At Berlin’s Zilberman Gallery, reflections on the power asserted by technological progress: can anyone make it stop?
A repetitive creak pierces the air. A nuisance – a malfunctioning thing in one of the rooms – dictates our movement through the gallery space, as though asking to be checked. With this tyrannical screech and chirr, visitors to Pedro Gómez-Egaña’s first exhibition at Zilberman, ‘The Common Ancestor’, are lured into a large Berliner Zimmer: an awkward, albeit spacious, room found in many belle-époque Berlin apartments that receives the least amount of sunlight and whose smallish back door once led to the servants’ quarters. There, a large wooden chariot spins slowly; the bulky automaton’s cogwheels and wooden rivets grind themselves down. The work, titled The Chariot of Greenwich (2013), is based on the south-pointing chariot: a mythical Chinese invention, allegedly from 2600 BCE, whose compass was fitted with a small figure that would always point south. There is no historical evidence of the machine’s engineering; it is also contested whether or not magnetism had been discovered in ancient China. And so, in the 20th century, the British engineer George Lanchester decided to reverse-engineer the storied device to prove that the secret to how it functioned was not magnetism but, in fact, a differential gear. He presented his version – which is now the chariot’s official design and can be seen in the Science Museum in London – at London’s China Society in 1947.
Gómez-Egaña reads out Lanchester’s lecture in a video, titled Lecture delivered to the China Society on The Yellow Emperor's South Pointing Chariot, by George Lanchester, 1947 (2018) that is installed in another room. It shows the artist sitting at a desk as he plainly repeats the engineer’s demonstration while sketching the chariot’s gears. Installed next to it, an almost identical video shows the artist doing the same with a different text. This piece is titled Report of the Chairman of the Committee on Standard Time, HG Wood, 1884 (2018), after a lecture presented that year at a conference in Washington, D.C., during which Greenwich was determined as the prime meridian from which to calculate longitude and the universal day – as the artist writes in the exhibition’s catalogue, ‘a kind of 19th-century version of the south-pointing chariot.’
Mechanics and time are recurring themes for the Colombia-born artist, who also trained as a composer. In the works installed in the middle room – connecting the spaces with the chariot and the video installations – his performative background comes through as well. A series of sculptural works arranged on a large, rectangular, stage-like pedestal make up the most evocative part of the exhibition. In First Geometries (2018), the index fingers of assorted men’s right-hand leather gloves fitted with a hidden motor move and point in the air. A negative to this piece is First Topographies (2018), in which clay fingers with black-painted nails are suspended in mid-air with strings and magnets as they point down, seemingly mocking the determination of their very gesture. In each of the two videos in the adjacent room, the artist draws a sketch of the calculations discussed, then cuts and arranges it into a three-dimensional paper object using neodymium magnets; the paper sculptures are presented here, as is an excerpt from Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907), printed on two folded sheets of paper affixed to the wall with magnets. The novel is loosely based on the real attempt to bomb the Greenwich observatory in 1894. Was it an anarchist undertaking to destroy the symbol of power and control? To erase the imaginary line of standardization from which the globe is divided into plus and minus?
With the incessant, gnawing wail of the rotating apparatus, the titular common ancestor reveals itself: a hunger for power, asserted by means of technological progress, domination that imposes norms and the instability of such constructs. Can anyone make it stop?
Pedro Gómez-Egaña: ‘The Common Ancestor’ was on view at Zilberman Gallery, Berlin from 27 April - 30 July 2018.
Main image: Pedro Gómez-Egaña, The Chariot of Greenwich (detail), 2013, wood, pendulum, electronic battery, rope, carabiners, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist and Zilberman Gallery, Berlin/Istanbul