Style & Arts: Studio Style & Arts

August 10, 2008

Here, the Seat Grabs You


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Your average work of cutting-edge contemporary art gets seen by maybe a few hundred, a few thousand people. So far, thanks to footage that has gone viral on YouTube, a motorized sculpture called "Robotic Chair" has been seen by almost a million people.

The piece, conceived by Canadian artist Max Dean, then realized as a collaboration with roboticist Raffaello D'Andrea and mechanic and sculptor Matt Donovan, consists of what seems to be a standard wooden chair. As you watch, it collapses with a crash, its legs and back and seat flying off in all directions. Then, over the course of the next 10 minutes, the chair's almost animate seat seeks out its missing back and legs, and the whole sculpture reassembles and rights itself.

Seen in person at Vancouver's Contemporary Art Gallery, where the much-traveled work is on view, it is tremendously effective. Yet to Dean's surprise, that impact seems to have survived translation onto computer screens.

"In 1985, when I became one of the artists in residence at the National Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa, I dreamt up this project about a chair that would fall apart and put itself back together again. I was thinking, 'What happens if there's an object that is out of our control?' I wanted the piece to determine its own state. That was one of the driving ideas, and a chair just seemed to be the natural thing to work with. They're everywhere, and we take them almost for granted, and we invest an enormous amount of trust in them. They're extensions of our body, almost.

"I wanted my chair to be very generic, and yet I wanted it to have this capacity to fall apart and put itself back together. At that time, I don't think it was conceivable to do it. The computing power wasn't even there. It was only in 2004 that I got together with Raff D'Andrea, and he came up with the idea of the chair seat being the robot itself. And it was only when we started building it that the whole metaphoric aspect of it -- the idea of falling -- became paramount in my mind. Falling seems to be everywhere in our Western culture. We fall in love, we fall into depression, we fall asleep.

"Because it's outside of what we normally know, I think everyone has come at the chair with a particularly interesting take. Kids cry in front of it. People applaud it. People laugh at it. People are cynical about it. There's such a range of emotions that go on in front of this thing that it's been overwhelming. I thought I was making a sculpture, and I realize that we have created a performer."

-- Interview conducted and condensed by Blake Gopnik

"Robotic Chair" is also on display at Flowers East gallery in London until Sept. 13. Visit http://www.flowerseast.com or http://www.roboticchair.com for information..

Video: Max Dean and Peter Lynch WEB EDITOR: Stephanie Merry - washingtonpost.com

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