New York-based artist Douglas Irving Repetto’s solo show at Marginal Utility poses a question so poignant, it begs direct quotation from the press release: “What will we fill our wild places with when wild things are gone?” Repetto’s answer comes in the form of a contraption that manufactures “nests” for a bleak future, where birds have either ceased to exist or simply realized that they could outsource the task. Can you blame them? Judging from Repetto’s elaborate machine, nest-building looks like a lot of work.
Forever Wild (Nest Machine) (2012) ranges through both rooms of the gallery, bisecting the center wall and pivoting from one angle to the next in a series of slim, motorized conveyor belts that ultimately lead to the nest. The construction process begins like this: A small magnet on a pulley makes a pass at clusters of screws and bolts resting in a trough on the floor. Slowly, the magnet migrates toward the conveyor belt and deposits its haul. Along the way to the nest, different baubles join the mix. Sticks, twigs, ribbons and feathers occasionally slip out from the mouths of two rotating Culligan water jugs to land on the stuttering conveyor belt. There are golden barrettes, googly eyes and glass beads (shiny things that birds might like), many of which crest the final conveyor belt and drop into the nest.
The nest itself is larger than the delicate dimensions of its trinkets might suggest. It rests on a platform that rotates in and out to casually control the range of deposited ingredients. Judicious spurts of colorful acrylic paint rain down from above to hold it all together. At this point in the exhibition, a sizable ridge has formed around the edge of the dais. It’s nest-like, but it could also be other things: a slow-dripping stalagmite, a crater or a goopy, lugubrious version of a spin painting— lugubrious because nest-building, as Repetto suggests, is not a strictly cheery endeavor. Any sense of straightforward productivity is undercut by subtle points of resistance built into the machine. For example, the patch-worked fabric of the conveyor belt is a hair too taut; it often bucks the materials it’s meant to convey. Or, the conveyor belt is perversely steep, meaning that beads roll backward, and glitter flutters to the floor. Nest-building turns out to be a Sisyphean task and—since there’re no birds on hand—it’s an approximate archeology anyway.
Forever Wild (Nest Machine) is the first in a series of kinetic sculptures in which Repetto plans to explore the idea of humans stumbling in to replace natural systems. Although it’s a new project, the idea hooks into some of Repetto’s long-time concerns. Past projects demonstrate a fascination with the potential of interactions between humans and machines. He has organized working groups with titles such as “Dorkbot: People doing strange things with electricity,” “ArtBots: The Robot Talent Show,” and “Organism: Making art with living systems.” His sculptures have often used subtle interventions on the part of the viewer, such as breathing or moving, in order to animate machines. Although Forever Wild is a closed system, it runs on a similar current: a whimsical, wistful sort of technology that muddles along in a series of missteps and adjustments that seem almost human.
As the little dolly hustles to collect materials, as the belt shuttles various bric-a-brac from one end of the assembly line to the other, and as those items that survive the journey plink onto the giant nest, I have to wonder: What sort of creature do we invoke when we build a thing like this? It’s the unspoken question that haunts Repetto’s dimly lit and softly whirring show. It’s also the question that’s responsible for the hard-nosed hint of sci-fi that laces this otherwise medieval machine: If we build it, will they come?
Through Jan. 20. Marginal Utility, 319 N. 11th St., 2nd floor. marginalutility.org