top of page
what_happened_w_fred_story_music (Original)
Play Video

Elizabeth King and Richard Kizu-Blair, What Happened, Sculpture: Elizabeth King, Choreography: E. King and R. Kizu-Blair, Animators: Michael Belzer and Trey Thomas,

Camera: Richard Lehmann, Editor: Richard Childs,  Director of Photography: D. Matthew Smith, Produced by Christine Whitney, Colossal Pictures, San Francisco, 1991

Remastered for digital video, 2008, 2024: Olympia Stone edit; Fred Story soundtrack

Machines, Miracles, and Motion:

Elizabeth King

In Conversation with Philip Auslander

ABF0E808-E116-4809-9066-505204EC7149.jpeg

Elizabeth King at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, 2017, video still courtesy of the Rauschenberg Foundation

Sculptor Elizabeth King lives and works in Richmond, Virginia. She taught in the Department of Sculpture and Extended Media at Virginia Commonwealth University from 1985 to 2015. Her many honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship and membership in the National Academy of Design. In the 1970s, King made works she calls “theaters” that can be seen by only one viewer at a time. One work invited the seated viewer to close around their head the two halves of a miniature theater, and featured a tiny stage and moving puppet.  She replicates this level of intimacy in her subsequent work through its small scale, which rewards close looking. King is also attentive to the theatricality of the gallery, the way her sculptures are staged in the exhibition space. 

 

King’s work entails highly detailed examinations of the inner workings of the human body, especially of skeletal structures and articulated joints, often through depictions of isolated fragments: a hand, a torso, an eye. These are juxtaposed with ceramic portrait heads—many of them self-portraits––some of which have the hieratic presence of classical sculpture, while others convey the idiosyncrasies of specific individuals. King’s figures convey emotion through facial expression, but also, importantly, through gesture and pose. Heads with articulated necks and movable eyes can be posed in different ways, each of which suggests a different emotional condition. But hands, too, can express a range of emotions whether isolated or in conjunction with a face. A single eye can communicate feeling through the way it moves and blinks. Olympia Stone’s documentary film Double Take: The Art of Elizabeth King (2018) details the exacting work that goes into the production of King’s sculptures and the range of techniques she has mastered to make them.

 

The potential for movement implied by King’s articulated figures is realized in the stop-motion animations featuring them that she started making in 1991. In these films, figures and body fragments seem to come to life and explore the world around them and their own capabilities quizzically. King has pursued her interest in the interplay of figurative sculpture, movement, and emotional expression in the book Miracles and Machines: A Sixteenth Century Automaton and Its Legend, on which she collaborated with W. David Todd (Getty Publications, 2023), an in-depth study of a clockwork moving sculpture informally referred to as “The Monk.” 

Philip Auslander

Atlanta, Georgia 2024

Miracles and Machines book cover_Getty hi res.jpg
9781606068489G_e7bdd706-9b60-411d-a7f5-fe63bc36cc00_5000x copy.jpg

Elizabeth King and W. David Todd, Miracles and Machines, cover and book pagePhotographs by Rosamond Purcell,
Getty Publications, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2023

Philip Auslander: Your interest in the automaton you and W. David Todd write about in Miracles and Machines: A Sixteenth-Century Automaton and Its Legend seems to follow from your sculpture, which focuses on representations of the human body that are quite different from those of traditional figurative sculpture. What inspired your approach?

Elizabeth King: Since childhood, I've been fascinated by jointed figures: puppets, mannequins, medical models. The old lay figures painters once used—jointed artist's mannequins to relieve the tedium for the live model—so elegantly crafted, deserved their own stage, I felt. I did side-work for years repairing antique wooden mannequins for dealers in New York—both artists' figures and early French fashion figures. Taking them apart in my studio let me see how they were made. I adapted and reinvented joint designs in my own works to capture more anatomically subtle poses. Though I do not make automata, I fabricate movable limbs and joints in the figurative sculptures I make, so I can adjust and pose them. I'm keen to combine two forms of representation that are difficult to reconcile in sculpture's traditional language: the form of the body, and its capacity for movement. The range of compromises all along the way makes the work what it is.  Eyes move, shoulders hunch, thumbs oppose. I pose the figure differently from show to show, a kind of spot performance.

