Paperback Art

Romance, surrender, rescue. The girl in the boy’s arms. The girl in the robot’s arms or the monster’s fist. Screaming, swooning, terror, ecstasy. The very stuff of movies, harlequin novels, trashy drama. Guilty pleasures.

Book cover, 1950 and Movie Poster, 1956

Book cover, 1950 and Movie Poster, 1956

Why is the Asimov cover image (seen above) uninspiring, whereas The Forbidden Planet poster is fun, saucy and weird? The tilted perspective, the grinning face, the bathing beauty–is she an astronaut or an extra from a Tarzan movie who walked onto the wrong set? No pretence at realism here. Enter loveable Robbie the Robot, stick in a Chinese pagoda, fainting women, Grand Canyon rock forms, and it is, as advertised, amazing. The movie sadly does not live up–how could it?

Cover art: E. Gorinstein

Compare this delightful cover illustration by E. Gorinstein from the 2002 J’ai Lu edition of Les robots (I added the English title pun). Here we see robot not as alien monster but rather robot as funky car. Its eyes serve as headlights, antenna as steering wheel/ gear shift, chin plate as pedal. The astronaut looks bored for a space cowboy, which adds to the humour. This is not an astonishing adventure but something he does every day. Like operating a backhoe. The purple Ziggy Stardust spacesuit adds a note of style. The illustration depicts one of the early stories in Asimov’s vision of human-robotic symbiosis and delightfully conveys Isaac Asimov’s humour of robot psychology.

Expedition_to_earth.BallantineEdition 1953, Cover Art Richard Powers


Illustrator Richard Powers

The most versatile and experimental of science fiction illustrators. A complete illustrated list of his book covers can be found on the invaluable site, Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Early work owes a debt to surrealism. Later work makes use of paint splatter and collage. This 1953 cover illustrates Clarke’s story The Sentinal, the starting point for the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. A monolith, depicted as an irregular undulating pyramid, is shown on the surface of the moon with the Earth in the distance beyond. The monolith raises the question: is it a natural form or a manufactured object? An ant-sized human figure throwing a giant shadow appears on the horizon under a hovering blimp-like eye.


Case of Conscience, 1958. Cover Art by Richard Powers

Starship Troopers, 1959. Cover art Paul Lehr

Here is another cover by Richard Powers. In the story, missionaries and scientists establish a colony on a remote planet with few natural resources valuable to humans, except for a substance used in the making of nuclear bombs. The colonists debate whether they should reveal the truth to other humans or suppress it.

Abstract expressionism, atomic structures in a novel obsessed with Cold War posturing. Both an anthropological approach to SF, and a religious fable, James Blish’s A Case of Conscience is cited by Orson Scott Card as a strong influence for his novel Speaker for the Dead. 



Cover art Paul Lehr

The insect-like space craft with its dark cavernous shadow, monumental in scale next to the uneven line of waiting figures, produces a bizarre effect, as in the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch. We ask what is it, in this confrontation with the unknown. The green sky with blue clouds suggests an alien atmosphere. The yellow fire on the horizon is all that distinguishes sky from ground. The luminance of the wash, the hard sheen of metal, the contrast of scale, all give this design a graphic punch that matches the drive and gusto of Heinlein’s writing.

Cover Art by Bob Pepper




Illustrator Bob Pepper

Just how do you illustrate a Philip K. Dick novel anyway? Using a Pop Art approach, as in this illustration by Bob Pepper, is not a bad idea. Pop Art is linked to the mass consumption of a consumer society. Pop Art is often produced using similar methods of mass reproduction like Andy Warhol’s silkscreen prints. Other artists mix Pop icons with Op Art, using bright colours, bold semi-abstract patterns suggesting psychedelic material or attitudes of mind, as well as an ecclectic sensibility that is as open to comic books as it is to Eastern mysticism. In this illustration, Pepper shows the mask-like features of a face barely covering a skeleton and robotic gears, from which seem to pour a parade of clone-like sheep. It immediately makes one think: does a robot have a mind and if so how human is that mind? What exactly are we looking at here? Man or machine? This is the very ambiguity that underlines Dick’s novel.

