. To use another body metaphor, Reiss’s machine calls to mind the twelve meridians of Chinese medicine: systems within a system, our meridians enable chi, or energy, to flow freely through the body. Healthy meridians are integral to livelihood, just as a machine’s parts need to be in good working order to perform maximally. Perhaps Automobile is also an endeavor to understand what makes machines flourish and decay.
Reiss has created an artwork that poses the same questions he faced in 2009. How was it built? How does it work? What keeps it alive? We find ourselves in a similar process of seeking. We yearn to comprehend; we feel helpless, eager, and curious. In the end we learn that the more we venture to understand something as complex as a body’s system, the more we do not understand. It is like the sea of oblivion that artist Yasumasa Morimura describes: the world that exists beyond the sea (our immediate reality) is so vast that memories and information cannot match its scale. The best we can do is tap into our creativity and work toward embracing the mystery and magic and confusion, just as Reiss has done.
Benjamin Reiss's sculpture is on view at Actual Size Los Angeles through January 25, 2014. His work appears in the show Rogue Locomotives: New Work by Benjamin Reiss and Conor Thompson.