Image 3.jpg

Elizabeth King, Pupil, 1987-90, porcelain, glass eyes, carved wood (Swiss pear), brass. Half life-size. Dimensions vary: eyes and all joints movable, photo: Katherine Wetzel

PA: How do you choose the poses for your sculptures on each occasion?

EK: I had worked out all kinds of artist statements claiming a role for simply a posable figure. The tiniest changes, just the tilt of the head a few degrees, can radically inform how we read another person's emotional state. I position a piece and stand back, then change the positions of individual parts, then adjust them again, a hand or the eyes, and again, in an iterative process that can take an hour at a time, until the right pose leaps out for me as something I want to show. A lot depends on lighting, and I often install my own lighting in a gallery. Posing and lighting a piece take place together. I love the chance to discover what a sculpture can do in a new setting.

 

Our human perceptions of one another via mute body language happen at an extraordinarily fine level. I'm after poses that privilege something the body signals, or that show me something about how the mind reveals itself in the body. If a figure has just looked up, for example, as opposed to an already steady gaze, could I show this?  Positional tensions, an implied past or future, the moment between one thought and another, a kind of present-tense micro-narrative.

Image 4.jpg

Elizabth King, Pupil 1987-90, porcelain, glass eyes, carved wood (Swiss pear), brass. Half life-size. Dimensions vary: eyes and all joints movable, photo: Katherine Wetzel

PA: You have also made stop-motion animations using your figures. Tell us about your interest in this technique.

EK: Stop-motion came about by chance and luck in 1991, through my college friend Richard Kizu-Blair. At that time, he was a director at the San Francisco production company Colossal Pictures. Colossal had the first contract with MTV and they were doing amazing network station IDs with animators and experimental filmmakers like the Brothers Quay. We were speaking one day on the phone about the Quays’ film Street of Crocodiles, then already a stop-motion classic, and I said I wondered how my sculptures might animate on film. "Let us try it," Blair said, and we did. On a moment's notice, when the stage and their big 35 mm track camera were free, I flew to San Francisco with two pieces, one of them Pupil, 1990, which is now in the Hirshhorn Museum collection, and worked with Blair and two superb animators, Trey Thomas and Mike Belzer for two weeks. Just as in my posing of "stills," we animated Pupil in short 5- to 10-second episodes to try and capture fleeting passages of action and happening that explored a mind finding its body and senses, and vice versa. Every sculpture I made after that I made with the added idea of further animation on film.

Written and Directed by the Quay Brothers, Street of Crocodiles (1986) clip  from the collected animated films 1979-2013

PA: You frequently exhibit the non-moving (I can’t say static because your sculptures always imply the possibility of movement) object alongside the animated film of it. What is the purpose of this juxtaposition? 

EK: I'm pleased you see this, that even when still the sculptures imply movement. I like that you can see part of the machinery, so you know a pose is always temporary. I first showed the Colossal film together with the sculpture that same year, 1991, at SECCA (Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, now part of the North Carolina Museum of Art). The film had been transferred to ¾ inch video tape and we showed it on a CRT monitor in the gallery, with the sculpture on a pedestal nearby. At the opening, everyone stood in front of the monitor and said "Wow, how long did it take to make the film?" (The film took a few weeks; the sculpture took three years. I think some viewers thought the film was a computer animation.) Plus, at that time I hated the big clunky monitor. I set out to find ways to deliver the film into the gallery without the monitor, via lenses in the wall, and of course later, via projections of various kinds. A work I called The Sizes of Things in the Mind's Eye, 1999-2000, delivered a later animation as a floating virtual bubble seen over the shoulder of a sculpture. I've worked out other duets since then, always intrigued at what sculpture and film do to one another when shown together. I love stop-motion because it preserves all the visceral properties of real materials in real light. It messes only with time. And because the sculptures suggest themselves as movable, I like to imagine the powers of suggestion each language, film and sculpture, gives the other. Even just for a few seconds, you might forget and think the hand just moved. Or, if I deliver the film as a virtual image, you might forget it is only a film. Thing, motion. The error might be brief, but it has an afterlife. 

