The first thing Andy Holtin has to break his students of when they take his art classes at American University is the idea that when they look at art, they have to immediately figure out what the artist is saying.
“[It’s] not merely evaluating, what is this person trying to tell me?” says Holtin, a kinetic artist and professor. He encourages students to instead experience a piece and not obsess over the artist’s intent. “It gives us the opportunity to not be so clear,” he says.
A helpful message for anyone visiting Holtin’s "A Theatre of Objects" exhibit, on display at Flashpoint Gallery through December. Holtin’s three pieces are part sculpture, part performance art, and part science fair experiment, and you could stare at them for a long time without the faintest clue what you’re looking at.
Each piece involves video of performers doing simple things — moving around a table, walking across the screen, glancing from side to side — and elaborate mechanisms that make the videos move and interact with each other. In one piece, a mechanized projector stand moves intermittently, casting a layered video image on the wall that occasionally separates into two video projections. In another piece, two identical screens mounted on the wall display a man and a woman. When one of the character’s eyes shift toward the other, the screen tilts as well.
It’s funny, weird, and baffling work. Trying to make sense of the interaction between the performers on screen is fascinating and frustrating. (Do they know each other? Are they going to talk? Are they supposed to be robots? Oh man, is this some kind of statement about robots?)
But Holtin wants viewers to keep guessing. “It fakes a narrative,” he explains of his filmed creations. “It’s about our desire to understand what’s going on.”
The mystery of what’s going on extends to the mechanism behind the work as well. Holtin taught himself enough about mechanics and electronics that he was able to construct the systems behind his work himself. After modifying desktop computer screen for his monitors, Holtin built a plastic plexiglass mounting system that would allow the screens to move on the wall. He then developed a motor system; wrote a code so that the small computer overseeing the system could tell the screens when to move; and etched his own circuit boards. And that’s just for one of the pieces.
“I’ve been called a perfectly good waste of an engineer,” Holtin says. (He’s always been mechanical. As a kid, he took apart a seatbelt and turned it into a booby trap for his bedroom — when the door opened, it released a spring mechanism and popped a Kermit the Frog doll at the intruder.) Pursuing art let him combine the engineering half of his brain with the artistic — he used traditional printmaking techniques to etch the circuit boards, and he made a mold of a gear and cast it as if it were in bronze when he needed more parts.
Holtin wants viewers to enjoy the ambiguity of the images and not focus on the engineering. He likens it to puppeteering (which, incidentally, is the career Holtin would most want to pursue if he weren’t an artist). It’s an inanimate object taking on life and controlled by a person you forget is there. “It’s elegant,” he says, “so you ignore the system.”