Kenny Irwin Jr. has seen the future, and it is fast and fierce — intergalactic travelers catching flights from an Afghan spaceport, extraterrestrials so weary of human warfare they swoop down and blast away our weapons.
The 39-year-old artist says he has had as many as 60,000 visions in which he is spirited to far corners of the galaxy and ferried around by beings who "have such advanced technological capabilities ... they know we're here."
Irwin's meticulously shaded ballpoint-pen drawings of futuristic battles and his jangly, blinking installation "Have Yourself a Happy Little Robotmas" form the heart of the American Visionary Art Museum's 19th themed exhibit, "Human, Soul and Machine: The Coming Singularity," which opened Saturday and continues through August.
The works — such as robots cobbled together from kitchen utensils, evocative wood carvings from Virginia's coal country and insects whose spread wings reveal a glittering system of cogs and wheels — examine the relationship between humans and the technology we create.
Some pieces, such as those created by Neil Harbisson, the self-proclaimed "Eyeborg" who has a sensor implanted in his brain enabling him to perceive color, contemplate the blurred line between man and machine. Others, such as Portuguese-born Rigo 23's posters declaiming drones, warn of our increasing ability to use technology to kill with speed and precision. A fear that scientific advances will lead to dehumanization — that chips and bits will supplant flesh and bone and neuron — pervades the exhibit.
"For a long time, people said, 'Computers are great, but they're not human beings,'" said Rebecca Hoffberger, the museum's founder and director. Computers were unable to do the sort of higher-order thinking that we consider to be uniquely human. "But now, they can."
The exhibit opens with Chris Roberts-Antieau's "The Story of Invention," a wry retelling of the Greek myth of Prometheus, who was sentenced to have his liver pecked out by ravens each day to punish him for introducing humans to fire. In a series of line drawings, Roberts-Antieau points out the pitfalls of Prometheus' gift — bombs, pollution — as well as the myriad blessings.
It's a fitting introduction to the show, which attempts to chart the power of technology to affirm and expand the experience of life, but also to destroy. A board at the base of the museum's swirling staircase details Maryland's key role in the defense industry, as the home of the National Security Agency and the headquarters of many top defense contractors.
"There's so much creative technology already in place here," in the state, said Hoffberger. "If only it could be shifted to a positive energy, not a death energy."
Hoffberger points to Harbisson's art work as an example of technology enhancing the experience of being human.
Harbisson was born with achromatopsia, the rare condition of being unable to see any color, only shades of gray. A decade ago, Harbisson had a device implanted in his head that records colors and translates them to sound frequencies. A sensor, a sort of third eye floating on a stalk above his forehead, enables Harbisson to hear light frequencies, even ultraviolet and infrared light invisible to human eyes. Purples and blues make a deeper sound; oranges and reds are higher-pitched.
Using the device, Harbisson creates sound portraits, translating the shades of flesh into hums and wheezes. Songs can become paintings, like those included in this exhibit. Harbisson translates the dominant notes from musical compositions into a stack of bright squares that open into each other, creating a dizzying 3-D effect.
While it seems unlikely many of us will become the Bionic Woman or Six Million Dollar Man any time soon, Hoffberger points out that our addictive tic of checking our phones has nearly made them part of our bodies. Google and Facebook have taken over duties once assigned to our memories. The ability to quickly ping a friend through text now feels as natural as calling to someone across the street.
"You watch young people text more and more and talk less and less," said Hoffberger. "Perhaps that's why extraterrestrials have such small mouths."
While extraterrestrials appear in several works in the exhibit, most notably in Irwin's drawings, the works which resonate most are decidedly terrestrial.
A collection of busts sculpted from tree trunks by Fred J. Carter, a hardware store owner and handyman who lived in southwestern Virginia's coal country, are moving portrayals of his family, historical figures and, in his more figurative works, his emotions when facing the future. Carter, who died in 1992 at the age of 81, had his first biological child at the age of 72, when his second wife, many decades his junior, became pregnant.
Carter's bust of Albert Einstein frowns past the viewer, his eyes rheumy from a reddish glaze. Another carving, titled "Microchip Man," depicts a balding bureaucrat, lips set in faint smile. His skin appears to be covered in fine wrinkles due to the burled wood from which the bust is carved.
Equally moving are some of the tiniest works in the exhibit: Lindsey Bessanson's sculptures, created from insect carcasses and machine parts. The juxtaposition of glittering cogs and a butterfly's iridescent purple wings or a green-horned beetle's ridged claws is a pleasure to study. However, the works are easy to miss because they are hung on a striped wall behind a statue of the "Bride of Frankenstein." One piece is hung so high it is difficult to inspect. That's a shame, because Bessanson's work has as much or more to say about the exhibit's theme than some of the bolder pieces in the gallery.
Irwin's "Robotmas" stands in sharp contrast to the quiet delicacy of Bessanson's work. Since he was 12, Irwin has decorated his father's 2-acre property in Palm Springs, Calif. with a sprawling Christmas display that attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year. The portion displayed in the AVAM is a garish and somewhat macabre display that renders Hampden's Miracle on 34th Street a peaceful Zen garden in comparison.
In it, a goggle-eyed Mrs. Claus, a skull peeping from her pocket, beckons visitors. Ponies spin on top of machinery that resembles a tank, the entire piece painted Pepto-Bismol pink. Santa, his face composed of curds of melted plastic, rests on a bull fashioned from slot-machine parts. A line of beasts made from antlers and toilets parades beneath him, contained by a border of salmon-colored skulls. Bug-eyed nutcrackers — and some actual bugs, shellacked cockroaches — line the walls.
Irwin says the dark undertone to the work is meant, in part, to call attention to the commercialism of the holiday. "It generates an incredible amount of waste," he said.
Like Irwin, artist Allen Christian responds to our culture's materialistic and wasteful mentality by creating art from recycled materials. He used petal-shaped wooden piano hammers to sculpt the three busts that comprise his "Piano Family: Adagio, Amorosa and Bucky." His robot "Ajax" features a belly of whirring gears, a ticking clock on its chest and arms made from antique irons. A red light glows from its worried mouth.
Christian hopes his work will prod viewers to contemplate humanity's trajectory. "This is a world I don't want to live in," Christian said, referring to drone warfare and other deadly technologies. "How can I be part of something that will change where we are heading?"
If you go
"Human, Soul and Machine: The Coming Singularity" runs through Aug. 31, 2014 at the American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway. Admission is $9.95-$15.95. For details, go to avam.org or call 410-244-1900.