S. Worthen (owlfish) wrote,
S. Worthen

Steampunk in the Basement

Deep down in the basement of the History of Science Museum in Oxford, in what surely used to be an interlocking series of storage rooms, is a small-but-dense exhibit of steampunk-style art work. Is? Perhaps was. This is the weekend it closes. It's steampunk-style because a striking theme throughout the artist's statements accompanying the creations is the realization that there is a movement called steampunk. Many artists were working in what became labeled as that tradition and embraced the label.

It's a neat show. It focuses on objects over text, with a predicable preponderance of goggles, whether cthulhuesque or unfunctionally doubled up. I loved the brass-framed USB-connected typewriter, whose old-fashioned typewriter-like keys were elegantly calligraphed. (Minor complaint: Function, as in Function Key, is not abbreviated to ff.) The church-tank, with its density of detail, reminded me of the Hungry Cities books and the dense, destructive installation of battlefield minatures in a fantastic and barren landscape I went to the other year. The webcam was a charming conceit, its captured image displayed as if thorugh scratched glass, all black and white.

My favorite part of the show was the engines: elegant structures of brass, perhaps two feet high, and powered by tea lights. A long-lived set of four tea lights could, said the label, power one engine for eight hours of exhibit. The transformed energy could be used for minor purposes, such as powering LED lights. Most steampunk art, at least, as represented in this exhibit, is about appearances, not functionality. That's why the engines were so impressive. They are machines, truly lovely ones, and they run on candles.

The exhibit was curated by one of the artists. Is it symptomatic of the movement that there are so few women artists included in the show? His taste? Are more women crafters instead of Artists? I don't know. But it really irked me when, near the end of the show, there was finally a sculpture by a woman - and it was of a womb. There is nothing wrong with feminist sculpture embracing body parts, regardless of the gender of its creator; there is, however, something wrong in which what appeared to be the only female artist in the show is all about wombs. Fortunately, the very last roomlet of the show featured the collaboarative work of another female artist, an extraordinary costumer, which made me feel much better about the whole thing. Still. Two out of twelve.

At the end of the show, in a final, separate room, cases of Victoriana from the vaults of the museum were displayed, the historical objects which inspired the modern movement. Pieces of Babbage's Difference Engine. A mechanical typewriter whose structure was totally different from any I'd seen. C. observed that it was a challenge to even envision it working without a chance to test it; yet it was there as a historical artifact which does. The array of objects showed that the uses to which elegant pieces of machinery were being put was far more creative and functional than what most of this particular choice modern artists are doing.

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