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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Getting to know the artist behind the machine

Ten pairs of long, thin, cone shaped inflated structures silently flap in the mostly darkened room. The only major light source in the room comes from the small, circular lights on the bottom of each of the pairs of inflated cones. The white fabric that makes up the cones shines slightly as they slowly bend and unbend in unison, like a flock of geese making their yearly winter trip south. Located within the Nelson Gallery, which is located next to the Wyatt Theatre, Birds: A Kinetic Installation is an inimitable art piece, captivating its viewers instantaneously.

Chico MacMurtrie is the New York based artist and self-taught engineer behind Birds. MacMurtie has been creating robotic art performances and installations for nearly two decades. In addition, he has won copious awards for his innovative use of using machinery, which he specially designs to spotlight the natural world.

“I’ve been building sculptures like these for about 25 years,” MacMurtrie said in a phone interview.

It was around 2007-08 when MacMurtrie was in Adelaide, Australia that the idea for the Birds installation sprung from the image of Murray River that he was flying over at the moment. Sitting in the airplane, MacMurtrie felt like a bird flying over the river and felt an enormous connection. He immediately set to work and in the span of 10 days with the help of 10 workers, he had created the first version of the Birds piece. The first version of Birds toured the world; to places like China, Australia, Spain and so many different places that MacMurtrie has lost track of them all. However, the exhibit was recently showcased at UC Irvine.

It was for the Vida festival in Madrid, Spain in 2009 that the second version of Birds was commissioned. And it is this version that is currently being displayed in the Nelson. There isn’t too much difference with the two. They are still made of the same materials but the one currently on display has heat sensors.

“The fabric for the wings is a high tensile fabric, which is developed for wind sailing and can handle large forces of air. It looks like paper but isn’t – it can crumple for a long time and not break off, which is a lot better than paper,” MacMurtrie said. “It has special hard glue and a rolling press was used to harden the glue. I developed all of the techniques to assemble it in the Amorphic Robot workshop in Brooklyn. Many tools had to be custom made to create it.”

MacMurtrie added the heat sensors to the second version so that the viewers could see how their presence affected the “birds” rate of bending and unbending. He sees the new addition as a metaphor for how humans often invade natural life, often unconsciously and creating havoc. With Birds, one can not only see but also feel how their mere attendance can influence the mechanical creatures.

“I want viewers to feel as if something was unfolding. I wanted them to feel like they were experiencing the coming to life as well as the loss of life,” MacMurtrie said. “It’s meant to be mysterious.”

He advised future viewers to give the performance 15 minutes to truly experience what Birds is meant to convey. It’s similar to bird watching; get too close and the birds begin to get nervous and flutter away. But, stay hidden away within the bushes and the birds in their natural environment as well as state will always be far more entertaining than an action film any day of the week.

The exhibit will be ending on Dec. 11, 2011 so drop by for some bird watching while you still can. For more information on MacMurtrie’s work and how many mileage points the Birds have accumulated throughout the years, visit amorphicrobotworks.org.

MICHELLE RUAN can be reached at arts@theaggie.org.

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