THE AESTHETICS OF MECHANICAL RUINS

By Arthur C. Danto
Daum Museum of Contemporary Art: Catalogs, 2005

Steven Montgomery belongs in the category of “visionary ceramist” – a term I recently coined to designate artists who use clay as a means to the realization of visions. Characteristically, these realizations demand a scale that transcends that of ceramic utensils, which imply a relationship to the human body, which will in the course of life interact with them – pouring, lifting, transporting, storing, and the like. Visions, by contrast, imply the human imagination, so that visionary ceramics is cognitive rather than practical, and often philosophical, providing a picture of the world and our place in it. Since modernist art was defined as strict adherence to the limits of a given medium, the visionary ceramist is post-modernist by default, since the limits of the medium are in his or her view merely de facto – obstacles to be gotten around when the imperatives of the vision calls for alternative ways and means. The visionary ceramist will, in the nature of the case, have mastered the repertoire of skills traditional to ceramics as a craft – throwing, moulding, firing, glazing, for example– but the demands of art trump the constraints of craft, which will be subverted as the occasion demands. Finally, the visionary ceramist exploits clay for its remarkable plasticity, but the aesthetics of the visionary work is ancillary to the vision it conveys, in which the properties of clay may not figure at all.
Montgomery has stated that ‘the aesthetics of damage, fragility, and the passage of time” are specific to his present body of work. Clay in its nature is fragile and subject to damage. When dry, it crumbles, when baked it is easily broken. It is a natural metaphor for mortality and temporality, as when Shakespeare writes “Kingdoms are clay” or writes in Hamlet that “Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay, Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.” In Biblical idiom, clay alternates with dust as a poetic synonym for mortal flesh. But in Montgomery’s work, the aesthetic derives from the vision embodied in the work, and not from the medium in which the work is realized. The aesthetics of his work is in so sense the aesthetics of clay but rather, I shall claim, the aesthetics of the ruin, conveying the kind of poetry that the concept of the ruin acquired in the eighteenth century, when the discipline of aesthetics was invented, but transformed to suit the differences between that era and our own.
The classical ruin was the paradigm motif in eighteenth century art. The conjunction of the ruin with decline and fall is made explicit in a famous passage in Edward Gibbon’s Autobiography: “It was in Rome, on the 15th of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefoot friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first entered to my mind.” Goethe, portrayed by Tischbein as musing alongside the tomb of Caecilia Metella on the Via Appia, is the paradigm eighteenth century poet and thinker, whose mind was fixed on matters of “damage, fragility, and the passage of time.” The paintings of ruins by Hubert Robert and Giovanni Paolo Pannini, purchased and brought home by travelers on the Grand Tour, served as romantic souvenirs of philosophical moments passed in the presence of broken columns and fallen architraves. The engravings of Piranesi conveyed through their exaggerated proportions the irrecoverable grandeur of the civilization that erected the Colosseum, the aqueducts, the Forum, and the Pantheon. The eighteenth century gardens were ornamented with artificial ruins, to afford leisured aristocrats poetic occasions to ponder the brevity of earthly existence and the irresistibility of change. In a sense, Montgomery’s pieces are artificial ruins for a twenty-first century sensibility.
An artist bent on conveying the aesthetics of “damage, fragility and the passage of time” to contemporary viewers must find a contemporary equivalent to the ruin. Obviously, the classical ruin has lost its power to affect this, and though a visionary ceramist could readily enough shape clay in the form of columns and capitals and even sarcophagi, most of us lack the culture to be affected through them by thoughts of “damage, fragility, and the passage of time.” Montgomery is a native of Detroit, Michigan, where the standing ruins of the great automobile factories in Highland Park or on Piquette Avenue in Detroit’s east side, speak far more eloquently of decline and fall than what modern travelers see from the espresso bars on the Valentine hill in Rome. What he found as the vehicle of his vehicle of his vision is something with the implicit aesthetics of the classical ruin, but using contemporary motifs, namely pieces of contemporary machinery fallen into a condition of desuetude. The fallen state of his machinery is able to do this because of the implied aesthetics of the machines when they were functioning the way they were designed to do.