Album Cover Art by Bob Pepper

Remember a time when people got pleasure just looking at an album cover? More on artist Bob Pepper can be found here.

Popular movies, books and art share ideas and strategies for conveying other worlds. Experiments with visual styles, such as surrealism and Pop Art, unite books of the future with the period in which they were created. The references to Fine Art push a once-marginal genre to new levels of respectability. Pulp art is fun, pushing proprieties of tastefulness. Modern art is innovative, pushing boundaries of aesthetic experience. Science fiction cover art draws on both, adopting visually daring designs to match the unconventional ideas found inside the covers.

Cover art: Richard Powers

Art is like an armchair

Henri Matisse. Ballerina Seated in an Armchair, 1944

It is Henri Matisse’s most controversial saying. “What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject-matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.” Critics pounce on this quote, arguing that Matisse’s concern for beauty leads to comfort on the part of the viewer, indulgence, complacency. It is no way to change the world. But let’s be fair to Matisse. The artist took up art relatively late in life–at the age of 20–while recovering from an operation. Art was a form of therapy. The armchair simile may be Matisse’s way of saying that art has healing or restorative properties. Restful as the chair may be, in the charcoal drawing above, the ballerina in it seems to dancing. She is at once at rest and in motion, limp but graceful. As a dancer, she is also an artist, so Matisse may be commenting on his own process. Art involves both activity and its opposite.

How else is art like an armchair? Art needs a viewer–an armchair with a body in it. Art makes us stop and comtemplate. Art takes time–it takes time to make, it takes time to digest, to sink in. At some point, the viewer engages with the work and changes the work.

Max Ernst. collage, La Femme 100 Tetes, 1929

In a collage for Max Ernst’s collage-novel, La Femme 100 Tetes, 1929, a man falls asleep in an armchair and dreams of phallic shooting jets and flooding waters. He is the respectable bourgeois man whose unconscious reveals unspeakable desires, chaos, fears.

Other artists use chairs to challenge our understanding of media. Robert Rauschenberg is an artist famous for merging large three-dimensional objects with flat canvases in a way that blends painting and scultpure. In one work, Pilgrim, 1960, a paint-splattered chair sits beside a paint-splattered canvas. Conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth does something similar by placing a real chair beside a photograph of a chair and a dictionary definition of a chair. Chairs are at home in surrealist art, abstract expressionist art, conceptual art. They take on meanings that range from bourgeois to anti-bourgeois. They are even political.

Doris Salcedo. Installation for the Istanbul Biennial, 2003

Colombian artist Doris Salcedo makes artwork using chairs she collects from the families of the victims of state violence. These victims have been abducted and made to disappear from the political scene. Salcedo displays their chairs as symbols of voices that have been silenced. In the installation at right, the chairs are stacked in an urban crevice like bodies in a mass grave. In other works, Salcedo encases chairs, writing desks and other pieces of furniture in blocks of cement. They function like repressed memories; vanished people whose presence continues to haunt us.

Dawn MacNutt. Man in a Black Coat


Dawn MacNutt is a Canadian artist who merges craft and fine art sculpture. Her Man in a Black Coat, 1985, made of woven rope and willow, creates a fusion of half-man, half-chair. Here we feel the identity of a ghost-like being struggling to come to life. MacNutt depicts a world of flux and metamorphosis,    embracing human frailty in her frequently bowed and hollow figures and in her use of discarded materials like ditch-growing weeds and cast-off rope.

Art is like an armchair. Matisse’s simile takes us from the notion of comfort and luxury to that of therapy, self-healing and contemplation. The simile suggests the role of the viewer in completing a work of art. It evokes dreaming and the unconscious, expanding traditional media into realms of multimedia and conceptual art. It marks the place and memory of missing persons and serves as a lingering political protest. It also merges boundaries of art and non-art, where the possibility of transformation and the energy of imagination engage in a productive interaction.



