Artist wants people to interpret his work as they see fit

February 9, 2009
Athens Banner-Herald
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Artist wants people to interpret his work as they see fit
By Erin Rossiter

A little birdie told him to create it.

Well, not really. But such a mechanical wind-up toy certainly did inspire artist Martijn van Wagtendonk.

His mother gave him the small gift during a visit from the Netherlands. Van Wagtendonk, in turn, realized what he should do with it during his own visit to his parents’ coastal home overseas. “I don’t know why I didn’t see it earlier, but these guys need to be on the hull of a boat,” he said.

That’s how van Wagtendonk described the seed of an idea, which led to another and then another, before culminating in his large, multifaceted exhibit “Trickle Into a Lower Chamber.”

Featured through March 21 at Atlanta’s Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, the exhibit is framed inside a 20-foot-high architectural structure van Wagtendonk conceived in his Colbert home.

Visitors will discover a dim gallery space lit by a host of small bulbs that variously glow, depending on where the viewer stands. The lights reflect on a floor surface made of a solid black layer of water. The shallow square pond receives intermittent drops of moisture from above. But where the water comes from is unclear because of the ceiling’s darkness.

What additional light exists is channeled via a film projection of the moon at the back of the gallery space.

“It provides a good bit of light according to what phase of the moon is being projected,” van Wagtendonk said. “Lighting and sound have a huge impact on the things I do.”

So does sculpture.

A wooden stairwell to the side appears to descend into the dark floor surface, as well, helping establish the physical context of the title “chamber” being “lower than where we normally are,” van Wagtendonk said.

But it’s the walk around the pond and past the stairwell that might stun viewers the most – including van Wagtendonk’s 3-year-old son, Max, who was scared at first.
Suspended 6-feet and a couple of inches above the floor and pond is van Wagtendonk’s wooden boat. He built the 16-foot dinghy himself after finding plans he liked more than any craft he considered buying.

The wind-up bird is perched upside down on the hull. It is not alone.
Van Wagtendonk knew early on he’d need a lot of the toys to create both visual and aural impact.

So he bought hundreds of them.

“The boat and birds were always going to be the focal point,” he said. “I wanted (the boat) close (to the viewer) so that when these things actually are pecking, it makes a lot of noise. It almost sounds like there’s a downpour going on.”

In all, some 300 birds are stationed underneath the hull and await viewers, whose approaches trigger the random pecking.

To accomplish this, van Wagtendonk gutted each of the birds and inserted his own mechanics, which are a mix of electronic parts that make up “analog randomness.”
“There’s no prediction to it,” he said. “They’re doing their own thing after they’re set off by the viewer who’s getting close to the boat.”

If it sounds wild, that’s because it is, even by van Wagtendonk’s standard.
“I’m quite tickled by it and that doesn’t happen very often,” he said.

It took him nearly a year to create and two weeks to erect and test the exhibit. Just as most of his work does, the display showcases the artist’s natural talents for engineering, mechanics, sculpture and animation.

An assistant professor of art at the University of Georgia, he mainly teaches freshmen students who’re taking core areas of art study before choosing a major specialization.

His own academic background includes advanced degrees in sculpture and experimental animation earned at Ohio State University and the California Institute of the Arts.

Before that, van Wagtendonk spent his youth fiddling with mechanical projects in his parents’ garage.

Washing machine parts turned into robot pieces there, and random scraps and wheels became bicycle carts and trolleys.

“When my friends make ’80s references, I don’t know what they’re talking about,” he said. “I was too busy building and taking apart things.”

Engineering techniques thread through all his installations as well as tradition, van Wagtendonk said. He mentioned the development of ideas, nature, scientific research, philosophy, religion and expression as pursuits in his artist’s statement.
“In the form of an installation, art has the ability to immerse the viewer in a multisensory experience,” he said.

How that translates to the viewer is up to them.

Some don’t care about the mechanics hidden behind the scenery. They don’t think about the water being dyed black for effect or wonder how the water travels over the pond, then falls into it.

Nor do they care about the birding mechanisms placed in every single one of the wind-up toys or how wiring is stashed out of view – inside the boat’s hull, for instance.

Others, however, might not stop until they have all the answers, van Wagtendonk said.

“On opening night some people asked, ‘OK. How do these birds work?’ ” he said. “I would want to know. (But there are) lots of people who don’t care because that’s not what this is about.”

As for what “Trickle Into a Lower Chamber” does mean, that’s a question van Wagtendonk fields often. He answers with a question.

Some guess the exhibit is part of a dream. Some believe the nostalgia of the artist’s youth is reflected in the various components of the display.
He always manages to see the different points of view, and more pecking at the exhibit defined like an hourglass.

“Ultimately, they make meaning in this,” van Wagtendonk said. “My view is no more legit.”