Michigan artist Jim Pallas has given a whole new meaning to the art of politics.
His electronic sculpture, titled "The Senate Piece," was unveiled at a reception yesterday in the Dirksen Building offices of Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who privately commissioned the piece.
The three-part work hangs on three walls of Levin's private office, responding to changing light, noise, wind and body heat in a variety of ways -- chiefly by causing garlands of tiny red lights to twinkle in constantly changing configurations. The work is also tied into the Senate's buzzer-and-light signal system, and changes patterns according to the Senate's business.
"It's extremely soothing, very friendly and good company," said Levin, as he and Pallas happily put the piece through its paces.
The major element of the work, which hangs directly across from Levin's desk, consists of an open construction of bent and welded white wires enclosing a red, white and blue assemblage of nuts, bolts, gears, a motor, a digital clock, a microphone and printed circuits shaped like an American eagle. Out of the eagle's mouth comes a comic-strip-like word-balloon with a grid of colored lights.
The lights on the balloon react to words coming over the intercom that carries proceedings on the Senate floor into senators' offices. "That's what inspired the piece," said Pallas, who had earlier made a similar sculpture for Levin's Detroit home that responds to the sounds of a harpsichord built by the legislator's wife, attorney-musician Barbara Levin. "Watch!" said Levin. And as he flipped on the sound, the voice of Sen.Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) could be heard arguing the budget. Lights began blipping and changing and a set of small gears the artist calls "wheels of justice" began to turn. "If Pete could only see how he sounds," chuckled Levin.
He coughed. More blips.
The second part of the construction is the only section that makes noise. Titled "The Falling Dollar," it consists of a gear-driven dollar bill that drops precipitously and arbitrarily with a whirring sound. "I'll have to put that part outside -- it's distracting," said Levin.
The third element makes the most pointed political statement. At the top of the tall, thin device are several small motor-driven flags that start waving when a quorum call is announced in the Senate chamber. Below them, a long plastic bag simultaneously begins to inflate -- which in turn lowers a clump of cow dung (which Levin calls "heifer dust") into a paper bag. "I guess that's to remind me," said Levin, "that it's my job to keep the heifer dust in the bag."
Pallas, whose works generally sell in the $6,000-$7,000 range, has just completed a major outdoor sculpture in Detroit and has shown at the Detroit Art Institute. He said that "The Senate Piece" is his major work to date. It would be priced at $15,000 on the open market, according to Pallas, who said that Levin got it for much less since "he is my friend and was my first patron."
Can the sculpture be made to do things on command?
"It's like Congress," said Levin. "You can affect it, but you can't control it.