Profile: Arthur Ganson

Artist and engineer Arthur Ganson’s kinetic sculptures have been captivating visitors to the MIT Museum since 1995.

Arthur Ganson

The relationship began serendipitously, when a graduate student in mechanical engineering saw Ganson’s work at the deCordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and urged his colleagues to check it out. That led to a four-year turn as an artist-in-residence in the mechanical engineering department and a popular installation mounted by the MIT Museum at its Compton Gallery in 1994.  Soon after, the museum invited Ganson to develop an exhibition for its main building. That exhibition, Gestural Engineering: The Sculpture of Arthur Ganson, is now entering its twenty-first year.

With influences that range from puppetry to programming to pre-med training, Ganson’s sculptures and creative practice perfectly embody MIT’s motto, mens et manus—mind and hand. “The one thing that I really love [in creating an artwork] is the problem-solving and the fact that the real world will always be honest with me,” he says. “No matter what my imagination or dreams or hopes or thoughts are, the real world will always respond and move in the way that it does.”

The sculptures are surprising: unusual materials and unexpected behaviors easily bring smiles to visitors’ faces—and leave them pondering concepts from the meaning of now to the passage of cosmic time. “Cory’s Yellow Chair” reflects on the fleetingness of the present moment as a model of Ganson’s son’s childhood chair constantly explodes and re-forms. “Buddhist teachers sometimes begin a dharma talk by a single clap of the hands. This clap is the now,” Ganson explains. “The brief moment during which the chair is coalesced into a chair is a clap, a moment of now… and then it's gone.” A different way of thinking about time is literally embedded in “Beholding the Big Bang.” Here a motor turns a series of reduction gears whose rotational velocity slows exponentially. The final gear, encased in concrete, will complete one rotation in roughly 13.7 billion years, the current estimated age of the universe since the Big Bang.

Early wire works reflect his original ambition to become a surgeon. The exceptionally fragile structures challenged him to use his hands with a surgeon’s precision. “I also wanted to make an aesthetic statement about the delicacy and fragility of my own humanity,” he says, “with these machines that are on the edge of working or not working.”

Tension, balance, and connection are at the heart of Ganson’s work, as is a deeply generous spirit that includes the viewer as a critical part of the completion of each piece. “I like to think of the machines as the intersection of my eternal consciousness and a viewer’s eternal consciousness. The physical object is just the in-between point that allows for the infinite in both me and the viewer to meet.”

Ganson is also the originator, with two former MIT Museum staff members, and co-host, with artist Jeff Lieberman, of the MIT Museum’s Friday After Thanksgiving (F.A.T.) Chain Reaction. Teams of amateur inventors of all ages work together to build a massive chain reaction device. The first event took place at the museum in 1999 and outgrew several on-campus venues over the years before settling into its current home at the Rockwell Cage. “The chain reaction is a beautiful example of how even the simplest creative engineering can lead to the most excruciatingly beautiful theater,” Ganson says. Past chain reactions have included a Dremel rotary tool cutting through a variety of materials, dozens of robotic bugs skittering through a multilevel maze, and even a contraption that involved a professor’s infant daughter.

Just as in the artist’s own work, chain reactions don’t always go as planned, no matter how successfully they’ve worked in testing. Teams have to adjust, adapt, and sometimes intervene. “The audience is cheering and there’s all this tension—at what point do you step in when something goes a little bit awry?” he asks. Over the past few years, Ganson and Lieberman began to walk through during the set-up stage and interview the inventors. “It’s great to see really young kids making things,” he says. “Talking to them about their process has turned out to be as much fun as watching the chain reaction itself.”