Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Chapter 135: Calder's Universe and the Art of Circus

Calder's Universe

It was Einstein’s birthday the other day, and I felt like shouting Eureka! Here is something to celebrate! For if ever there is a figure who incarnates circus as a state of mind it is Einstein, in the flexibility of his thinking and generosity of a spirit open to the wonder of life and the limitless possibilities. I was struck again by this connection a few days later when at the Tate Modern, standing in front of “Calder’s Universe” a mechanical mobile, in front of whose cycle of 90 rotations Einstein once spent 45 minutes standing and observing. The art that derives from the motion is "kinetic", though sadly I am unable to appreciate that dimemsion as the piece is now too fragile to be allowed to move. But although the two balls threaded through the wire are now static, suspended in time and space, still I am transported by the wonder of Einstein’s perspective. Did the motion of the spheres that held his gaze still for so long inspire a deeply complex philosophical reverie, or encourage his mind simply to play? Isn’t it a combination of the two that leads to the most exciting discoveries? I experience a frisson.  Relatively speaking, Einstein and I are inhabiting the same space for a moment and it feels like a portal to another realm has opened up. Unheimlich. Uncanny. Another example of the circus zeitgeist

Aerialist. c.1926-31
Photo: Alexander Calder Performing Sculpture p.98

Alexander Calder was a sculptor with a passion for the mechanics of circus. Born to artist parents, he was fascinated by the way things worked and originally went into engineering before a spectacular sunset called him to study art instead. After graduation, he paid the bills drawing sketches for circus giants Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, but “it wasn’t the daringness of the performers nor the trick and gimmick, it was the fantastic balance in motion that the performer exhibited” that fascinated him, along with the workings of the rigging and pullies that made the impossible possible. Calder began fashioning his vision out of wires. The simplicity of Calder’s sculptures is what grabs me, and Room 3 is where the circus is at, marrying his love of sawdust and mechanics. The way Calder can use a wiggle to suggest a hand or the impression of a limb captures the essence of circus. “Embodying the vitality of dancers or acrobat Calder’s sculptures were performers in their own right”.  I admire the bawdy as well as the beauty in his work, like the family of acrobats "The Brass Family" displaying their naked frame along with their naked strength, the cheeky impressions of the father's pubic hair, and the mother's breasts arguing with gravity, making me chuckle. And then there is the ebullient  Josephine Baker (mentioned in the previous post on clowning), designed to wiggle and jiggle with conical breasts that, as the guide points out, prefigure Madonna's own fashion, herself not adverse to a spot of clowning around (again, see previous post). I loved the detail, like the umbrella of the tightwire walkers, the animals and the scenes set, and returned later to sketch out my own impression (pictured below). There is also a video screened of "Cirque Calder", which established his reputation, a miniature circus that Calder used to carry around and would show to small groups, in performances that could last up to a couple of hours. 

But the circus thread, albeit a metal one, is not limited to Room 3, instead running through the whole exhibition. Fascinated by the abstract art of the likes of Piet Mondrian, Calder brought shapes into a play of balance and motion that just shouldn't work, but somehow it does. Marcel Duchamps called this "mobile" art, a French word that denotes "motive" as much as "motion". And what is the motive? Making the impossible possible, no? How very circus. 

The delicate balance of reed-like shapes with a feather at the bottom in "Snow Flurry 2" reminded me of the legendary Sandhorn act performed by Marula in Cirque Rigolo (see post on "Wings In My Heart" at the Edinburgh Fringe - click here) and more recently by her elder sister Lara Rigolo in Cirque de Soleil's Amaluna. I see red balls suspended like clown noses, ready to bounce into other objects when you are least expecting it - at least they would have originally - and Calder loved the randomness and unpredictability of the movement. A moment of slapstick is captured on the audio guide when Sartre describes how one of the shimmering sculptures that had stopped moving, sprung to life in a breeze and caught him unawares, rather like a clown's clout. Calder would often engineer the breezes, leaving doors ajar if the inherent draughtiness of his studio wasn't doing the trick. Calder worked with sound that resulted from these collisions, incorporating gongs into certain pieces, and was able to transcribe, improvise and actually stage orchestral music that responded to the chance movements in his mobile art. Like Picasso, he designed for theatre on occasion, not as a backdrop or window-dressing, but rather, ideally, as a central component of the performance. Ahead of his time. Ultimately the sheer optimism and joy in Calder's work, ever responsive to its environment and a vision of modernity, conjures up a sense of wonder and thrill that for me is what circus as a state of mind is all about. 

"Britain's happiest exhibition*" is now in its final weeks, until 3 April, catch it while you can.

"Gamma" 1947 - Postcard from Tate Modern

* As per poster advertisement on tube, quoting the Financial Times.

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