When we were children, some, if not many of us, can probably remember shuffling past a plain grey office desk or walking down a hallway and stopping to stare at a decorative table. Our eyes probably wandered, as they had hundreds of times before, to whatever was sitting on these desks and tables and we would have caught a glimpse of a set of swaying metal balls strung up to a stand. This experience would have been our first encounter with the essential office gadget… Newton’s Cradle. If you are not familiar with Sir Isaac Newton’s cradle, it is essentially a desk toy which demonstrates Newton’s theorems on gravity. These objects are ubiquitous, they are beloved across the world and they are part of a larger group of what we call kinetic art.
In the late 60’s Simon Prebble, an English actor coined the name of the famous metal swing set, however “Mr. Prebble’s greatest challenge was convincing serious business people to buy something without an apparent purpose” (Antonick). Ultimately, despite the challenge, the actor managed to catapult the Newtonian sculpture onto the shelves of department stores like Harrods, where it was sold as an “executive toy” to the white-collared masses. It was undeniable this object had an inherent attraction, furthermore, it represented a fledgling movement of sculptures and art installations ranging from the minuscule to the massive which had the intention to educate.
Pin Toys, another example of the kinetic art movement, were a set of pins fixed to a screen that would take on the shape of anything which applied pressure to it. Ward Fleming, the inventor of these pin screens, had a similar aim to Prebble, he wanted a way for people to connect to animation and the science of three-dimensionality. Another “executive toy” of note predates both the cradle and the pin screen. Miles Sullivan’s 1945 Drinking Bird used thermodynamics and water evaporation to create a wooden-glass bird that could consistently tip up and down while seeming to drink from a glass of water.
All of these creations had a similar and common goal, the wish to use inherent principles of science, nature, and mathematics in tangible games, installations, and trinkets. Funnily enough, these playthings became so popular that they appeared In Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film “Brazil” when the protagonist is given “something for an executive”, while the film attempted to make a mockery of the bobbling balls and dipping birds, the very fact they were the center of attention in a scene within a major Hollywood film shows us how they have captivated the collective subconscious and became unforgettable icons… in fact, Newton’s Cradle alone appeared in over 37 cinema productions ranging from “The Matrix” to “Concussion”.
As funny and trivial as we may find these ornaments, they stand for something far larger. The kinetic art revolution began as a response to modern advances in science and technology, as the world was vastly shifting its focus from classics to scientific discovery, sculpture and sculptors had absolutely no intention of being left behind, and so they innovated and broke the restraints of the standards set by their predecessors. Moving works of art began to storm public squares and the monochrome hallways of the workplace. Many artists simply wanted to comment on the connection between man and machine, following the essential rites of Dadaism and industrial art; however, a number of artists such as Naum Gabo, Marcel Duchamp and Alexander Calder continued to create works that were inspired by science and designed in the spirit of teaching and inspiring. Pieces such as “Standing Wave” and Calder’s mobiles used natural principles of air-flow and gravity to allow the sculptures to speak for themselves.
In essence, the philosophy of kinetic art was simplicity; the sculptures should ideally use simplistic designs and color schemes in order to allow the motion and inherent scientific principles of the sculpture to speak for itself. Many of the creations displayed particular aerodynamic or physics-related concepts which mimicked and mirrored the way in which nature revealed itself in our daily lives. Despite being formed by industrial materials and man-translated concepts, these sculptures were an attempt to consolidate art, mathematics, science and nature in order to create visual harmony, nearly every aspect of the sculptures were meticulously considered and designed, despite their apparent minimalism.
Kinetic art was introduced to social-media after videos of the Welsh artist, Ivan Black’s Nebula Ellipse, Cubes and Square Wave sculptures went viral on Instagram. Black, is in many ways, the modern evolution of artists like Calder and Gabo in that he attempts to explore many different disciplines of mathematics and science. His newest creation, Square Wave can be used to teach the theorem of the Fibonacci sequence found in nature, through the moving spindles of its spire. All of Black’s works have an essential meaning attached to them, aside from their mesmerizing beauty and minimalistic elegance they aim to inspire us to reflect on our surroundings and relate his art to the phenomena of the natural world. In fact, it is no surprise that the sculptor’s inspirational pieces have been included in the Peggy Guggenheim and Kinetica Museums. By introducing Kinetic Art to the wider public via commercialization and social media, Black has managed to jolt himself forward as a primary champion for the movement, putting kinetic art on the map for the general public.
In a modern age of information overload, radiating stress and a never before experienced intensity, peaceful, harmonious and calming statues such as Square Wave help us to reflect, think and process what surrounds us. Studies have even shown that the work of artists such as Ivan Black help to engage individuals with science and nature through a visual and physical medium, putting kinetics on the cutting edge of helping to offer passive opportunities for individuals to educate themselves. The history of the mobile art movement helps to inform its future, as it develops we have a duty to build new understandings of what that means for us, a duty to interact with art rather than motionlessly consuming it. As the opportunity to be passive surrounds us, kinetic sculptures send an important message; no matter what discipline or profession we have, we should feel a responsibility to try and make our world as engaging and educational as possible, we should try to elevate ourselves.