Rob Higgs 'The Corkscrew'
An appreciation by Robin Dutt

Machines and automata have always fascinated the human spirit from the perhaps apocryphal tales of roaring golden lions in an ancient king’s throne room, the poet W.B Yeats’ mechanical nightingale ‘to keep a drowsy emperor awake’ and the eighteenth century Turkish chessplaying automata, so brilliant at the game that it was widely, and rightly assumed that there was a genius dwarf concealed under the workings.

Through the nineteenth century, clockwork toys, clocks themselves (in increasing complexity), sideshow figures, music boxes of varying complexity and the like became popular entertainment devices. The names Heath Robinson, Tim Hunkin, Robert Bradford, Tim Lewis, Rob Lee and a host of many others show the tradition of suggested or actual movement in essentially aesthetic elements. Our age is destined to be obsessed by artificial intelligence. It may not be such a surprise to know that past centuries were obsessed with artificial ‘life.’

So, Higgs is certainly part of a time-honoured tradition. In fact, Higgs does cite Heath Robinson’s beautifully absurd drawings as a comic inspiration – even if the inventions remained drawings only and in any case, would never have been practicable as 3D models and prototypes.
“I like Heath Robinson,” the artist says, “I always use (him) to explain how I make stuff…it’s a similar style.” But there, tepid comparisons between one artist and the other must end. It is essential that Higgs’ pieces have a function, however seemingly mundane it might be – a device for cracking a single nut, for example, or an elaborate contraption for uncorking a bottle.

In the past, Higgs experimented with smaller scale work – clockwork table treasures and relatively complex mechanical diversions. But his latest work and work in development is reliant on two vital complementary aspects – sheer vastness of scale – unexpectedly so – and the incongruity of purpose. In this way, humour follows suit.

“I am celebrating the useless, that is true, that’s where the dilemma comes into it. I really like making stuff that is teasing or ridiculing the whole excessiveness of society and mechanization” Higgs says.

The sheer energy, the monumental proportions of his machines designed to perform the most basic domestic tasks are impressive from the outset. But it is not all about humour and diversion. Returning once again to the “romance” of his objets trouvés (now increasingly difficult to find) in farmers’ scrap yards or as detritus washed up by the sea or abandoned and unfound in a field, whatever the case, they carry with them links with the changing nature of humanity and its relationship to the changing nature of the work it must do.

Some found pieces are stamped with names from bygone or may be still extant manufacturers and anonymous but once important serial numbers. Others look incongruous, considering their possible function. Some are over 400 years old, linking our time with the England of Elizabeth I and some from the adaptive powers of the various industrial revolutions. But all have a story and now in Higgs’ hands, these never meant to be put together components, tell a cohesive and consistent story of a way of delivering specific narrative using old words hammered into new expression.

The fascination with how and why things work is, Higgs believes, endemic in our species. Perhaps in a way, it is the same in a general fascination with magic and illusion. We, for the most part, will never be told how an especially complex trick is done. Higgs may explain how the complete behemoth of a machine works but our brains cannot really fathom every necessary dependent and co-dependent element which neatly smashes the nut or draws the cork. Perhaps we wouldn’t want to know the semantics of his creations, anyway – it’s better to
preserve the mystery.

“You are drawn to anything that confuses you,” says Higgs. “It is things that are out of the ordinary”.

It may also be a salient point to mention that, of course, these components found or given by friends are only (if only is a fair word to employ) the initial inspiration. Their forms are cast, they are consigned to an archive be they an ancient fishing spearhead or a gnarled and rust-furred cog from a hosiery machine.

A winning sense of humour is vital to the artist’s method of working and so, the final result. Eschewing the generally held edict by some critics and observers that a piece must have a certain gravitas sans a comedic element, he cheerfully creates pieces to enjoy with a smile and a sense of wonder. And actually, as to gravitas, only the least observant and incisive would not be able to recognise this quality in his work. These
are pieces full of character and evocative ambassadors of intent, betraying through their mechanical machinations, a very human hand – and heart.

Robin Dutt
Author and Critic
London, April 2008


ONEOFONE The Foundry, Harlaxton Park, Harlaxton, Grantham, UK, NG32 1HQ
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