Lauren Elizabeth Cunningham
Opening of deus ex machina at MOCA GA

On Friday, July 27, Martha Whittington's exhibition, deus ex machina, opened at MOCA GA. Utilitarian objects masterfully crafted by the artist were positioned around the gallery, their elusive purpose waiting to be discovered. Whittington collaborated with performers from Beacon Dance and composer Jon Ciliberto to bring the objects to life on opening night and at scheduled times during museum hours. The exhibition's title suggested that the performance would illustrate a story, since the Latin phrase meaning "god from the machine" is a literary device in which a seemingly hopeless problem is solved by a miraculous intervention. However, opening night's unemotional performance failed to deliver any sort of drama at all.

Whittington literally spelled out the exhibition's purpose on the North wall of the gallery, where vintage-style text stated: "Recalling the moment when machines became gods, and workers became machines." The relationship between humans and machines is a long and conflicted one, beginning with the Industrial Revolution in the 1700s. For some, modern technology threatens simplicity, honest values, and perhaps the future of humanity itself. Whittington relied on clothing to illustrate the blurring between man and machine. The performers' beige pants and white t-shirts recalled the blonde wood and white sailcloth used in the construction of many of the objects. In addition to the modest costumes, the performers readied for work by adorning harnesses and moved about the gallery in military fashion, marching in lines and turning sharply on their heels. Clearly the transformative moment in which the workers became machines had already passed, betraying the writing on the wall.

The props in the performance equally missed the mark. At the performers' disposal were simple machines (a four-wheel cart, a wheelchair, and ladders with a hinged prop), tools (baskets, buckets, nets, and rope), furniture (benches, folding screens, and a table), and a phonograph. Five felt-wrapped DVD players mounted on the wall played black-and-white video of a woman's hands cutting rope or doing other mundane tasks. Overall, the objects, materials, and tidy, no-frills aesthetic created nostalgia for a humbler existence but failed to transport viewers back to the Industrial Revolution. More pastoral than industrial, the milieu's most incongrous component was the phonograph. The sound-reproducing machine was developed much later (1880s) and felt out of place in a narrative about human labor.

The performance, albeit procedural, also failed to evoke the productivity of the Industrial Revolution. The leisurely routine lacked the spirited energy associated with the time period. The performers seemed more at play than at work, as they imaginatively engaged with the objects. A rope stretched between two upright ladders suggested a tightrope. Women sitting around a table handed off a stainless steel sphere like a game of Hot Potato, and the back-and-forth pushing of the cart evoked children on a seesaw. The installation thus became a playground for the performers, whose delight was tempered only by their stoic faces. From the life-size scale of the objects to the performers' relatively slow pace, nothing about the event measured up to the booming that characterized the Industrial Revolution. The quality of Ciliberto's music in the background summarized the activity level in the room—tinkering.

After a long fifteen minutes, the performers abandoned their work, took off their harnesses, and filed out of the room. The uneventful exit kept with the tone of the performance. Whittington is unarguably a talented object-maker but perhaps overextended herself with the collaborative aspect of the exhibition. Her creations are beautiful, magical, and suggest much more clarity than the performance evidenced. Visitors to MOCA GA may be better off imagining the action rather than witnessing the real thing.

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