In the 1920s, cartoonist Rube Goldberg responded to the anxieties of the machine age by creating ridiculously complicated "machines" that, with great expenditures of energy, performed some mundane task like emptying the ashtray or ridding the hallway closet of moths.
The hilarious thing about these contraptions was the wacky, convoluted physics that drove them. Impossible systems of pulleys and weights would act on rigged triggers or pull away some supporting platform that would, in turn, set off a chain reaction involving everything from exploding inner tubes to squawking ducks.
Lisa Hein's flapping, whirling and gurgling assemblages are an update on machine anxiety in the computer age. It's not that the machine can still be viewed as a threat to a way of life predicated on simpler forms of human interaction. That's a done deal. The machine is a triumphal fact of contemporary life. If we talk about human values nowadays, we're talking machine-laden humans who are working out these values.
Hein's dialogue with the machine is something of a reversal of Goldberg's. Goldberg had it that the machine invasion was irrational, rendering human life absurd (and laughable). His machines could never work and served only trivial purposes.
On the other hand, Hein's machines work perfectly. They are rationally constructed and adhere strictly to physical laws. For example, the intriguing "Half-suck" -- a duct with a fan and two interactive flaps -- is a perfect self-regulating machine.
Or "Guston's Eyeball," to take another example, is a deceptively simple machine made up of an opened-up dual fan over which a hooded light bulb swings. The whole ensemble appears crudely rigged out, with buckets holding up the splayed fan and electrical cords leading off in two directions.
But the rough looks obscure the accurate physics. Hein has ingeniously designed the air flow so that the bulb continuously swings in an oval path over the fan. The title refers to the painter Philip Guston, who in his last years made a number of paintings that show a cartoonish bloodshot eye staring upward at a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling. Like Guston's powerful image, there's something slightly foreboding, if not desperate, about Hein's construction. Hein's lamp -- dangerously close to the whirling fans -- illuminates to no purpose, just as Guston's eye seems to look out on an empty room with a sense of futility.
None of Hein's machines does anything that could be construed as purposeful. "Gorge," the most extreme of the works on view, uselessly and loudly sucks blackened water into and out of a bathtub, and "Spinster" (inoperative when I visited) has a bladeless fan crawling around inside a cardboard box.
Hein's functionless perfection forces us to see these assemblages as metaphors for human psychology. If Goldberg envisioned a more or less sane human as the victim of the mechanical age, Hein imagines an askew mentality struggling to right itself within a perfectly operating mechanical system.
Kenetic sculptures made up of assemblages of fans, lamps and other everyday objects.
At the University at Buffalo Art Gallery, Center for the Arts, North Campus, through Nov. 9.