Armchair Collage

Ed McKean. Artist's Studio, 2012. Collage and oil paint on paper

I cut an image of an armchair from a magazine and placed it on top of paint-smeared scraps of paper used to clean my brushes. The result: a portrait of my studio.

Smile Collage

deKooning collages the mouth from this Camel cigarette ad to his 1950 painting Woman.

While researching artists who use collage, I was intrigued to see how American Abstract Expressionist Willem deKooning incorporated elements from ads into his paintings. The addition of a mass-reproduced smile (from a rather grotesque cigarette ad) makes the face in the painting above a little more mask-like. The intrusion of a foreign element complicates the charming spontaneity of the figure, as realism and abstraction collide in a jarring hybrid image.

I challenged myself to make my own smile collage. This is what I came up with.

Ed McKean. Smile, 2012

















Could an abstract construction be a face? A mask? Or are the colours and forms just happy to be together? Hope this collage makes you smile.



Matisse and Symbolist Art

Detail from Henri Matisse. Dance (I), 1909. MOMA NY

People either love Matisse or hate him. His work strikes an immediate cord that bypasses thought. Most art histories relegate Henri Matisse (1869-1954) to a branch of early 20th century Expressionism that contributed to the vocabulary of radical modernism. As time passes, it becomes increasingly difficult to grasp the essence of this alarm-provoking originality. If anything, Matisse is damned now for being too tame, too concerned with serenity and beauty. In an effort to place a little more nuance in an understanding of his work, I touch here on a few ideas and strategies Matisse shares with Symbolist art.

Gustave Moreau. Mystic Flower, 1875

Matisse’s teacher was Gustave Moreau (1826-1898). Moreau is famous for creating beautiful dream-like images, full of rich colour, elaborate patterns, ethereal beings and exotic settings. Moreau is invariably linked with the late-19th century movement known as Symbolist Art, which was a counter response to Naturalism and Impressionism. Impressionism, when not found on shopping bags and pretty calendars, has something to do with the scientific observation of light effects, with a sense of the transience of modernity, with an emphasis on contemporary subject matter, especially outdoor scenes painted on the spot. In contast to this, the Symbolists turn to literature and mythology for inspiration. Symbolist artists, inspired by writers such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud, pursued their desires into the realm of decadence, driving their imaginations to intoxicating heights. They reintroduced themes of psychological conflict, sublime isolation, exotic characters and locations. Symbolist art is imaginative but escapist, promoting art for art’s sake and ignoring current social problems. It stresses originality and genius to the point of being obscure, occult or hermetic. Part of this mystical impulse is the desire to unite contrary things, to come up with a cosmic all-encompassing vision of the world rather than depict a specific scene or localized street corner. Art historian Edward Lucie-Smith notes that “suggestiveness and ambiguity were the very essence of Symbolist poetry and art.” (Symbolist Art, 1972, p. 15) Allegories are one means of achieving this cosmic yet suggestive aim.

Henri Matisse. Dance (I). 1909, MOMA NY

Matisse’s themes–the joy of life, the dance, music, the dreamer, the circus, the artist’s studio–touch on Symbolist ideals. In Dance, 1909, Matisse presents a timeless allegory that recalls a distant golden age. It is a portrait of community in motion; the harmonious circle of nude dancers allows for a rhythm of contrasts: up and down, large and small, fast and slow, enclosed and open. The work is dynamic and interconnected, as if a chain of vitality flows from one figure to another.  If one dancer loses balance and falls, then all will feel the effects.

