Visual Arts: Just wind 'em up and watch 'em go Toys for the mechanicall y minded

An exhibition of automata is by its very nature something of an oddity. There is more than a whiff of seaside arcade and end-of-the-pier pointlessness to a group of fantasy machines with an apparent life of their own. What are they for? Do they operate as social comment or as satire? They can do, but surely their primary task is to demonstrate man's ingenuity. In other words, to remind us that we are makers: that to construct a mad machine is a definition of our precious human individuality. The idea of Devious Devices, now at the Croydon Clocktower, is at once to entertain and to inspire us to have a go ourselves.

Audience participation is the order of the day; you have to press switches or pump handles or trigger sensors to get a response from these devious devices. Some are funny, some instruct - all are theatrical. The film- maker (and former Python) Terry Gilliam chose 18 objects that were somehow symbolic of the 20th century: a car, a psychiatrist's couch, a television, an electric guitar and so on. Eighteen artists were then asked to make an object in response to one of those symbols. Jim Bond, for instance, has made a creepy jukebox coffin-shrine to Jimi Hendrix, enhaloed between two wing-flapping angels. Sokari Douglas Camp has fashioned from sheet metal a Freud ("looks like Lytton Strachey," said someone in the crowd) revolving on a spit in synchrony with the naked torso of a white woman on an adjacent couch. Elsewhere is a gyrating cine camera with all-too- human characteristics. In a booth hang spare tails for Mickey Mouse. A rocket capsule opens to reveal someone doing the ironing.

One question immediately poses itself: will these objects wear themselves out? Prolonged frenetic activity takes its toll. The problem with such machines is that they invariably go wrong: the sensor is not sensitive enough or the billiard balls get jammed in the helter-skelter. (This is probably a philosophical position arising from the automaton-maker's desire to render utterly complex something usually very simple.) And these things can be dangerous, though for most that only adds spice. The Geneticist by Jon Mills, all clashing scissors and cut-out hands on a surgical trolley, would happily go for the jugular if you got too close. Some, like this one, are ultra-modern; others, like Keith Newstead's motorcycle, invoke classic Victoriana. Mock-pearl raindrops descend upon the rider, but thankfully he has a collapsible hood - the Total Protection Raincover - to enclose him.

At the heart of the exhibition is the largest automaton here, The Newsteadmanaton Universe, standing more than nine feet tall. A brilliant collaboration between Keith Newstead and Ralph Steadman, it conjures up a terrifying millennial world of yarping animals and flatulent swamp, all flying creatures and erectile proboscises, arms and eyes and planets, veritable flowers of evil.

Ron Fuller's Tooth Fairy comes closest to state-of-the-art Heath Robinson. It would do well as a cautionary tale in a dentist's waiting-room: the sugar bug circles a gaping mouth, knocking down teeth like ninepins; then along comes the tooth fairy to stand them all up again. Would it were ever thus.

On the way out, pause at Tim Lewis's untitled piece. It is a remarkable magical object. A circle of tiny figures are made to march when the lights come on, and you actually see them move, though logically you know they are solid and still static. How is it done? (It's actually rather a grim subject, reminiscent of Dore and Van Gogh's convicts tramping the prison yard.)

Throughout this exhibition the range of approach is wide, its products diverting. The only thing that seems a trifle arbitrary is the choice of artists. Where, for instance, is the work of the Glasgow-based Russian Eduard Bersudsky, master organ-grinder and kinemat-maker extraordinary. This strange lapse aside, the levels of craftsmanship, invention and eccentricity are refreshingly high. They're to be relished. Not for the impatient or for those who cannot dream.

-Andrew Lambirth

To 4 June, Croydon Clocktower, Katharine Street, CR9 (0181-253 1030), then touring

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

    £18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

    Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

    £40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

    £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

    £20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

    Day In a Page

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future