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Detail of the coupled gear systems in “Machine with 11 Scraps of Paper” from Arthur Ganson’s Gestural Engineering exhibit.
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Gestural engineering: The sculpture of Arthur Ganson

Arthur Ganson

MIT Museum

Tucked inside a dim corner of the MIT Museum, a fun surprise awaits the viewer, or more accurately, the participant — for Arthur Ganson’s motionless sculptures spring alive at the touch of a button or the push of a pedal with seemingly little more effort than a whir of gears.

For three decades, Ganson has been exploring an intriguing mesh of mechanical engineering and art, gritty gears and delicate choreography. All the impressive open metalwork of his art is hand-shaped, brazed, and bolted together. His crafting began in his dorm room at the University of New Hampshire; amazingly, Ganson had no engineering background — before switching to art, he was a premed.

Ganson’s work exemplifies MIT’s core commitment to the intersection between science and art, but despite the lofty ways in which the exhibit could be described, it is simple and non-imposing. Besides its rectangular white pedestal, the only accompanist for each piece is its intricate silhouette, cast on the white wall behind it by a small yellow spotlight.

Seeing the sculptures’ naked machinery is striking. This exhibit is not full of polished end results, and therein lies its unique beauty. Onlookers essentially get a “behind-the-scenes” look at the art. Each piece exists not only in space, but also in its progression through time, as the turn of a gear or rotation of a lever moves it one beat ahead.

If Ganson’s imaginative concepts could be epitomized in one sculpture, it would probably be Another Dream. Four groups of gears, each connected to at least one other, form a tapered tower that nearly touches the ceiling. Start any single gear near the top, and you can follow a connected path from it down to the floor; the gears turning one another highlights what Ganson described as the “logical flow of energy through these system.” Along the way, you’ll pass such shapes as spoke wheels, helices, sun shapes, and hamster wheels — a spunky touch in the machinery.

Other works are equally fascinating.

Machine with Ball Chain operates in soothing repetitions. A steel platform holds a chain of steel beads as they trickle out of a thin tube, one by one. The texture of the motion is surprisingly satisfying — it provides enough resistance to evoke water trickling out of a sink faucet.

On the platform of Machine with 11 Scraps of Paper are three sets of coupled gear systems, progressing much faster than the 11 rods they work to bob up and down. The mechanics are interesting enough in themselves, but look up for the real surprise. Up close, one gets the impression of fluttering white flowers. From across the exhibit, they seem a distant flock of birds. In addition to motion, Ganson gives careful attention to the actual makeup of his works. The textured pieces of paper of the namesake are the only nonmetal materials of the piece, a good kind of incongruity.

Margot’s Cat adds a touch of humor, as a velvet chair tumbles around a wide-eyed cat sliding side to side, sometimes barely missing, sometimes not.

After offering a finger or foot to start the machine, onlookers become the motionless ones, absorbed by Ganson’s gentle yet powerful art. Despite his accomplished background, which includes a permanent installation at the National Inventors Hall of Fame, a feature in the Smithsonian, and being a speaker at TED Talk, Ganson still sees himself as just the middleman of the artistic process. He thinks of his sculptures as pieces he “wrestled into reality.” Their actual meanings lie in the viewer.

So what do viewers think of this interactive experience? As one person wrote in the museum’s visitor’s book: “You’re either a psycho or a genius, or both. Either way, you rule!”