In the Freudian compendium of oniric symbolisms, the male genitalia are represented as revolvers, knives, swords, sticks … and complex machinic devices.
The machine has traditionally been associated with masculinity in its productive and destructive aspect, but the artificial creatures (literary, mythological, filmic) have been mainly women: automatons Galateas, seductive android, Pandoras clad in metal after the Industrial Revolution, replicants with artificial intelligence in the cyber era.
But it is not the ideal woman forged by the secular misogyny of what this article wants to talk about but of the technological eroticism treated as an onanist celebration or as a parody of the contemporary disaffection; the machinic sexuality that born of the ashes of carnal love.
The Futurists, enthusiastic for the industrial advances and excited by the speed, got to write emotive poems of love to the race cars (Marinetti). Frigid and androcentric men who wrote manifestos against love, were thrilled with the idea that someday mankind could dispense with biological birth.
During the same period Alfred Jarry made fun of all, and specifically in Le Sumale satirized on the machinic fervor and the competitive eagerness that man undertakes with his scientific findings. The supermacho ends up melting into a lethal embrace with the machine to inspire love. Created by the engineer to make him fall in love with the young woman whom he had seduced, against all odds is the gavanic Cupid who falls in love with the priapic character.
Jarry’s pataphysics is ahead of the sardonic nihilism of Dadaists. After World War I, faith in scientific progress went into a tailspin. Francis Picabia, in his Dada period, focused his sexual parodies on the game of pulleys and gears, pistons and cylinders, ludic allegories with which to laugh of bourgeois morality.
His friend Duchamp synthesized in The Great Glass similar humor and disenchantment. The frustration of the amorous encounter is expressed through a voyeuristic and masturbatory allegory represented by singles reduced to puppet-like flaps that run a chocolate mill to produce semen as they watch the bride undressing in perpetuity. Separated by a wall, both are doomed to repetition and solitude.
The interesting thing about Picabia and Duchamp’s useless devices is its ambiguity, because their reluctance to take sides, for the apparent criticism of the relationships mechanization becomes almost a mere excuse to commend masturbation as a legitimate and necessary activity.
Art claims to the machine the opposite of what it was invented for: the unproductive, the idle, the absurd, the random or amoral behavior. In the same vein, Jean Tinguely made in the 1950s his robotic, chaotic and, not rarely, self-destructive sculptures.
If with his metamatics (machines to paint) he demystified the creative genius, by using recycled objects to assemble his kinetic constructions and make them explode attacked speculation and consumerism. In La Vittoria (1970) his desacralizing sense extends to the phallic cult, with an ephemeral monument that looks like a nod to the ancient Greco-Roman priapic processions or the Japanese Hounen Matsuri, but erected before the cathedral of Milan to stage a “sexual fire”: The virile symbol of fecundity consumed by fireworks, steamers and sirens of firemen.
Meta-mechanical anarchy is also claimed by Istvan Kantor, but as criticism of the alienating corporate world. In Intercourse (1999) or Executive machinery (2001), the office files were turned into sexual totems integrated into a cyber-robotic circuit in which the clerk or executive was caught by the repetitive gesture of opening and closing drawers. Video screens showed connected bodies as extensions of software to complex networks, in baroque shows with a cyberpunk touch.
Electronics and kinematics also converge in the masturbatory machine that the quiosco owner of Svankmajer film Conspirators of pleasure (1996) builds to rapture himself while watching her favorite TV host. Mechanical arms attached to the television monitor massage him during the news broadcast. What seems to be a simultaneous orgasm from a distance, since the woman’s joyful expression coincides with that of the man, is in fact the sum of personal paraphilias: that of her consists in letting her feet being tickled by the little fish while she is in the air.
Succumb totally to your obsessions. You have nothing better anyway, says Svankmajer. Let us be free and audacious to create other realities, at least in our privacy.
But we are not free but neurotic precisely because of sexual repression. This is how Wilhelm Reich thought, which he tried to solve with his accumulators of orgone energy. Orgasmatron, called it Woody Allen in his film Sleeper. And it is that in the most snobs Californian houses of the sixties didn’t lack these curative boxes, stimulator of the sexual potency.
When investigating these themes it is usual to encounter objects that could be displayed on the shelves of a sex shop or in a biotechnology room or, as is the case, in an art gallery. We think of Spear (1993) or Tickle (1998) of Erwin Driessens and Maria Verstappen, devices programmed to scroll over the naked body providing pleasure: simulating the random movements of a blade of grass shaken by the wind, or equipped with sensors that study the anatomical shape so that the automated caresses are worthy of the best lover.
Kelly Heaton, for his part, made up her ideal lover inspired by Tickle Me Elmo, that doll based on the character of Sesame Street that laughs and shakes when you squeeze it. She designed a puppet costume that came from the dismemberment and assembling of that child’s toy, providing it with pleasant vibrating devices.
Obsessions, hobbies, sadistic or masochistic instincts… take shape in the artificial otherness, be squeaky monstrosity or elegant mini-robots of 50 grams, assume the appearance of a medieval torture instrument or that of a child doll.
Some of Picabia mecanomorphs
can be seen until 19th March 2017
in MOMA, New York
Francis Picabia: Our heads are round so our thoughts can change direction