 

A few years ago, I made an animation with a sculpture in the gallery, at MASS MoCA, with viewers able to take a look at the stop-motion process itself. Mike Belzer, with whom I'd worked in 1991, agreed to do this crazy thing with me. Animating is intense precision work, and the fact that he was willing to do it in public, in essence, was incredible. The fabrication crew at MASS MoCA built a vibration-free stage for us, and later they even made a time-lapse film of our two-week shoot. The sculpture was a pair of small carved and jointed boxwood hands, the second of which I had just finished, mounted on armatures. We choreographed the film based on the motions of magician Derek DelGaudio's hands practicing a card trick (MASS MoCAcurator Denise Markonish introduced us to Derek). As Mike's stop-motion frames accrued, he added them to an in-progress raw file and showed it on a side monitor on loop. Viewers stopping by could watch him changing the sculpture's pose in tiny increments and shooting frames, and they could see the raw film as it stood at that moment, second by second. The steady focus of Mike's own actions on the stage was an extraordinary thing to witness, in and of itself. I hope to do this again with a new sculpture. I loved the fact that the sculpture was never in the same position, in that gallery, for more than a few minutes.  

Elizabeth King + Mike Belzer, MASS MoCA animation shoot, 2017

PA: Turning now to your Miracles and Machines, what was it about The Monk that led you to co-author a book devoted to it?

EK: I first saw the monk a few years after I began working in wood, and not long before I made my first stop-motion animation with a sculpture. I marveled at the speaking elegance of the monk's carving, and equally at its slow, uncanny movement. Of all the actions a Renaissance automaton-maker might consider in representing what is most definably human, the solo act of prayer--when I first saw the monk perform it--struck me as astonishing. A machine to speak to God? The subtle carving of the wooden head and hands, animated by a complex interior iron mechanism, brought art and technology together in a way I had not seen in any made thing. Two great European artisanal worlds, each on its own trajectory, reveal themselves in the monk: polychrome wood sculpture, and state-of-the-art clockmaking.

I realized soon enough that the monk was surely made, not by a lone craftsperson, but by the duet of a sculptor and a clockmaker, each at the top of their skill. They produced a new kind of object.

 

My co-author, clockmaker David Todd, who cared for the monk across his almost 30 years as conservator of timekeeping at the Smithsonian, finally convinced me that the monk was speaking, not to God, but to god-fearing humans, and not pleasantly. It was David from whom I first learned of a legend connecting the monk to a documented miracle in the Spanish court. I began a search for the source of the legend, and the book itself took form when I proposed to David that we write it together, clockmaker and sculptor.

Automaton in the Form of a Monk, ca. 1550. Possibly circle of Juanelo Turriano, (ca. 1500–1585). Probably Spanish, ca. 1550. Hardwood (stained beech or poplar), traces of enamel, leather, metals, paint. Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C. Video courtesy The Metropolitan Museum, NYC, NY

PA: James Vincent, reviewing your book in the London Review of Books, states, “It’s clear that automata often had a hieratic function – inducting audiences into belief in higher powers, religious or otherwise.” In your book, the android is often described as a kind of after-dinner entertainment. How do you understand The Monk’s possibly double life, as both an entertainer and a kind of proselytizer?

EK: In either case—whether deployed on the royal banquet table or animated in a church setting—automata were indeed intended to confirm or confer power on those who were seen to possess them. Among the eight automata we've classified as the earliest true androids (mobile solo figures animated by hidden on-board machinery), all share a similarly designed autonomous clockwork mechanism, and all are small, size being a measure of how much weight a mainspring could propel. They are thus tabletop performers, most of them lute or cittern playing musicians—festive marvels to bring status to the host. The monk, performing the gestures of the mea culpa, is the only one among the eight that is indisputably Catholic in its actions, though two others are also considered religious figures. Their small size sets them apart from the more public early church displays of life-size mechanical Magi, Virgins, Christs, saints and Satans, so wonderfully described by Jessica Riskin in her 2016 book The Restless Clock. In what kind of setting might these small monkish figures have performed? This is a key question in our study. Our search for the origins of the story that has attached itself to the monk—that it was fabricated for a wayward prince—is the framing narrative of the book. We begin and end with it, and in between we include chapters that propose possible commission and display scenarios, based on documents of other automata.

Elizabeth King, Feints and Sleights, 2017, Silent stop-frame animation. 3 minutes, Sculpture and choreography: Elizabeth King, Animation: Mike Belzer
Production and shooting made possible by MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA, with special thanks to Denise Markonish, Larry Smallwood, Richard Criddle, Brad Dilger, Megan Tamás, and Chris Nelson.