As I see it, the implicit aesthetic of the classical ruin consists of lost beauty and vanished power. These were the attributes of the tragic hero in classical drama. The ancient theorists felt that the reversal of fortune unfolded in the course of the tragedy had to happen to a hero or heroine despite his or her immense initial advantages. It had to be the fall of the mighty, of the seemingly favored of the gods, if tragedy was to have the anticipated effect on those who came to watch the downfall of Oedipus or Orestes, and leave the theater purged and cleansed. Rome could not have fallen so low had its political shadow not covered so wide a region of the world. It was the irony of those barefoot, ignorant friars, singing amid the remains of the greatest of empires that moved Gibbon to narrate in detail the “vicissitudes of fortune which buries empires and cities in a common grave.”
Montgomery has selected for his motifs pieces of engineering that serve in daily life as emblems of beauty and power – the high compression engines of swift and powerful automobiles and the doors of secure and powerful vaults where treasures are stored. These connect with two central to poi of modern cinema – the chase and the bank robbery. But the once impenetrable vault is crippled, the high-speed engine is stilled. They are contemporary ruins, turned to rust. The lock is sprung, the cylinders are frozen. The symbols of strength and speed have fallen into the condition of eloquent junk. Mongtomery’s magic as a ceramist consists in the way in which he disguises the fact that these effigies of disintegration are made of clay at all. He has created the illusion of actual mechanisms salvaged from dumps and displayed like memento mori – engines of might and strength deprived through evident decay of the power to do anything but stir the viewer with the pathos of power’s irrecoverable loss. The biblical occasion for such feelings is expressed in the Book of Ecclesiastes: “the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.” (xii, 1) The contemporary equivalent is: “ the V-8 engine is rusted or the steel door is shattered beyond repair and the treasures it protected have vanished” We feel as if we are in the presence of relics of everything the technological spirit covets but now in a state of mechanical impotency, like the rusted cannon or the destroyed tank
The transfiguration of clay into vision is not the only illusion in Montgomery’s work. He is often described as a master of trompe l’oeil – an optical deceit that induces a false perceptual belief. The deception consists in believing that we are seeing a reality when we are seeing an imitation that dupes the eye. A standard case is painting a piece of paper currency so skillfully that we believe so strongly that it is a piece of paper currency that our impulse is to soak it off and spend it. I don’t think that people are primarily fooled by Montgomery’s pieces into thinking that they are looking at an object made of forged or pressed metal. We are, I think, fooled instead into believing that we are looking at skillful imitations of real mechanisms in various states of decrepitude. But it is not in truth that he has replicated an actual automobile engine, or a rusted pipe, or a devastated door to a large safe. What he has produced are convincing fantasies of such objects. There are no actual objects that he has, so to speak, lugged back to the studio and portrayed in clay. They are fabrications through and through. The illusion pivots on the fact that most of us have a fairly superficial idea of what powerful engines look like. Our knowledge of vault doors comes primarily from movies of scary heists. Expert plumbers, automotive engineers, or locksmiths, would know that there is something wrong. The rest of us are swept into the kinds of fancies that those who gazed upon ruins underwent when they had little knowledge of architecture or the history of architecture. Montgomery’s sculptures are industrial fictions. Thinking of them as mere copies of reality spoils half the pleasure of looking at them.
