ITS eyes hold your gaze for a split second before they dart around the room again - restless, searching, sad. It stands on its three legs as gracefully as a lost animal, head slightly cocked as if ready for flight. One can't help but smile at the sad machine with its computer-generated video eyes and its computer brain balanced atop the skinny tripod legs. Aptly named "Voyeur" by its maker, Alan Rath, this weird work of art cannot participate in the life it appears to observe.
A machine that evokes pathos, that begs for identification with its "plight," could only exist in the art world. And many of Mr. Rath's electronic works, in the four-room exhibit at the Walker Art Institute in Minneapolis, just now raise issues best expressed in the context of art. His works question the place of technology in our lives, but they quite obviously do not disparage that technology.
Alan Rath is no cynic: His creations are witty, many of them wise, and a few quite touching. He offers appropriate cautionary tales about the misuse of machines and then cheerfully puts them to good use. His is a beguiling, friendly, even inspired view of the technological world. We tend to think of art as man-made rather than machine-made, but here the machines are made by Rath's hand, from scratch, and he clearly revels in the systems he creates. So there is a buoyant sense of joy in his work. You see that joy in the children's response to "Bumper II," a large speaker on a tripod that huffs and puffs at odd intervals as it makes them jump and then giggle when they've come too close to the apparently static piece.
RATH came to art through the backdoor not long ago. Trained in electrical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he had begun a lucrative career in industry when he saw an exhibit in London of kinetic sculpture that started a chain reaction in his own thought. He came home from that business trip and resigned his job, still not knowing what he wanted to do. Having written his engineering master's thesis on electronic computer-controlled light sculpture, he had made friends among art students and faculty, and he joined one of these friends in San Francisco. There he found electronic parts plentiful and cheap (Silicon Valley is nearby). Then, too, he took a job hauling art to and from galleries.
"I was surprised at the art," he told me by telephone recently. "It was not resonant with the world I knew. That frustrated me. Then I became even more interested in making my own objects. So I started doing it in private."
Seven years after his first exhibition, Rath's sculpture has become a natural extension of his training. Humor pervades the work, and sometimes the humor seems a little dark. One piece offers the viewer a joy stick to manipulate the movement of the words "So What?" on a video screen.
"That's largely influenced by my stint in engineering. There's a great drive to do things with ever-increasing speed and precision, an engineering obsession that propels that kind of advancement. Speed, precision, more features - these things can be 'improved,' but there's no analysis as to whether it's useful or desirable or interesting. So that's my 'So What?' on that. It is a very precisely made machine, but it doesn't do anything useful, it just does it well."
Even darker than "So What?" is "You Can Make a Difference."
A telescope is mounted on the wall with a button next to it. The telescope is focused on a large number on a video screen across the room. When the viewer pushes the button, the number increases by a single unit, and a polite "Thank You" indicates that one has contributed to the piece.
"You pay various bills and you have these huge account numbers... . There's something about the scale of things in this electronic system, this media environment. We're aware of so much going on around us, and the sheer scale of that electronic environment dwarfs us. …