The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Jan 10, 2014

Benjamin White examines the meaning of machines

Posted by CSchwartz

Consider for a moment all of the gadgets and machines we utilize every day. We are constantly at the mercy of appliances, automobiles, phones, computers and even simpler tools such as screwdrivers and wedges. They tend to simplify certain tasks – without the right tools, certain jobs are impossible – but how often have glitches, overuse, or misuse actually complicated things? Benjamin White examines the unintended consequences and byproducts of systems which exist when an apparatus isn’t perfect, and since there are no 100 percent efficient machines, the show “Impossible Machines” at Knight Arts grantee exhibition space Tiger Strikes Asteroid has plenty to work with.

The works by White are notably glum in their color scheme, which is a neutral shade of concrete gray pretty much across the board. Constructed from mortar, these forms are mostly quite smooth and exact on the outside, with the exception of tiny air pockets and flaws in the material. These inconsistencies remind us immediately of the lofty (read: unattainable) task of absolute efficiency.

Benjamin White, "41 Cone Circle."

Although the constructions in the gallery seem solid and even static, many of them are actually built with moving parts. Since they are composed of a substance like concrete, we perceive them to be like most other cement objects: sidewalks, bridge abutments or cinder blocks – all more or less immobile. White’s pieces are deceptive, though. One corkscrew-like sculpture spins around a central steel armature, its core bristling with textured cones of gray stone. Elsewhere, a hard-edged, Tetris-like piece rests on the floor, seemingly a dead weight, until one manipulates its precisely fit parts, which move around one another like gears.

Benjamin White, "Uni Versal Joint." Benjamin White, "Uni Versal Joint."

Functionless mechanisms such as these exemplify the idea of waste quite succinctly. Does this mean they are, in fact, perfect machines? If their intended goal is to typify inefficiency, then they succeed by leaps and bounds, as their parts flop lazily for no apparent reason or hang precariously from the ceiling. While the inventions of nuclear energy or plastics have wide ranging effects both helpful and hurtful, these creations remain much tamer, content to merely call these other concepts to mind.

Benjamin White, "Brittany/Bin Laden" and "Saw it in Person." Benjamin White, "Brittany/Bin Laden" and "Saw it in Person."

A few works act more like picture frames or frames of cultural reference than mechanical insights. Two pieces on metal pedestals retain the heavily industrial feel of the others, but behind glass rest magazine cutouts of a pair of dolled-up blonde women (Britney Spears?) and an image of a football stadium. Has all of our technological and social progress culminated only in bread and circuses or Hollywood excess?

Benjamin White, "Paestum." Benjamin White, "Paestum."

One tiny piece on a nearby windowsill also contains a glass top, and we are encouraged to peer inside at its contents. This view is more of a museum fixture than a frame, and inside we see the carapace from one of earth’s oldest organisms: a horseshoe crab. Its delicate remains are preserved inside this block of mortar and sealed, transparent top for future observation. It seems in stark opposition to the encased magazines that celebrate human achievement, while this modest reminder of nature merely presents nature without any pomp. It’s easy to become distracted by the lights and the fashion, but what or whom suffers at the expense of our pursuit of pleasure and distraction? How do the machines we forge today impact the world we will have to live in tomorrow?

By counter-intuitively harnessing the power of contraptions that accomplish nothing, Benjamin White provides us a buffer between ourselves and the tools and gadgets that we use and abuse. With this ability to step back and consider what we ultimately do to the planet and to each other through our technology, we can better understand that even the best of intentions sometimes have unexpected consequences. “Impossible Machines” will be on display at Tiger Strikes Asteroid through January 26.

Tiger Strikes Asteroid is located a 319 North 11th St., on the second floor, Philadelphia;;

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