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Scott McMahon's art in motion

How historical photography inspires moving sculptures

March 6, 2014 | 12:00 a.m. CST

The mechanism that spins the music box’s metal cylinder has given out. To get the box playing its usual tune, Scott McMahon manually controls the apparatus in his kinetic sculpture “Lukewarm Regret” at PS Gallery. “It’s been hard finding one that plays the same song,” he says.

All of his pieces incorporate a movable element that make his sculptures, by definition, kinetic. “Lukewarm Regret” is just one of the many pieces creating a symphony of odd noises in the gallery.

McMahon’s “Lukewarm Regret,” inspired by a line from a poem, is one of the kinetic sculptures on exhibit at PS Gallery. Photo by Scott McMahon

McMahon’s art will be shown as part of the 2014 Late Winter Exhibit until March 22. In the exhibit, he uses found objects, old photography equipment and projector motors that he turns into machines with a video, audio or photo component.

“They’re whimsical,” McMahon says. “There’s a lightheartedness but also a level of seriousness.”

With “Lukewarm Regret,” a piano hammer attaches to a slow-turning motor. As the hammer completes a turn, it strikes the pendulum of a metronome, which then swings rhythmically. The two objects move together inside an old wooden box that supports a tarnished horn where the music box is attached. On one end of the box is a car jack crank and on the other, an antique doorbell.

McMahon often relies on scrap items that he’s come across or received to make his creations. A graphic design firm provided the camera bellows that he used for his pieces “Measure of Decay” and “Sensorium.”

Because McMahon’s kinetic sculptures are made of older parts, they are susceptible to wear. McMahon regularly goes to the gallery to check on the mechanical components, replace broken parts and make sure each piece continues to run.

The upkeep means the sculptures rarely stay exactly the same between two showings.

With “Lukewarm Regret,” the broken music box means McMahon has to use a different melody until the new music boxes from China arrive.

McMahon’s interest in 19th-century photography began while he was pursuing a degree from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

During an internship at the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England), he spent time sorting historic photographs. The experience uncovered his interest in the field, which he often explores with long-time college friend Ahmed Salvador.

The two work on projects such as the “Bioluminescent Series” that began in 1995. Fireflies inhabit a jar or box filled with grass, twigs, other ground materials and color transparency film. When the fireflies illuminate, the film is exposed and creates a photograph of the objects and fireflies inside.

Part of the “Letters Project,” this photo shows the result of film being exposed as it’s mailed from one person to another. Photo by Scott McMahon and Ahmed Salvador

In 1996, the two artists began the “Letters Project” by mailing each other blank film or photographic paper placed inside of a bag that’s been pierced, cut or poked. “It exposes the images as it moved back and forth,” Salvador says. “It was a very tangible way of seeing the direct process of us collaborating.”

McMahon’s photographic roots continue to influence his more contemporary works. His kinetic sculptures incorporate photographs of himself and other found images.

“Most of the figures have a human presence in them,” McMahon says. “I’m interested in the ephemeral aspect of photography. I want to show the passing of time.” The profile photograph projected through his piece “Transitory Portrait” turns an image of an old man upside down.

Whether it be using car jack cranks or donated camera bellows, McMahon’s mission is simple: give antiquities new life in the form of artistic expression — something that will never get old to him.

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