In 1834, William George Horner invented a circular device that, when given a whirl, appeared to give movement to the drawn figures on a paper strip inside. Originally named the "Daedalum" or "Wheel of the Devil," the invention was given the sunnier-sounding moniker of "Zoetrope" (Greek for "wheel of life") and patented in the United States in 1867 by William F. Lincoln.
The zoetrope, like flip books and movies, operates on the scientific principle of persistence of vision. The human brain holds an image for a fraction of a second longer than the eyes are actually seeing it. When you whirl a zoetrope, riffle through a flip book or hunker down for the standard 24-frames-a-second feature film, your brain doesn't register the black spaces or voids between images, which is what gives the image the illusion of movement.
Persistence of vision is also the principle behind the kinetic, mechanically animated sculptures of Brooklyn artist Greg Barsamian, whose exhibit "Art in Motion" opens at the MAC this week.
"These pieces are completely unique," says Jochen Wierich, curator of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture (MAC). "You don't have to have a background in art history to appreciate his work. It has a sort of very idiosyncratic form that... well, there's nothing else like it out there."
Barsamian, who has exhibited in Taiwan, Japan, Germany, France and all over the U.S., brings six new sculpture installations for this exhibit. The works inhabit a surreal mental landscape that is at once both disturbing and amusing. Using strobe lights, circular motion and a healthy knowledge of how persistence of vision works, Barsamian's forms become animated right before the viewer's eyes.
"Mother May I," an angry volcanic planet with green hands rising out of its charred surface, suggests the eternal skirmish between what we want and what we're allowed. The hands look caught in the act of eating some forbidden substance -- butter? Cake batter? -- and are posed in various gestures of pleading and acquiescence.
"Coprophagia" plays with the notion of gallery space with its diorama construction, black-and-white tiled floor, olive green walls and important framed works. There is something morgue-like about it, and it perches on a metal structure, where it can spin zoetrope-like.
One of the wildest pieces is "Scream," a nightmarish self-portrait, in which a yowling head has lips that appear to expand and fold back to encompass the entire head in a rubbery pink mass.
This fascinating interplay of mechanics and the dark reaches of psychology happened as an inspired accident, says Wierich.
"This work comes out of a culture a lot of viewers are already familiar with," he says. "Barsamian calls himself a 'motorhead.' He grew up in the suburbs of Chicago tinkering with cars and playing with engines, like so many kids do. At the same time, he took some classes in philosophy, and these two things came together. He found a way to express this interest in both mechanics and ideas in an art form. It's a motorhead's dream, really, this work that comes from an imagination gone wild."
For those who enjoyed the Jack Dollhausen exhibit earlier this year, "Art in Motion" is a similar kind of show.
"This show was wildly successful in Boise," says Wierich. "We thought it would do well here in Spokane. And also, we had the Dollhausen show, which was very successful. It was another 'art in motion' sort of show, and these two are definitely companion exhibits."
Most reviews and essays about Barsamian's work evoke the language and metaphors of dreaming. But his pieces prove to be much more complex than that, almost like what would have happened had Freud worked in the auto factories of Detroit and had spare time after hours to fiddle around in his shop.
"There's something mesmerizing about it. You hear these stories about visitors who have just become hooked and stand there, looking at these things for a very long time," says Wierich. "I think of them as being in that strange stage between not only dreaming and waking, but also between oblivion, where you're not aware of anything around you, and being completely absorbed."