Inside the Collection

The automaton, early robot or über-puppet?

Still from Kirsty Boyle’s video Ningyo
Still from Kirsty Boyle’s video Ningyo. In a grainy video shot to convey memory or recollection, the artist and the mechanism of a ningyo (puppet, person or effigy)

As one of the three ISEA2013 exhibitions closes this week, I found myself reflecting on the artworks and wondering at the possible connections to our collection.  One of the most unusual works to experience in Synapse | a selection was Kirsty Boyle’s video Ningyo. In a grainy video shot to convey memory or recollection, the artist and the mechanism of a ningyo (translated as puppet, person or effigy from Japanese) are depicted in close association with each other. Over 8 minutes, Boyle coddles, plays with and eventually demonstrates how the mechanisms of the ningyo work.

While looking through our Museum database, I found that we house a few interesting automata of our own. These objects range from a very vocal looking L’Avocate or lawyer, caged birds, a horse race cabinet containing 12 discs of music to an African minstrel playing cymbals and a drum.

Photograph of Bird automaton fitted with clock and musical movement
H5043, Bird automaton fitted with clock and musical movement, comprised of 8 birds in a tree and rock setting., 1885 – 1895. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

The stand out for me is one titled ‘Musical Automaton, birds with clock’. The feature of this timekeeping statuette is not the clock itself, rather the tree, the 8 birds (including miniature swans on a glass rivulet) and the surrounding rockery that make up the tableau. While there is a glass dome missing that is meant to cover the piece, it is quite an extraordinary scene. More so, I would think, when automated. My interest was definitely piqued. So I decided to dig a little further…

This link between ancient automata and contemporary ‘tech’ goes back father than I was aware. The modern automata in our collection are largely made in France in the early 1900s. Further research revealed that the earliest reference to automata in the Bible is King Solomon’s throne, where a series of mechanised animals deliver him from the ground to his throne the moment he steps near it to the moment he sits down.

In a 3rd-century BC China, there is a text known as the Lie Zi, that describes a much earlier exchange between a master mechanical engineer or ‘artificer,’ Yan Shi, and his King, King Mu of Zhou (1023-957 BC).  Yan Shi constructed a human automaton so life-like that when presented to the King, Mu believed it to be a human being. Only when Yan Shi took it apart, did King Mu believe him that it was a very technical kind of puppet. An interesting sidebar to this tale was that the automaton had fully constructed organ and skeletal components, and if any one part of the system was removed, the puppet wouldn’t function at all.

There are also Greek and Jewish texts for the ideas of representing pygmalion and golems; the ideas or effigies that Kirsty Boyle is trying to remember and relay through her work.  Tie in the technical aspect of the ningyo, these historical texts made me think of Artifical Intelligence (AI) and how often in design we evolve ideas using the same iconography over and over.

Photograph of Robot, dog, Aibo
Robot, dog, Aibo, Entertainment Robot ERS-110 / Motion Editor ERF-510, in original packaging with accessories, Sony Corporation, Japan, 1999. 2000/12/1 Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Perhaps the Aibo or soccer dogs aren’t that far off from the iconic cuckoo of grandfather clocks. The ideas behind both appear to have been being refined in our collective consciousness for some time.

The remaining two ISEA2013 exhibitions, Speak to me and Semipermeable(+) are on display until 21 August 2013.


Written by Deborah Turnbull, assistant curator

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