Consider Re-entrance of 2001, an as-if rust clad safe door, with its inner works exposed. Next to a key-pad, which implies a combination and an electronically activated latch, we see a system of ornamental gear wheels connected with delicate metal belts, that looks like the works from a Nuremberg clock made in the seventeenth century. Key pad and clockworks belong to incompatible technologies. The word “EMERGENCY” is stamped onto two plates, both screwed into the assembly, but meaning precisely what? There are emergency exits – but how can the doors of safes be emergency doors? The ravaged doors, hung on massive hinges, actually look as if they belonged to some medieval fortress, too powerfully wrought to be emergency exits (which would probably be inconspicuous doors, hidden behind tapestries, leading into tunnels or other romantic escape routes.) On the right hand door, corresponding to the lock assembly, is what looks like a letter slot. There is a spirit of irony and spoof expended on a pseudo monumental object of dubious manufacture. It looks forbidding and factitious. In Re-Entrance No. 2, he ha fabricated chromium fittings, not to mime reality but to use the familiar anti-rust property of chromium to comment on the body of the door, so rust-riddled that it looks as worm-eaten. Only its ornamental fittings have escaped the desolation.
Static Fuel is an engine from a visionary novel called The Fountainhead. It is a non-internal combustion engine – just the kind of engine the world needs today – but since there is only a fictional prototype, Montgomery was liberated to make an engine up, with manifolds and flywheels, gears and worm screws of implausible effectiveness. It carried a serial number –44820 – and would fool anyone into thinking it an exhibit from the Museum of Abandoned Mechanisms, somewhat the worse for wear. But everything in Montgomery oeuvre is designed not as a piece of machinery meant to run, but as a piece of art meant to convey the idea of fallen machinery, with all sorts of winks to the viewer, conveying the truth that it probably couldn’t have worked if it were real.
The question in the end is what explanatory narrative we are to project in explanation of how these seemingly once powerful machines fell into their present ruined condition. What story do they tell, what lesson do they convey? Edward Gibbon saw in the ruins of Rome the triumph, as he put it, of Christianity and barbarism. Shelley saw in his imagined pair of stone legs standing in the desert a mockery of the message “Look on my works ye mighty, and despair!” – the lesson that the ruin is the destiny of earthly power. One possible narrative might be based on the fact that Montgomery was inspired by the great murals of industrial Detroit by Diego Rivera, painted in the early 1930s in the Renaissance Court of the Detroit Institute of Art. One wall depicts the manufacture of the 1932 Ford V-8 engine, a beautiful piece of engineering, shown by Rivera being turned out in an endless stream on the assembly line by heroically posed workers. America was just entering the early phases of the Great Depression, but in 1932 Detroit’s future, and more than that, the future of the automobile industry looked bright. Who knew that the paradigm vehicle of the thirties was to be not the shining V-8, but the rusting jalopy, carrying Dust-Bowl families that had abandoned their farms to search of work elsewhere? Rivera’s murals, which aroused considerable political controvery in their time, were commissioned by Edsel Ford. The scene was Ford’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn, where Rivera did his research. Like Montgomery, I grew up in Detroit, and was even taken as a little boy to see Rivera at work. I recall soup kitchens on Woodward Avenue, near my father’s office, and visits to the Ford plant with my classmates as a schoolboy. And I particularly recall the automobile shows at the General Motors Building. It is possible to imagine that that Montgomery’s mechanical ruins are ironic comments on the progressivist ideology of our city, indeed of our country. But that surely cannot be the whole of his meaning.
Perhaps the narrative is one of obsolescence. The most advanced machinery today will give way to more advanced machinery still. It will be left behind by the relentless advance of technology. So much of the machinery that Rivera showed has given way to new generations of forges and presses, and the engine blocks that were the latest things became quaint has-beens of scrap metal, unless lucky enough to serve as exhibits in automotive museums, where viewers in the know marvel at their crudeness. However fast, powerful, and efficient the engine, it will be left behind by the faster, the stronger, the more efficient. So it is abandoned to rust amid the weeds. Viewing it we are touched. And we think - we are like the machines. The V-8 is us. The aesthetics of decay, fragility, and the passage of time is our own destiny. The machine is a mirror, the way the ruins finally were, when Rome became a metaphor for our common destiny. That is the poetry of Mongomery’s work. The fun of the work is intended to keep us from getting carried away by it.