Made with two sculptures: Bartlett’s Hand, 2005, and its mate, Untitled, 2017

PA: In the book’s descriptions of The Monk’s performance, there are references to the automaton’s steward (his handler, so to speak). This human/machine interaction puts me in mind of other cases in which a human handler seeks to endow a performing object with autonomy, such as ventriloquism and puppetry. Do you see any connections with these or other kinds of performance with respect to The Monk and/or your own work?

EK: Especially I think of Bunraku, the Japanese puppet theater, where each puppet is manipulated by three puppeteers in full view of the audience. We quickly block the puppeteers out, so profoundly is our attention won by the puppet. The great skill of the puppeteers makes it happen, of course. That and the design of the puppets' jointed bodies, evolved over many generations, together with the dramatic masterpieces that have been written for them. But I also think that the disconnect—the fact that we know we are in a theater—accounts for part of our suspense. Someone once said, to get the immediate attention of children, begin a story with a contradiction. The puppet, and at greater remove the automaton, hypnotizes us with contradictions in the definitions we claim between life and life-like. Watching them move, we are caught and held by this tension. We can lose track even of the sizes of things. Would a 16th-century spectator, aware say of Paracelsus' recipe for making a homunculus, think the monk was a live thing, animated by divine spirit or by alchemy? Fooling us even for a few seconds, the effect has its own afterlife, like that of stop-motion animation. The monk's motions, slow and unwavering, are life-like enough that we respond almost reflexively: something human moving towards us. I can't be sure how the monk's "handler" might have been viewed in that context and that day, but in the right setting, it's easy to imagine an audience could attribute some higher power to such a person. 

 

I wonder, if viewers might first have seen the monk in repose, what their experience was in seeing it start to move? Once this is seen—or now knowing it in advance as we do—you apprehend the sculptor's skill in carving the face and hands in ways that go beyond what static sculpture asks. My own work is different in that the sculptures only move on stop-motion film. Although I like to pair sculpture and film, so they are seen at the same time, I think my role as artist and choreographer is less of an overt factor in a viewer's experience. What is similar, though, is the delivery of something with strong enough human presence that it draws from viewers the same kinds of emotion and obligation, even if just briefly, as a live being would call forth.  

E King_By Ear_2016_bronze_5¼x3½x4½in.jpg

Elizabeth King, By Ear, 2016, #2 of an edition of 3 Bronze, movable glass eyes

Plinth: Belgian black marble, Head: 5.25 x 3.50 x 4.50 inches, Plinth: 6 x 5 x 4.25 inches

Photo: Terry Brown, Collection Sydney and Walda Besthoff, New Orleans, LA

PA: Does The Monk speak to our current obsession with AI? 

EK: David and I argue that the monk and his few surviving cousins are the first true androids in the history of artificial life. Those with moving eyes and mouths might well also be the first interactive androids. Seen today, the monk brings us face to face with our own ambivalent relationship to artificial life: the illusion of agency, the psychology of belief, the measure of theater implicit in an AI avatar, and our passionate arguments about what a robot can and cannot do.

9781606068397A_5000x.webp

Miracles and Machines: A Sixteenth-Century Automaton and Its Legend  

by Elizabeth King and W. David Todd, with photographs by Rosamond Purcell

LK.jpg

Elizabeth King

Elizabeth King, professor emerita of sculpture and extended media at Virginia Commonwealth University, is a sculptor and writer. Museum collections include the Hirshhorn Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Sheldon Museum of Art at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Awards include a residency at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation in 2017, an Anonymous Was a Woman Award in 2014, a 2006 Academy Award in Art from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a 2002 Guggenheim Fellowship, and a 1996-97 Fellowship in the Visual Arts at the Mary Ingraham Bunting Institute, now the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. https://thesizesofthings.com/

Phil.jpg

Philip Auslander writes frequently on performance, music, and art. His most recent books are In Concert: Performing Musical Persona, published in 2021, the third edition of Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, and Women Rock! Portraits in Popular Music, both 2023. Dr. Auslander is a Professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication

at Georgia Tech, and the Editor of The Art Section.

https://auslander.lmc.gatech.edu/  

Philip Auslander

photo: Marie Thomas

bottom of page