FIT TO BE TIED. In Latin, the phrase deus ex machina literally means "a god from a machine." But it has come to refer to any entity--deity, person or object--that appears suddenly or unexpectedly and provides a contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty.

In order to make sense of life and death--and everything that happens in between--multi-media artist Wendy Calman is in the process of building her newest interactive, kinetic, gismo-laden work with its own embedded mechanical surprise. She calls it Ties.

"It's about the life I'm living now--my dad's death, my travels to Asia, relationships I've had with collaborators, students, my husband," the artist explains.

"But it's also about history and art and numerology and religion and machinery and how people move."

Calman's no stranger to complex work--both in theme and in structure. She collects things--ideas, words, rivets, sea shells, fabric--and out of the disparate jumble makes art that invites the viewer to touch it, trigger it, respond to it. In many instances, a piece will sit unmoving until someone touches or walks past it.

"Like those old exhibits at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia," explains Calman of the early generation of science museums. Ben Franklin seems to be one of Calman's muses and the impetus for a lot of her work.

"Franklin gave me license to experiment wildly. He was a Renaissance man who tackled everything with wit," she says.

Trained as an art educator and printmaker in the late '60s in Philadelphia, the New Yorker rambled through the deep South in the'70s before she landed her current position in the printmaking department at Indiana University. But it was in Tennessee that Western religion as a theme started to find its way into her work.

"So on my 40th birthday, I figured it was time to get a sense of non-Western religion. I traveled to Asia where I thought I was going to focus on China. But Tibet just blew me away. The place is complex and interesting and beautiful. I told myself, 'If religion is important in my work, then this religion is really important.'"

She saw something at the Tibetan Palace that looked like men's ties. It was actually the banner that is held over revered people's heads. And that, says Calman, was the seed for her newest work that's been in process since 1997.

"When my dad died in '91, my mother asked if there was anything of his I wanted. I took his ties. The memory of all those birthday gifts meant something to me."

In its current state, Ties stands 14 feet high by 14 feet wide. There's a brass, double lotus that Calman made. Each petal is treated chemically to look like stone. Inside the lotus is a pool of water with floating images of clouds. It's a visual link to the guiding metaphor of the piece, Borobudur, which is the ancient Buddhist monument so large that at either its pinnacle or its base, there's the illusion that you're floating among the clouds.

"Some of the mechanics of the piece will be concealed beneath a shroud of sorts--fabric that I got from India--that's used to wrap the corpse before it's placed on the funeral pyre," Calman explains.

And then she'll hand over the work to her audience.

"When you circumambulate one time, the piece will move. Those ties--nearly all 108 of them--will start to rise up randomly to a tune. It's a cadence that may only be recognized by a certain generation. Whoever listens to it will, I hope, sense the incongruity of all this."

Viewers will also hear the racket of all that machinery and see many of the hand-made rivets and bolts and screws as Calman finds them visually and sonically beautiful. Nine ties will return to their resting spot and the deus ex machina will reveal its wisdom. Maybe it'll even offer a solution to all of our struggles with life and death.

"My biggest fear is that people won't stand through the whole thing," says Calman of her work-in-progress. Even as we talk, she's changing some of its specs. And putting it together, she explains, is an enormous task that she's been undertaking for six years with a now-retired researcher at her university's psychology department.

"John Waltke, my long-time engineer, has built all kinds of contraptions for rats in space. Without him, I couldn't produce my work as I haven't the foggiest notion of how to use a lathe," admits Calman, who spends much of her time visualizing.

"With my work, we go through so many steps, making and re-making parts of it, testing to see and hear if the piece will move when it's supposed to."

Quite adamantly, she adds, "I'm not cutting up Pop's ties and then have it be wrong."

Instead, Calman practices on hundreds of ties she's picked up at Goodwill Stores.

So what's this piece about that people will walk around and see and hear and trigger?

"Things aren't always what they seem," offers Calman as some sort of explanation.

Wendy Calman talks about her work on Thursday, June 26, at 6:30 p.m., part of UA's Summerfest series. Her lecture takes place in the Art Building, Room 119, located in the Fine Arts courtyard east of Speedway Boulevard and Park Avenue. Free parking is available in all Zone 1 lots and at meters after 5 p.m. Call 621-7000 for details.

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