Meet the Curators of the ‘A Curious Turn’ exhibition

Habitat is thrilled to bring the Crafts Council’s latest exhibition, A Curious Turn, to Platform, showcasing 40 years of British automata. What goes into compiling an exhibition of this scale? We met the curators tasked with this monumental but incredibly exciting job.

Annabelle Campbell is Head of Exhibitions and Collections for the Crafts Council. She has the responsibility for the partnership development, strategic direction, programme content, development and delivery exhibitions programmes, collection and collection projects as well as cpd programme for curators.

Justine Boussard is the Exhibition Project Curator and curates content and project manages exhibition projects for the Crafts Council Programme.

Please tell us about this incredible exhibition.

A Curious Turn: Moving Mechanical Sculpture is the Crafts Council’s new touring exhibition and  celebrates 40 years of British automata.  Following the preview of the exhibition, currently showing at Habitat’s King’s Road Platform Gallery as part of London Design Festival, the full exhibition featuring 30 automata will embark on a two-year nationwide tour.

This timely exhibition is the first to offer a major review of automata practice since Automata, a South Bank exhibition from 1992.  Twenty four years on, A Curious Turn is both reflecting on practice and looking at who is working in this field now, together with developments in the discipline. A Curious Turn explores the resurgence in automata making in the UK and features works by leading makers, including Sam Smith, Paul Spooner, Peter Markey, Ron Fuller, Melanie Tomlinson, and Andy Hazell.

A Curious Turn: Moving Mechanical Sculpture

Working Drawing for ‘Five Artists Reflect On Their Waning Powers’, Paul Spooner, 1983. © Paul Spooner, Crafts Council Collection, AM445. Stokes Photo Ltd.

Since 1992, automata has continued to grow as a discipline, for example, seen in Tim Hunkin’s Under the Pier, Cabaret Mechanical Theatre in Covent Garden, a short-lived Museum of Automata in York (before being purchased and relocated to Japan), and an array of public realm commissions. Crafts Council support to automata discipline has included Crafts Council / V&A Craft Residency programme appointed Lawrence Kavanagh (2010), the same year V&A unveiled Matt Collishaw’s roof top installation.

This year automata is under the spotlight. London Craft Week programme included a showcase of Cabaret Mechanical Theatre collection in House of St Barnabas in association with Hole & Corner magazine and University of Plymouth during London Craft Week, and Crafts Council’s Parallel Practice resident maker is automata maker John Grayson.

What is an automata? Why was it developed and what is its historical background?

Automata are sculptures which are brought life through a sequence of cogs, cams, cranks and levers.

Automata have a long history, dating as far back as ancient Egypt.  Japanese karakuri ningyo are early precursor to Western automata, and can be traced to the Edo period (1603-1868) and evolved from the Chinese ancient technology of water clocks and astrological machines. These traditional automata spread through the Korean Peninsula to Japan, evolving and adapting along the way, taking influence from early interactions with western culture. Intricate, concealed systems of cogs reveal the origins of Japanese innovation in technology including robotics.

It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that investigation into automata began in earnest in Europe. It was then during the Age of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century that the development of mechanical devices developed and flourished, where complex highly crafted one-off objects were seen as an illustration of a craftsman’s skills, and were valued as objects of entertainment.

It was the Industrial Revolution that allowed automata to be produced on a mass scale and the ‘golden age’ of automata was born, and the Victorians consumed such work as sources of entertainment on a larger scale than previously enabled.

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that popularity waned, as the technology began to be harnessed by the new forms of mass entertainment, in particular moving image and the cinema.

London Design Festival - A Curious Turn

Making of ‘The Discombobulated Brexiteer’, John Grayson, 2016. © John Grayson, Crafts Council Handling Collection, 1072.

There was little development in automata practice from the early 20th century until the revival of the 1970s. It was at this point that Cabaret Mechanical Theatre founder, Sue Jackson, led the development of a modern automata group, by encouraging a group of Falmouth-based makers to make new works rooted in craft, and with a strong illustrative style clearly informed by Rowland Emett, William Heath Robinson, and Sam Smith.

The sector flourished during 1980s and 90s, and by the 2000s a new body of automata work was beginning to emerge moving away from the folk craft style of the previous decades. Instead this period showed more similarities with the expensive curiosities of the 1700s and 1800s, or the 20th century fine art approach, pioneered by artists like Jean Tinguely and Alexander Calder.