Matisse’s affinity for Symbolist art extends to his still life paintings. In the history of art, the still life is often heavily symbolic, with the addition of skulls, coins and clocks making comments on the fleetingness of life and the things we value. Matisse takes a slightly different approach, turning his still life images into cosmic fields that alternate between microcosm and macrocosm. His over-riding strategy is to bring inanimate objects –floral patterns, statues, mirrors, rugs, paintings within paintings—to life, blurring the distinction between nature and artifice. His inventive and witty analogies link one thing to another–a pot of flowers fuses with the floral motif on a background drapery, while household fruits lay scattered across the branches of a printed tablecloth. These paintings excite the senses, but also confuse and confound the viewer as foreground and background, interior and exterior space blend together. The wildly exuberant patterns are sensuous and suggest a joy of life as well as a richness of life. Vine-like surfaces, full of nervous energy, are hard to contain within the confined apartments and studios that are the most frequent settings. These works awaken strong affective responses, inspiring indescribable feelings.

Henri Matisse. Spanish Still Life. 1910-11. Hermitage Museum.

Henri Matisse. Goldfish and Sculpture, 1912. MoMA, NY

There is another way that the artist uses symbols. It is not the elaboration of information, a richness of detail or truth-to-life that makes something a symbol. Rather the reduction of information into a highly distinctive form that jogs the memory and triggers recognition is a key element of any symbol. By simplifying forms and colours, Matisse turns the goldfish bowl shown above into a miniature world.  His tiny sculpture of a reclining nude changes scale and appears monumental. In the process, the figure comes to life as a bather. The studio interior is all at once a forest glade, the vase of flowers serving as a canopy arching overhead. The rich field of colour creates an indeterminate free space, allowing the imagination to make these transformations possible.

Sample from Matisse's private fabric collection: North African appliquéd hanging, late 19th century.

Growing up in a cloth-making region of north-eastern France, Bohain-en-Vermandois, Matisse came across a wide assortment of pattern books and textile samples, samples he collected throughout his life and incorporated into his art. (This connection to fabric design formed the basis of the exhibition “Fabric of Dreams” held at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 2005.) Matisse’s paintings feature patterns drawn from diverse cultures and regions. These patterns when draped across the surfaces of a room turn a domestic space into a stage set, inspiring a sense of play and fantasy, as well as creating visual rhythms and associations of exotic unknown elements. Fantasy and the exotic are key themes of Symbolist art, as is the escape or transcendence of everyday realities. Many modern artists come across as alienated and brooding prophets of the sick soul. In contrast, Matisse comes across as a kind of therapeutic hedonist, a doctor of pleasure, offering us sanctuaries where boundaries dissolve and the energy of the imagination is released.

Conclusion: Matisse’s work is daringly modernist, but also draws on a Symbolist tradition from the 19th century. Like the Symbolists, Matisse’s world is slightly abstracted and suspended beyond time. He uses allegories and microcosms to suggest elaborate worlds of the imagination. The great simplification of figures and forms in Matisse’s work encourages viewers to read them as symbols. Conversely the great elaboration of pattern in his work helps trigger imaginative transformations, turning a simple everyday scene into a fantastic dreamscape.


First Doodle Painting


Ed McKean. The Red Desert, 2002

In 2002, I did a small painting of a cow in the desert, with strange markings added to the side of the animal. The markings, with their hard angles and abrupt turns, contrast with the soft undulating dunes beyond. Has this animal been branded by an over-zealous owner–or tagged by a mad graffiti artist? Doodles, often created in spaces I have no control over such as classrooms, act as self-defence from boredom. The scribble maps an alternative imaginary space. With this map, I am no longer a frustrated student, but a ticket-holder to the subversive lands of surrealism. The doodle itself is pure automatism and was created on a separate piece of paper, then collaged to different objects and images. By chance, it adhered to the cow, resulting in an image that surprised myself.

Cat, Car, Constellation

Ed McKean. Cat, Car, Constellation, 2002

I later did a painting of a cat, car and star constellation, each marked by a similar geometric maze pattern. The pattern itself is meaningless apart from its context. I offer three different contexts in the cat, car and constellation, chosen in part because I liked the sound of the title. Patterns appear in living creatures, in objects and in landscapes, encouraging analogies and relationships. In my painting, the doodle swirl is both absurd and decorative, and functions as a source of chaotic energy. I contrast the swirls enclosed inside shapes with an unconstrained swirl that dances freely across the sky.

