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by Elisabeth Kley
|Paul Etienne Lincoln, "The World and Its Inhabitants," Mar. 11-Apr. 22, 2000, at Christine Burgin, 243 West 18th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.
Paul Etienne Lincoln, "Ignisfatuus," Mar. 11-Apr. 15, 2000, at Alexander and Bonin, 132 Tenth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10011.
A knack for inventing machinery is rarely poetic, but ethereal nuts and bolts come easily to Paul Etienne Lincoln, an erudite English artist whose work brings to mind a high-tech encounter between Rube Goldberg and Marcel Proust set in what often resembles the outlandish realm of Victorian-era parlor science.
Lincoln's complex projects involve years of meticulous research and planning, and involve performances upon obsessively poignant, custom-made contraptions. His aim, to all appearances, is to stimulate memory through bizarre epiphanies that encompass the senses of hearing, taste and smell.
Lincoln's career as a mechanical man began at the age of seven with the building of a tape recorder. As a teenager, he began construction of an automobile powered by linseed oil and nitrous oxide, with bodywork of silk. That turned out to be a ten-year project.
Another major work, dubbed In Tribute to Madame de Pompadour and the Court of Louis XV, is a machine recreating the celebrated 18th-century cultural diva's hyacinth perfume with the aid of bees and snails. It was begun in 1983 when Lincoln was a student at London's Royal College of Art. In 1991, six years after its only two performances (in 1984 and 1985) and five years after Lincoln moved to New York, the Pompadour mechanism was exhibited at the SoHo gallery of Christine Burgin.
Lincoln didn't show again in New York until last month, although his work is frequently seen in Europe. His gotham exhibitions include a large installation at Alexander and Bonin that closed last week and a group of smaller objects at Christine Burgin's new space in Chelsea. Also on view, in "Greater New York" at P.S. 1, are portions of New York, New York, a two-machine invention in which one machine plays Stars and Stripes Forever on car horns while the other creates frozen money out of ice.
At Christine Burgin, Lincoln is showing mechanical characters made for The World and Its Inhabitants, a series of performances that since 1981 have been done as a show at dinners for friends. In his Ringmaster disguise -- the red tails, high button boots and top hat on display in a glass case -- Lincoln sets each tiny mechanism into motion for its allotted three minutes of life, in a spectacle resembling Alexander Calder's circus redone by the Marquis de Sade. Resting on pedestals scattered across the gallery walls, their needle-like limbs, reminiscent of Dali's attenuated Surrealist figures, protrude out of torsos made from the innards of various little machines.
A specific character, object or idea is personified in each, and a witty and elegantly written set of cards available at the gallery provides historical background and details of operational mechanics. Subjects range from historical figures like the explorer Mungo Park, who sits atop a dull silver globe, crowned by an antique slide disc showing views of the Pyramids and Sphinx, to whimsical constructions like Rosette de Lyon, a "gustatory stimulator" named after (and including a slice of) an extraordinary salami from France.
The tiny performances often involve actions culminating in brief climactic transformations. Behind her back, for example, Selesius (named for a spirit of the wind) raised a small wire globe containing a crumpled piece of silk. This movement ended with the flash of a tiny lightbulb, revealing a description of Etienne Le Hongre's marble statue of air, written in perfume on the silk. Thus, a paradoxical materialization of the invisible (air) momentarily came to life.
Ignisfatuus, the large installation seen at Alexander and Bonin, was originally created in 1996 for a Victorian garden conservatory in Druid Hill Park, Baltimore, and was sponsored by the city's Contemporary Museum. Its title, which translates as "foolish fire," is a medieval Latin phrase for the floating light sometimes seen burning over swamps at night. The installation was controlled by a timer adjusted to the 29-day lunar cycle that set into very slow motion a process in which the moon, inspired by the voice of Rosa Ponselle, the legendary soprano, ostensibly caused a trio of cast resin organs -- heart, lungs and brain -- to emit a mysterious phosphorescent purple glow.
The activity in Baltimore took place over three lunar cycles, from April 3 to June 2, 1996. Each night, lit by the moon, a phonograph named after Ponselle played a selection from the late soprano's repertoire, as one of three glass vials capped with shiny new pumps slowly came down from a winch below a skylight, reaching bottom at the end of the lunar cycle. Each of the vials contained a roll of mylar, upon which the score of an aria was silkscreened in water-soluble purple phosphorescent ink. As the vial descended, it filled with purified water sucked up by the pump through the tentacles of clear plastic tubing coming up from a large glass reservoir on the ground.
The moon grew, the music dissolved and Ponselle's voice grew stronger. At full moon, nitrous oxide propelled the music-permeated water through a round glass bottle topped with a tangle of glass tubing and electrical wire, setting off a sensor that caused the water to emit a fluorescent glow. When water then entered one of three bell jars, each containing a fragile organ cast from clear polyester resin, another sensor set off an ultraviolet light, and (as the artist put it) the organ bloomed.
At Alexander and Bonin, the installation rested upon a network of circles and paths drawn on the floor with a layer of soil. The configuration is reminiscent of a formal garden, and runs from the central gallery to the back room. Over a loudspeaker, the antique sound of operas featuring Ponselle could be heard. A narrow ribbon of soil stretched from the phonograph to the back room, where the rest of the machine was assembled under a skylight. On either side of the door, two large cibachromes showed the organs at the actual instant of purple glow, never to happen again.
Ignisfatuus was saturated with lavender moonlight and voices from the past, yet the installation was as pristinely clinical as a hospital. Tubes running from organs to machines created a kind of unearthly artificial body with its own ethereal circulatory and digestive processes. But the complex machinery is now defunct, denying us the pleasure of actually seeing it work. Like a mad scientist specializing in memory and loss, Lincoln invents the mechanics of momentary transformation through experiments that only live on in thought.
ELIZABETH KLEY is a New York artist and writer.