Interview: Into the 5th Dimension with Reuben Margolin

by Brian Howe on October 25, 2011

"Connected" (photo: Jeff Busby)

On Friday, October 28, something for which there is no precise name takes place at Reynolds Theater. A collaboration by Australian choreographer Gideon Obarzanek—his final piece for the company he founded a decade ago, Chunky Move—and Californian “kinetic sculptor” Reuben Margolin, Connected creates a new frame of reference. Onstage, dancers build a large, hanging Margolin sculpture from many small parts, gradually attaching themselves to it. It’s a piece that resets, on its own terms, the usual borders between construction and performance, dance and sculpture, human and machine.

Kinetic sculpture is not a new idea—you could argue that Duchamp minted it and the readymade simultaneously with “Bicycle Wheel”—but almost nobody else does it with the vision and clarity of Margolin. His studies in mathematics and figurative art combine to produce motor-driven sculptures that are all medium and no message. The physical artifacts exist only to make energy patterns and waves visible. They zero in on the sublime, unconscious purity at the nexus of nature and math—the whorls of water, or the ripple of a caterpillar.

Yesterday, we reached Margolin by phone to learn how Connected evolved from “a moderate amount of string and a few sticks” to a worldwide touring production—and get his thoughts on his strongest contemporary in modern kinetic art.

The Thread: Have you ever worked in a collaborative or theatrical context before?

Reuben Margolin (photo: Kris Krüg)

Reuben Margolin: No, Connected is a very different endeavor for me. I’ve worked on some collaborations making large-scale, pedal-powered vehicles, but this is the first time I’ve worked with a choreographer or done anything that was destined to be onstage.

How did you come to work with Gideon Obarzanek?

I met Gideon in 2009 at PopTech. We were talking about our work, so I was talking about waves and he was talking about dance. I thought his work was visually stunning and also really rich in meaning. He was offering a view of the world that I kind of get glimpses of now and then, and he was able to extend that view for the duration of a show, and it was just spectacular. I actually just went up to him and suggested we work together, but to be honest, I was thinking more like a weekend collaboration involving a moderate amount of string and a few sticks. He just kept pushing the vision bigger in scope.

You mentioned that Obarzanek’s work is “rich with meaning.” Is there a lot of meaning in your own work, or did you find in this collaboration that it could be more of an appendage to what you do?

Yeah, I don’t actually worry much about meaning at all. I feel it out from more of a gut and aesthetic level. I’m trying to feel out something that interests me in the world, that I want to investigate, that is going to be fun to make, and that other people might enjoy. But I don’t worry about what it means. With Connected, I sort of began to feel that my job was to make my sculpture something like an instrument, with a lot of creative potential, that Gideon would learn how to play. And he did.

How collaborative was it? Did you build it to his specs or did you have more input on the sculpture?

There’s a Pacific Ocean between us, which is rather formidable. But [after we first talked], Gideon was touring through California and stopped in my shop, and we tried a couple different experiments, tying strings onto him. It was interesting, and he came by again a few months later; I had another rig set up and we tied that on. At that point I started to understand more what parts of the human body are continuous—that I could tie a line of string across the arms or legs and it would get continual movement. Gideon wanted something that could be built onstage, so I made things with magnetic connections that could easily click together. He also wanted the ability to have a motor, as well as just the dancers, connected, that seemed like a good idea to me.

Gideon Obarzanek

As I worked on the sculpture, he was working on choreography independently in Australia. So when I went to Melbourne, he already had some things worked out, but added a lot after learning what the sculpture could and couldn’t do. I didn’t know anything about theater at first—how big it should be, how I was going to rig it, what sort of options would give him expressive potential—but ultimately, the sculpture is something I worked out and the dance is something he worked out.

Did you learn anything about your own work, seeing it in this new context?

One thing it made think of was how people say space has three dimensions, and I get that—you can go forward or backward or left or right or up or down. And they say that time is the fourth dimension, and I kind of get that—it’s kind of stretching, but yeah, it might be another dimension. In that context, you could say kinetic sculpture has four dimensions, because it’s a three-dimensional object that moves in time. But I felt, watching Connected, that the fifth dimension could be described as human vitality, human dynamic and life, the human meaning that we give to something and that the dancers invest in the performance.

When you saw your sculpture interacting with dancers, did the dancers seem more like machines, or the machines more like dancers?

That’s a good question. I feel like the sculpture feels more alive, that the life is the bigger force in the machine.

It’s easy to see your mathematics background in your work—but do you still draw on your painting background?

Yeah, very much. I spent a couple years doing a lot of figure drawing and portrait painting, which teaches you to see. We think we see things, but then we try to draw them and find out we’re not actually seeing what’s there at all. So it trains your eye to see what’s actually there. You respond on an emotional level to a drawing—does it look right? It’s an emotional reaction to mass and proportion and shade and volume. To get something to look right is very much an intuitive thing, and I think I do rely for it on having studied the human figure.

You probably know of Theo Jansen, who makes kinetic sculptures he calls “Strandbeests.” Can you talk about the similarities and differences between your work and his?

Theo Jansen

He’s one of my favorite artists. I think his work is absolutely beautiful and I have no idea how he makes it work. They’re alive; they’re beautiful creations. It sort of makes me want to do things that are less permanent. It just seems really freeing to work on sculpture like that. They work and I don’t know how—it’s magical—but he’s not demanding that they work day in, day out. It’s a trade-off, and I think it’s a smart move.

Do you know him personally?

I’ve not met him, but he’d be one of the people I’d most like to meet in the world.

***

Hear that, Mr. Jansen? That’s a collaboration we at The Thread would do just about anything to see. In the meantime, Connected comes to Reynolds Theater on October 28—but that’s not all. Today begins a week-long series of diverse Chunky Move residency events, including a conversation between Obarzanek and Margolin on Wednesday, October 26. For a full schedule of events, click here, and check out a couple cool videos featuring Connected and Margolin below.

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