The Doodle Mandorla

Flight Lines

Ed McKean. Flight Lines, 2002

The doodle as a form of energy led me to “the doodle mandorla,” one of my favourite motifs. A mandorla is a full-body halo, usually almond- shaped, that appears in many religious paintings of Christ. It is a cloud or ring that surrounds and encloses a body to indicate a spiritual condition. In secular iimages, the mandorla is used less as a symbol and more as an attention-grabbing device. It is also a kind of doodle–tracing lines around the outside shape of a figure in a series of expanding rings. My painting contrasts the invisible flight lines of the birds with the visible growth rings of the tree. Both flight lines and rings mark a passage in time as well as an expansion in space.

At the time I made these paintings, I had been struggling to find a way to translate cartoons of mine into paintings and here was something less than a cartoon–the merest of doodles–that miraculously found its place within a painting. The doodle also helped me overcome a fear of abstraction. To me, the oscillation from abstraction to representation and back again, is central to any art experience.


Ed McKean. Anti-social Network, 2011

I stopped creating art for a few years as I went back to school to study art history and the French language. It was a wonderful experience, but stressful at times. I was living in Montreal, away from my wife and friends, and found I couldn’t sleep at night. I asked myself: how can I possibly unwind? How can I think no thoughts so I can relax enough to fall asleep? The answer was simple. A return to doodling, drawing on index cards one mad sketch after another. Never erasing a line or pausing to think, plan or evaluate. As I scribbled away, I relaxed and began to drift off. The drawings became looser and looser. In the morning, I would look at the doodles and laugh. Out of 10 drawings, I threw 9 of them away. But the drawings I saved began to add up. In no time I had 100 drawings, then 500. I wondered how long I could keep it up and began to think of my activity as a series of drawing games.

The above drawing is a recent example–one of my “constellation games.” Draw two dots and join them with a line. Keep drawing dots until you’ve covered different areas of the page. I supplemented the lines and dots with four half circles to break the linear pattern and imply another kind of motion. Finally I added the face in a squared-off area that looked to me like a screen. I wanted to suggest someone in the middle, a user or creator, who is unconcerned by these elaborate construction lines. The drawing expresses how I think of doodles as something that one is in the middle of. Not so much a maze as a piece of architecture or a network that seeks out connections with other things. A doodle may be aimless but, used in the right context, it can be full of associations. Chaos. Energy. Decoration. Connectivity. Motion. Whimsicality. Escape from boredom.


The Automaton & Surrealism

Tippoo's Tiger

Tippoo's Tiger, automaton with mechanical organ, India, about 1793. Victoria & Albert Museum

The automaton is a life-like doll or mannequin that moves by means of hidden gears. A precursor to the robot, the auto-maton is a one-of-a-kind marvel used to amuse large audiences with simple tricks. In contrast, the robot is a product–and symbol–of mass production and the culture that depends on assembly lines and standardized parts. The best-known promoters of automatons were clockmakers, inventors, illusionists, magicians–Maillardet, Maelzel, Robert-Houdin–men of the 18th and 19th century who wowed prince and public alike with their ingenious mechanical toys. It comes as no surprise to learn that silent cinema pioneer Georges Méliès was a collector of automatons, using deceptive moving props to augment his repertoire of cinema tricks. More surprising is to learn that Enlightenment philosopher René Descartes, social reformer and novelist Charles Dickens and inventor Thomas Edison also experimented with mechanical figures. (Gaby Wood, Living Dolls, 2002) Mary Shelley wrote the story Frankenstein, 1818, two years after seeing Pierre Jaquet-Droz’s writing automaton in the watch-making district of Neuchatel, Switzerland. Shelley’s father, William Godwin capitalized on his daughter’s success by writing Lives of the Necromancers, 1834, a legendary history of artificial life.

