As any fan of Robocop or Blade Runner will gladly explain in an overlong lecture, the robot’s immense power derives as much from its mechanical musculature as from its challenge to the thick line between human and machine. Current exhibitions in Chelsea by Nathaniel Mellor (work seen at right) and Nicolas Darrot hone in on the robot’s capacity to unsettle viewers, although they take this strength in opposite directions.
In British artist Nathaniel Mellor’s exhibition Giantbum at Lombard-Freid Projects, three mechanical heads confront visitors at the gallery entrance with nearly incomprehensible chants, their synthetic features cast from the face of the ensuing video work’s lead actor. The three heads become the chorus in Mellor’s macabre myth — inspired by Francois Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel (1953-64) — about a leader who devolves to cannibalism and the followers left confused by their abandonment.
Mellor's narrative unfolds over a series of video projections behind the three heads, and its jarring aesthetic and legend evoke at once the stripped settings of Samuel Beckett, the power plays of a Shakespearian political tragedies, the absurd humor of Monty Python and the disturbing grotesques of David Lynch. In the end, the expressionless machine aesthetic of Mellor’s three heads heightens the video works’ sinewy creep-factor.
If Mellor seems concerned with mythic origin narratives, Nicolas Darrot’s Fuzzy Logic at Cueto Project addresses an imagined future where humans impart animals with their most inane thoughts and feelings. Though some of his complex miniatures seemed to be suffering from technical difficulties when I visited, those working properly provided more than enough fodder for discussion.
From a green parakeet hooked up to a fresh brain and spouting nonsense about her caged confines, to a pair of skeletal animals (like the one at left) discussing the film they’re producing, Darrot has a way of casting fantasy characters into familiar narratives that recalls Italo Calvino. Whether these are hypothetical visions of a post-nature cyborg species, or fables of human morality displaced onto animal actors, Darrot’s work fascinates long after the spectacle of its construction has worn off.
The lingering mood created by each exhibition is markedly different. Darrot deploys the kind of bumbling charms that Woody Allen once traded in, eliciting a fondness for his flawed robots who are really us, of course. Mellor, meanwhile, strikes a decidedly more pessimistic chord. His narrative of disastrous leadership and self-consumption belies a familiar distrust of traditional systems of authority. More interestingly, though, his monstrous take on our accelerating cycles of recuperative consumption — call it cultural cannibalism — suggests a society spiraling inwards into a self-annihilating void. On the plus side, Darrot and especially Mellor prove that old robots can tell new stories.