Why do you think there has been a renewed interest in automata?

All things go in cycles – and now it is the turn of automata to be revisited, garnering new audiences. Being digital and analogue, connecting technology and crafted objects, automata has a vast appeal, and is part of a burgeoning widespread revived interest in wider craft sector that has been seen for several years.  Creating dialogues between robotics, technology, and clockwork movement, with  traditional craft skills of carving, enamelling, modelling, automaton have always had the power to elicit wonder, surprise and enjoyment.

Automata is immediate and engaging, encompassing an array of disciplines including mechanics, technology and craft skills. With its inherent quality to movement, works offer both opportunities to interact and engage, for which reward is received spectacle, surprise and often awe.

With a winding motional triggering motion, sound and movement, such objects are not purely to be looked at, but prompt curiosity of not only how it is made, but how they work, and what they will do; the Silver Swan at Bowes Museum preens before scoops up a jewelled fish from the glass stream, The Writer automaton by Pierre Jaquet-Droz, dips his quill pen in ink and writes “I think, therefore I am; Tim Lewis’s mule in Mule Makes Mule (2010) sits on its table with a certain melancholy to its posture and creates a self-portrait. Once activated, each automaton carries out its prescribed – but unknown to the viewer – action unaided, suspending belief, and creating its own magic!

'Mule Make Mule' by Tim Lewis

‘Mule Make Mule’ Tim Lewis. Courtesy of Flowers Gallery.

How did you go about sourcing and selecting the items that will feature in the exhibition?

The starting point for A Curious Turn was the Crafts Council Collections and those makers whose work is represented. Then, a process of looking outward, identifying sources of high quality, innovative examples of objects and identifying centres of knowledge of the discipline. This  brought us the collection held by museum in Falmouth, and to Sarah Alexander with Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, whom we have worked closely with to develop this exhibition, and make connections with a number of significant makers.

Further curatorial research led to makers and artist creating new works with movement and mechanics, responding to new contexts and creating new audiences for the discipline. The research also enabled the exhibition to have the context for the work on show through loans Crafts Council Collection, inclusion of archive material relating to our objects- including Paul Spooner’s amazing drawings, and works on paper from Heath Robinson.

What discoveries have you made that have personally excited you during the curation of this exhibition?

Among the many wonderful discoveries and rediscoveries made during the putting together of this exhibition, there are two in particular that are worth sharing here. Both are gems from within the Crafts Council’s own collection. We all knew that Sam Smith was the ‘grandfather’ of the discipline, inspiring and influencing makers from his own peers to contemporary practitioners. Smith’s work has a graphic quality, which was further revealed when, along with the works, the original boxes made by Smith for each work in the group held in the Collection, were found, and subsequently documented as archive objects in their own right. The boxes show Smith’s skill and dark humour extends beyond the making of the figurative objects, and with each work having its own story, the boxes present part of this, but not the full narrative.

The Punter's Dream by Sam Smith

‘The Punter’s Dream’, Sam Smith, 1972-73. © Sam Smith, Crafts Council Collection, W1e. Stokes Photo Ltd.

Similarly, when the original plans and drawings by Paul Spooner were discovered in the collection archive, the exhibition content was enriched to present the working ideas of the maker, and the graphic process undertaken by Spooner in creating ‘Five Artists…’. The group of working drawings uncover the artists technical drawings for the mechanical movements, as well as Spooner’s development of each character and characteristics portrayed.

What is your favourite piece and why?

It’s impossible to choose a favourite! All the works are totally amazing! But if pushed, then two examples stand out:

Alexander Calder’s film of ‘Circus’: both charming and entertaining, to see this artist renowned for radical innovations in art and kinetic art,  it’s a special experience to see Calder performing the “Circus” himself, in this 1955 film by Jean Painleve.

And secondly, the interactive elements created for the exhibition. Exhibition designers Mentsen worked with Steven Guy, from Fire The Inventor to develop interactive elements to enable visitors to experiment with mechanic elements of automata and understand the relationship between cogs, cams, levers, handles and the movement that can be created, and experience the delight of creating movement.

A Curious Turn: Moving Mechanical Sculpture runs until 2 October at Platform.

Platform, Habitat, 1st Floor, 208 King’s Road,London SW3 5XP

Main image: ‘A second groom being rowed across the lake by his third bride’, Sam Smith, 1972-73. © Sam Smith, Crafts Council Collection, W1. Stokes Photo Ltd.

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