They loom large in the high-ceilinged studio of artist Geoffrey Smedley on Gambier Island — four metaphorical machines, created in a nearby workshop by Smedley’s own hand.
He’s milled the metal, cut the gears, turned and polished shiny tubes on a lathe, carefully crafted each complex machine. They are more than sculptures. They are built of aluminum or stainless steel, they move, causing interesting sounds, and they have electrical power passing through bundles of wires that operate lights and lasers.
Outside in the shaggy, forested courtyard of Smedley’s home that he shares with his artist wife Brigid, giant wooden crates have been discarded. They were necessary to return the machines from their recent exhibition, June to August, in Montreal at the Canadian Centre for Architecture.
“It was a well received show,” said Smedley modestly.
One Montreal Gazette critic noted that it was “one of the best and most mind-expanding exhibitions I’ve seen this year.”
It’s not Smedley’s first show. Throughout his stellar career, he has shown work around the world at many major galleries, including an important show at the Vancouver Art Gallery in the 1980s. He studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, was a professor at the University of British Columbia from 1978 to 1992 and lectures internationally.
Each of the four pieces has a name — or not so much a name as a concept. Escapement captures attention immediately since it tick tocks or pulses like a clock, and the movement of the gears is hypnotic. Time is a medieval concept, Smedley tells me. That simple comment is worth a day-long discussion in itself.
Another machine, Logos, is quiet now following its return to Gambier, but it usually involves laser light beams within a complex wooden structure. It is about memory, about remembering and forgetting.
Will is about chance, perhaps even a game of chance, and it looks not unlike a roulette wheel. It’s a good example of Smedley’s sense of humour that happily offsets his academic penchant.
In the long hallway that links Smedley’s studio with the living quarters resides Spine, the backbone of a person, and at its head, a representation of a brain. Smedley’s real brain is a rich and complex mine of information in which philosophy and mathematics blend harmoniously with art and comedy. In any one conversation around any of his works, Smedley might reference French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes or German philosopher and author Martin Heidegger.
“I make things to answer certain questions that float around in my head,” Smedley said.
Answers can come in a technical form to be translated into machines, or in a poetic or philosophical form. Humans are capable of all of these — perhaps all at the same time. And besides, the root of the word technical, techno, is Greek for art or skill, Smedley points out.
The scope of Smedley’s work is more thoroughly accessed in a recent publication that accompanied his exhibition. Dissections, a work written by Smedley with the assistance of a kind of avatar he refers to as the clown, or Descartes’ clown, has been published by Coast artist Diego Samper (Samper Ediciones). His respect for Smedley’s work shines through. The two met years ago after being introduced by another artist and Samper assisted with photography, documenting the growth of the machines.
“It’s a very important work, one of a kind,” Samper said.
The book will reach more people than an exhibition; they hope to launch it in Vancouver this fall, followed by an event on the Sunshine Coast.
The machines will likely not be at the event since it takes a lot of help from Smedley’s associates plus a crane truck to move them off the island, but their creator will be present. Perhaps that’s all that’s needed.