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
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
  • Get to the point
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.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

    £18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

    £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own