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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.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 21st, 2010 01:37 am (UTC)
Please tell you you were able to get some pictures...it's been a really disappointment to me that there was no way for me to get to see this.

As far as women go, from what I've seen most of the real makers in the modern steampunk aesthetic (which I'm defining as 'here is a functional whatever that looks victorian', as opposed to 'here is a perfectly good watch movement/nerf gun that I have glued stuff to') are male, but there are a lot of women who are doing jewelry, that sort of thing, and they seem to be setting themselves up as the arbiters of what is and isn't steampunk in fashion (which is one of the reasons I'm not as keen to play as I was -- not that women are making the decisions, mind you, but that decisions are being made and insider/outsider statuses are being declared). So it is kind of disappointing that they seem to be falling into gender roles that way. That said, in music the genders seem to be split equally, and there's a couple in Massachusetts that are doing steampunk-design home renovations, so it's not a total sausage-fest.
Feb. 21st, 2010 01:37 am (UTC)
*sigh* 'real disappointment'.
Feb. 21st, 2010 04:50 pm (UTC)
Pictures! They're still on my camera. I'd forgotten about them. We were nearly done with the exhibit when it dawned on me that there had been no "no photos" sign, lots of people were taking photos, and the security guard was clearly not in the least bothered by it. So I have a few photos from the end of the show, but it was too crowded to backtrack.

Lots of other peoples' photos: http://www.flickr.com/search/?w=all&q=steampunk+history+of+science+oxford&m=text
Feb. 24th, 2010 02:16 am (UTC)
Wow, you weren't kidding about the preponderance of goggles--which, by the way, will be the title of my autobiography.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )