Dismantling the Machine

Alastair Noble's minimalist sculpture takes explosive poetry and makes it seem serene

Alastair Noble's sculptural installation at Joseph Gross Gallery is as serene as an Asian garden, its lighted paper forms elegantly arranged in the middle of a straw mat. Visitors are even invited to walk around it in their bare feet.

If you didn't know better, you might think the piece was part of the hoopla engendered by the visit of the Dalai Lama earlier this week. But you would be wrong. In a delicious irony, it turns out Noble's contemplative structures were inspired by a fiery young Italian poet who started an art revolution on the eve of World War I.

Futurism, F.T. Marinetti declared in 1909, would trash the complacent art of the past and liberate it from the "gangrene" grip of museums and professors and antiquarians. Writing in his self-styled "manifesto of tumbling and incendiary violence," Marinetti asserted, "We want to glorify war--the only cure for the world." Futurist artists would celebrate the brave new world of the machine in all its banging, clanging, violent splendor.

"We shall sing ... the nocturnal vibration of the arsenals ... the gluttonous railway stations swallowing smoky serpents," he wrote, "the factories hung from the clouds by the ribbons of their smoke; the bridges leaping like athletes ... the broad-chested locomotives ... and the gliding flight of airplanes whose propellers snap like a flag in the wind."

Poetry would no longer be the dainty stuff of the drawing room, but a noisy explosion, an avalanche of onomatopoeia. Nor would poets' made-up words be lined up in a series of tidy verses. Like the cubist painters who broke down Euclidean geometry, futurist poets would fracture text, hurling words every which way across the page, in a multitude of typefaces and colors.

Marinetti's poem "Zang Tumb Tumb," for instance, shot over the page like a warplane, its bombs scattering words everywhere. On the title page, the Italian words for "freedom in words" curved like an airplane's wings, and the made-up sound words "tuuumb" "tuuuum" and "tuuum" crisscrossed the wing's arc. The wreckage of words lay everywhere else.

Poetry has long informed the work of Noble, a contemporary English sculptor who now teaches at Pennsylvania's Lafayette College. For his site-specific installation at Joseph Gross, he's elaborated on Marinetti's poem, playing on a layout that the sculptor says represents "aeroplanes in flight and shockwaves of high explosives as seen in war."

Noble's "Zang Tumb Tumb II" takes up a whole room, the equivalent of Marinetti's page, magnified a thousand times. If Marinetti used his words visually to suggest planes and bombs and explosions, Noble morphs the words into 3-D figures. Each of the words translates into a glowing white-paper sculpture, the trapezoids arranged on the floor in the exact same layout as the words on the poem's title page. They're words made flesh, or at least made visible in paper and plastic.

The 26 sculptures are minimalist, and lovely. Picture a word grown tall, and solid, and sticking up from the page. Most of the pieces take the shape of a trapezoid, but across the top, a few swoop into curves instead of parallel lines. The three sculptures corresponding to the title words are the biggest--the two "tumbs" easily extend 10 feet across the floor. The tiniest pieces, representing the blasted bits, are the size of small lanterns.

The materials are simple. Noble has appropriately used paper, in a textured white, stretching it across nearly invisible plastic forms. Each is lit from within. Most of the lights are clear white, muted somewhat by the paper, but a couple glow in a sky blue, and few are a pale golden-green. The interplay of light and shadows around the structure becomes part of the composition. And though they may be inspired by words, these shapely forms also suggest significant architectural spaces, like ancient ruins or the interstices between tombs.

At the opening earlier this month, according to new gallery director Blake Shell, Italian speakers recited the Marinetti poem on audiotape. Their voices alternated between loud quick blasts of the made-up words "zang" and "tumb," and barely audible whispers. Noble himself read an English translation.

But the gallery is adjacent to university offices, and the cacophonous Italian voices had to be silenced after the opening. I wasn't there for the Italian performance, and it seems impossible to appreciate the sculpture fully without its accompanying sound.

Still, the silent work has virtues all its own. Marinetti's work might be about noise and war and energy, but Noble's installation provides a counterpoint of quiet and peace and stillness.

Scholars tells us that the savagery of World War I, made possible by powerful new warplanes, machine guns and artillery, helped temper the enthusiasm of at least some of the techno-loving futurists. With millions of bodies littering Europe--the war's death toll is variously estimated at 10 to 18 million--it was hard to maintain a radical faith in the machine.

In Noble's hands, the explosion of Marinetti's words has become a serene meditation garden--he even calls his artist's statement "A Meditation on War." It may not have been his intention, but in "Zang Tumb Tumb II," Noble has dismantled the war machine, and beaten its swords into plowshares.

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