Art review: ‘Human, Soul and Machine: The Coming Singularity’


Visionary artists “see potential in the everyday,” according to Rebecca Hoffberger, the curator of the new show at the American Visionary Art Museum. For example, Dean Millien’s “Gorilla,” left, is made of tin foil. (Dan Meyers)
December 19, 2013

From one perspective, the future looks bright at the American Visionary Art Museum, where the exhibition “Human, Soul and Machine: The Coming Singularity” explores man’s tenuous relationship with technology.

According to the futurist author and inventor Ray Kurzweil — who is featured in a 79-minute documentary that loops continuously as part of the show and who will be honored with the museum’s Grand Visionary Award next month — solar power will provide all of our energy needs, perhaps in as soon as 20 years. Other projections he makes about the coming golden age of technology are equally sanguine.

The rest of the show, which fills most of the small Baltimore museum, takes a somewhat dimmer view. Case in point: a series of posterlike drawings by the artist known as Rigo 23 (Ricardo Gouveia). In stark black and white with text, they offer a critique of drone technology. Drones, in the artist’s view, make it easier to kill even as they make it easier to kill the wrong people.

Machines, of course, are simply dumb tools that can be used for good or ill.

At the heart of the show is a question. As machines become smarter — or more human, if you will — and as humans grow more dependent on them — perhaps, even, more like machines — are we losing some essential part of ourselves?

That part would be the “soul” referenced in the show’s title. “Singularity,” as defined by Wired magazine co-founder Kevin Kelly on a sign near the museum entrance, is the point at which “all the change in the last million years will be superseded by the change in the next five minutes.” Put another way, the Singularity is the theoretical tipping point at which artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence.

Is such a moment inevitable? Many Singularitarians, as proponents of this belief are called, say it could happen by the year 2045.

The show looks at the impact of science and technology on our species from different angles, several of them quite oblique. What does Dean Millien’s gorilla made of tin foil, for example, or Dalton M. Ghetti’s minute carvings in pencil lead have to do with the theme of technological advancement?

Much like scientists, visionary artists also “see potential in the everyday,” as curator and museum director Rebecca Hoffberger writes.

It’s a tenuous connection. But as with all of the shows at this defiantly eccentric museum, “Human, Soul and Machine” serves up a stew that is alternately heady, eye-pleasing and redolent of secret ingredients. Lindsey Bessanson’s tiny insect sculptures — made from real bug parts and man-made objects such as watch gears — are among the show’s most delightful yet easily overlooked finds.

Other artists include painter Alex Grey, a museum favorite. Here he is represented by a wall of his signature human figures, revealing, like something out of an alternative anatomy textbook, the invisible energetic forces that circulate throughout our bodies.

On the museum’s first floor you’ll find a short video about Neil Harbisson, a colorblind artist who in 2003 was outfitted with a head-mounted camera that enables him to “hear” colors as sound vibrations. Harbisson’s op-art abstractions, which offer visual interpretations of, say, Frank Sinatra’s singing voice, don’t answer the question of whether technology makes us less human. But neither do they argue that Harbisson is a better — or even more creative — person because of his cybernetic enhancement. Despite the admittedly cool technology used to produce them, his images are pretty ho-hum.

Fred J. Carter’s work is less ambivalent about technology. With an entire gallery reserved for his paintings and powerfully figurative wood carvings — including one of a coal miner, complete with a small iron lung on his chest — the late Virginia artist makes the deepest impression.

His anti-industrial message is clearest in “The Final Battle,” a towering, Januslike human figure in the center of the gallery, one face representing man’s humanity, the other presenting a deathly, machinelike facade.

Carter’s art, which includes conventional busts of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Albert Einstein, represents a strongly skeptical vision of technology, particularly because of its role in warfare and the degradation of the environment. But it makes an even more effective case that no machine will ever surpass man, at least in one critical aspect. How, Carter’s work silently asks, will a machine ever be moved to tears by a piece of carved wood?

Human, Soul and Machine: The Coming Singularity

Through Aug. 31 at the American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Hwy., Baltimore. 410-244-1900. www.avam.org. Open Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; closed Christmas. $15.95; $13.95 for seniors; $9.95 for students; members and children younger than 7 free.

The Story Behind the Work

The centerpiece of the “Human, Soul and Machine” exhibition is a sculptural installation by Kenny Irwin Jr., a California artist who uses his Palm Beach yard as a private sculpture garden populated by pastel robots made from junk donated by neighbors. Called “Have Yourself a Happy Little Robotmas,” the installation at the American Visionary Art Museum is an evocation of Irwin’s Christmas tradition of decorating his yard with literally millions of holiday lights. The room resembles what it might look like had Parliament-Funkadelic’s Mothership crash-landed in Ikea’s ball playroom while transporting a truckload of tacky Christmas decorations.

There also are real toilets and fake animal heads, along with what look like actual insects preserved in chunks of shellac. According to the wall text, the installation has something to do with Pakistan and aliens.

In addition to “Robotmas,” Irwin is represented at AVAM by a series of realistically rendered ballpoint-pen drawings based on his fantastical dreams, more than 60,000 of which he says he can remember as if they actually happened.

— Michael O'Sullivan

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Michael O’Sullivan has worked since 1993 at The Washington Post, where he covers art, film and other forms of popular — and unpopular — culture.
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