"TheDraughtsman-Writer" automaton

Henri Maillardet. "TheDraughtsman-Writer" automaton, c. 1820, Franklin Institute, Philadelphia

A charming example of a working automaton is “The Draughtsman-Writer,” created by the Swiss-born, London-based clockmaker and inventor, Henri Maillardet (1745-?). Badly damaged when it was donated to the Franklin Institute of Science in Philadelphia in 1828, the automaton was mistakenly attributed to Johann Maelzel, a man infamous for his fraudulent chess-playing machine, (Edgar Allan Poe published an exposé on this subject, giving some sense of the fascination and popular appeal of these automata in 1836). A staff mechanic at the Franklin Institute was able to get the the Draughtsman-Writer
working. Wound up, the automaton produced 4 drawings and 3 poems, one of which boasted how he was beloved by women all over the world and even by their husbands, then concluded: “Écrit par l’automate de Maillardet,” revealing the true identity of the inventor.

automaton poem

An automaton's poem reveals the identity of its creator.

Automaton Sketch

Cupid Sketch produced by Maillardet's automaton

The automaton’s poems and drawings are designed to answer questions from the audience, such as “What does the future hold for me?” or “What am I thinking?” One drawing shows a cupid with bow and arrow, another shows a sailing ship. As portents of the future, love and a journey, are agreeable messages. The automaton is not just a mechanical wonder, it is also a fortune teller and a mind-reader. In his essay, The Uncanny, 1919,  Sigmund Freud writes at length about automata as examples of things that produce an uncanny effect. Freud’s definition of uncanny involves a fearful feeling toward something that is simultaneously perceived to be familiar, yet strange and disturbing. Freud develops this into a theory of how the unconscious returns suppressed mental impressions in an altered guise. Reactions to the automaton, Freud suggests, touch on our own ambivalent attitudes toward life ad death.

As a figure in art, the automaton represents a blurring of boundaries between animate and inanimate things. In a painting or a work of literature, a doll can be as life-like as a person. Artists can also portray people as mechanical and unfeeling. Art allows the viewer to perceive this humanizing and dehumanizing process at work.

Giorgio de Chirico. Troubadour, 1940

Giorgio de Chirico. Troubadour, 1940

An artist celebrated for exploring the automaton theme was Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978). de Chirico was a Greek-born painter of Italian parents who travelled widely throughout Europe. His classical training was broadened by encounters with German philosophy, Symbolist painting and Cubism. de Chirico merged these diverse sources into melancholic pictures of deserted squares, often depicted in late afternoon light with long shadows. These paintings convey a dream-like sense of dislocation, where odd juxtapositions of unexplained objects, such as classical arcades, train stations, statues and modern mannequins, drawing instruments, easels, maps and scientific diagrams anticipate the surrealist encounter. In her introduction to Metaphysical Art, 1971, Caroline Tisdale notes how many philosophers and artists share a mistrust of physical appearances as an explanation of reality. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer observed how people become complacent surrounded by familiar things and this complacency stunts imagination. As an counter measure, Schopenhauer encouraged original thinking through a process of estrangement. One strategy of estrangement Schopenhauer suggests  is “to place monuments on low plinths so that they appear to walk among men.” (Tisdale, p. 9) The work of de Chirico, with its mannequin cities, fosters a similar feeling of estrangement. Art historian Wieland Schmied compares de Chirico’s figure of a jointed doll without a face to a blind but wise prophet: “Don’t we associate these figures with the idea of ‘inward vision’ or prophetic ‘second sight,’ precisely on account of the blindness that prevents them from seeing the existing world?” (Giorgio de Chirico: The Endless Journey, 2002, p. 61) Schmied goes on to describe the automaton in de Chirico’s work as an alter-ego, a doll artist. While similar visionary automatons appear in comic dramas written by the poet Apollonaire, a friend and early promoter of de Chirico, and Alberto Savinio, de Chirico’s brother, Schmied’s argument misses the satirical impact of a mannequin as thinker staring blankly at a complex diagram of the universe. Our new artificial selves are no more capable of understanding reality than our old physical selves were.

The Astronomer

Giorio de Chirico. The Astronomer (The Anxiety of Life), 1915

De Chirico suggests that classical statues and public monuments, which once represented community values in the guise of an ancestral hero or mythic goddess, have become obsolete in the modern age, replaced by mass-produced mannequins in shop windows. The mannequins are rootless and exhibit a plastic adaptability to different situations: they become the new comic heroes of absurd coincidence and irrational encounters.

Paul-Émile Borduas. Seagull, 1956

Paul-Émile Borduas. Seagull, 1956

To many artists, the automaton, with its hidden inner workings, recalled the operation of the unconscious. The term Automatisme was adopted by the Surrealists in the 1920s and by abstract painters in Quebec in the 1950s. Influenced by psychoanalysis and by Sigmund Freud’s use of free association techniques, artists were intrigued by the possibility of creating work that escaped the censorship of the conscious mind. By making art that defied rational principles, the surrealists hoped to bait, antagonize and expose the hypocrisy of the bourgeois. Automatiste painting proudly asserted a connection to an authentic inner world, unhampered by artificial social barriers and conventions. This claim of authenticity would later be disputed by postmodern critics, who countered that all art, like language, is mediated by convention. This is criticism in hindsight. In the repressive Duplessis era in Québec, before the “silent revolution” of the 1960s, Automatisme served an important function, infusing creative energy via abstract art into an otherwise parochial art scene. For Paul-Émile Borduas, author of the revolutionary manifesto, Refus global, 1948, and leader of the Québec-based Automatistes, Automatisme was a move away from imitating foreign styles as Canadian artists had done in the past. Instead Borduas urged his fellow artists to be as innovative and inventive as leading artists elsewhere and to pioneer new ways of seeing of their own. For this, Borduas is celebrated as one of the most inspiring and liberating figures in Canadian art.

Low Tech Robots


Theo Jansen. Animaris Rhinoceros

Theo Jansen. Animaris Rhinoceros

How fitting that in Holland, land of windmills, an artist has created large wind-powered robots! Dutch kinetic sculptor, Theo Jansen combines a vivid artistic imagination with a background in science to create fantastic mobile creations. Made of plastic ribs, flexible pneumatic tubes, sails and sensors, Jansen uses computer simulations to perfect his designs before taking them for trial runs on the beaches of Holland. As the artworks lumber into motion, one sees slow-gaited giants, looking like extraterrestrial visitors, moving in herd-like unison. The artist refers to them simply as Strandbeesten, beach-animals. His ultimate aim, stated at a TED conference in 2007, is to make the organisms independent so that they can survive on the beach for long periods without the artist’s assistance. “A good advantage of the animals is they don’t have to eat–they eat the wind,” Jansen says. “That’s why they might have a chance on the beaches: There’s a lot of wind, not much food.” This is robotics without motors or computer chips, living not in outer space, not in factories or labs, but in an unsupervised ocean wilderness. The world of Philip K. Dick has arrived! In 1968 (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep), Dick predicted that with the mass extinction of mammals from our planet, people would turn to robotic pets and virtual animals for comfort. Thanks Kate for bringing this artist to my attention.

To contrast this wind-powered artwork with another, here’s a work by New York artist Joshua Allen Harris, Polar Bears.

I find it telling that the above two videos feature artists in the context of ads; one promotes BMW cars and the other promotes public transport. Both artworks seem to be inspired by the rapid extinction of animals from our planet; both artworks explore the relationship between an artwork and the environment it is placed in, using wind power to bring inanimate structures to life. Both use common materials. Jansen’s work suggests the limitless possibilities of ingenious engineering. Harris’s work combines humour with pathos, using the onrushing wind from an unseen subway train to suggest a momentary breath of life. His mother bear and cub make a modest and fleeting appearance, and their loss of air and slow collapse reminds the viewer of the fragility of all life forms.