Machine in the Garden

“The machine in the garden”, Land-Scope, Artspace, Sydney,1993, pp 1-4.

The Machine in the Garden
Simeon Nelson’s Land-scope

The clash of the idyllic world of nature against the intrusive force of human invention has been well rehearsed. Since ancient times its many forms have recurred throughout art, literature and culture in general, pitching the harmonious Arcadian universe against the grating march of technological progress. Harsh technics cut deep into the soft underbelly of the organism: ever-quickening, the menacing city gains ground on the unprotected wilderness. Such is the pastoral myth that informs our naïve dreams of peace and solitude in the bosom of some pre-symbolic organic universe.

Civilisation’s fears increase in proportion to the growth of artifice. If not exactly heeding the cries of nature, at least the arts and architecture of pre-industrial time agreed to stay put. The machines of the industrial and post-industrial eras, however, have loosed themselves from the earth, venturing out beyond their earlier domains, now criss-crossing the landscape. The architecture of the metropolis extends itself out through communication veins and tendrils railways, roadways, flightpaths, broadcast channels, telephone networks and satellite footprints guarantee the delivery of the new artificial life-blood to the outer zone: No longer the paradisiacal refuge from the chaos of cities and humankind, the garden accommodates the machine, reluctantly granting it safe passage, incorporating its nature into the culture of the wild.

Historically speaking, the garden has always been a way of organising nature according to our own interior motives. From its untrammelled Edenic origins through its geometric formalisation (in Europe and the East), the arranged space of the garden is simultaneously place, action and idea. To this day the taming of its wilderness is achieved not so much through material interventions, as by the power of spatial, sensual and visual manipulation of our corporeal experience, set in relation to the nature of the rest of organic life.

In rearticulating some of the more familiar oppositions of nature and artifice, Simeon Nelson presents us with a potent dialogue between the mechanistic principles of our age and the pastoral ideals of antiquity. His Land-Scope diverts our attention away from a romance of environment, and directs us instead towards the manner in which our own views (scope) define the environment (land). The rudimentary geometric elements “the circle and the cross” intersect in three-dimensional architectural form. They remind us of the Renaissance revival of the Vitruvian symbol (by no means excluding the organic or biological worldview) which intended to show how the mathematical proportion of the circle and the square ultimately reflects the proportion of the human figure. The iconic symbols of (divine) unity are rendered as machined parts, a rusting prison that rises defiantly” or stands against all odds (we do not know which) “out of a swamp-like soup. Here, the human scale of the church/building is tight, fitting the frame of the person, matching their scale. Art imitates the forms and processes of nature, the engineer is the artist’s teacher. According to Aristotle, art (techne) in a sense completes what nature is unable to finish, and in a sense imitates nature.

Nelson taps into the stream of thought that has (in the Aristotelian tradition) seen technology as a continuity of nature. Neither the absolute origin of all things, nor entirely fashioned in our own image, nature is to be found at the point where our perception intersects with the sensual world of growth, flux and disorder. The artist sees the organism as machine, and the machine as a vital organism. Indeed, following this line of thought into the Middle Ages and Renaissance through to the twentieth century, the artist intuits that nature not only appears to function like the machines of our own making, but that our machines are also modelled on the organic forms observed in nature and the laboratory alike.

The origins of metallurgy are particularly resonant in Nelson’s welded structures. Founding their practice in the magical belief that minerals and metals contain some kind of vital living force, the first metallurgists saw alloying as an acceleration of the natural organic process the metals would have gone through had they been left in the ground.

During the sixteenth century, the popularity of mechanical water gardens spread throughout much of Europe, further enlivening the close connections between technology, magic and organicism. Invoking the science (at first thought to be magic) of magnetism, Nelson’s cruciform construction sits due magnetic north, as if held there by the very forces it seeks to enervate.

The artist knows well the futility of either building machines to conquer the organism or, inversely, of hailing nature as an untouched paradise to which we might escape from our civilised nightmares. As we head ever closer towards the twenty-first century, the blurring of distinctions between the technological and organic worlds continues” to our benefit or to our peril? In this exhibition we find this perennial dialectic urgently restaged within an avowedly Euclidean framework. Yet in this structure we discover the fractional dimension of nature, the artificiality of life, and the sciences of complex dynamical systems (at once organism and technology) converging in this new machine-nature that explores our fundamental liminal states, the most basic conditions of our synthetic and permeative existence.

Ross Rudesch Harley