Monday, 7 June 2010
Futurism - it's so last century...
As I may have noted in passing before, our two-year old offpsrog Guthlac is a pushover for anything mechanical and - preferably - noisy. The other night he was heard talking in his sleep, muttering in an agitated but intelligible voice "Mummy, no, Guthlac flyyyyy de plaaaaane..."
When Djangolina and her visiting friends from Germany opted for a trip into Birmingham, it quickly became apparent that the one place I knew Guthlac would adore was not on their agenda. So we agreed to split - the girls would go to the Sea-Life Centre to coo over cute turtles and seahorses, while Guthlac and I would head for the science museum at Millennium Point to coo over steam engines, old cars and Spitfires.
I was right - he did adore it. I let him have a run around first, richocheting from wonder to wonder in a state of chronic indecision as to which admire the most - the traction engine? The steam locomotive? The vintage cars? The vintage motorbikes? The Spitfire and Hurricane suspended tantalisingly out of reach from the ceiling? We then had a spot of lunch, after which I plonked him in the buggy for a more leisurely tour. This time, we headed for the other end of the hall, where the assorted industrial steam engines are kept.
There is something hypnotic about the workings of an old engine, and one very good thing the Birmingham musem does is keep as many of the machines turning over as possible. In addition, there is a series of enlightening hand-cranked exhibits showing how piston movement is tranferred into rotary motion, how a governor works, and the motion of planetary gears. Personally, I prefer that to Damien Hirst's sliced dead things any day - but then, I grew up in the Black Country where such things are considered the summit of our culture.
Much as I hate to agree on any level with tedious proto-fascist madman Dick Marinetti (purists may argue that his name was Filippo, but personally I've always thought of him as a Dick), there is beauty in the workings of machines. And particularly, the kind of machines that were around at the end of the 19th century.
It's not just the pleasing steam-punk elegance of turned brass handles and white-backed, glass-fronted dials; it's also the fact that so many modern machines are impenetrable 'black boxes' which do clever things but cannot be seen to be doing anything at all. And that had me wondering sincerely about when exactly the point was when futurism became retro. Was it when valves replaced cogs? Or when transistors replaced valves?
At this point, I became aware of a subtle change in the sound of the machine in front of me, and upon looking down realised that the noise was being caused by Guthlac's hat, which in an experimental turn of mind he had fed into a gear mechanism.
Condensing the entire experience, I have learnt two important things:
1) Form guided by function can be as aesthetically beautiful as pure art, possibly because the challenge of achieving a funtionally working form gives vital grist to the designer's mill, and
2) A two-year old in a museum requires absolute 100% attention at all times.