Sep 12, 2011

TREND | Steampunk

Kazuhiko Nakamura, Rhinoceros 1515, Digital Art, 2010
Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction, an alternate timeline in a Victorian setting where technology has taken a different path.  The movement began to pick up momentum in the 1980s and 1990s with films like Wild Wild West, Japanese animations like Steamboy and more recently in TV shows like Firefly and Warehouse 13.  Steampunk's origins may have begun in literature with Jules Verne but it's now rearing it's bio mechanical head in visual arts with such artists as Kazuhiko Nakamura.

A popular theme in Steampunk art is the splicing of animals or humans with machine.  Nakamura's Rhinoceros 1515, is a perfect example.  Nakuamura explains his inspiration:
"I created this work based on the rhinoceros which Albrecht Durer drew in 1515.
Durer, never actually saw a live rhino and based his drawing on a brief sketch and a letter.
The rhino that inspired Durer's drawing was given by an Indian sultan to King Manuel of Portugal in 1515."
Albrecht Dürer, Rhinoceros, Woodcut, 1515

Like much of the art seen in the Steampunk movement, there is a surrealism present in Nakamura's Rhinoceros 1515 that isn't seen in it's counterpart Rhinoceros by Albrecht Dürer. This surreal imagery is continued throughout Kazuhiko Nakamura's work that can be viewed at his site.

Keith Thompson, Scribe, Digital Art, 2003

As popularity for Steampunk in literature, film, and fashion grows, so does the demand for representations of it in visual arts.  Artist/illustrator Keith Thompson has found his niche.  Although many of his works are used as book covers or other illustrative purposes, he usually already has his own narrative for the characters and creatures he creates.  Here's what he has to say about Scribe:
"A scrivener automaton working in a rather wealthy merchant's library. The arcane procedures for creating automatons are as varied as their appearance and roles in society (servitors, military, labour, prostitution, etc). The taxidermic use of cured human remains is legalised, economical and common place in their construction (similar to how the powdered wigs in our past often used the hair of corpses). However the practice of "rendering" down living persons into an automaton state is outlawed, it is frequently employed since the resultant product tends to outperform the legal alternative. The merchant who owns this particular scribe automaton has some very extensive paperwork detailing her conformity to all applicable regulation. Despite this assurance, those who deal with her have noticed how quickly she learns new tasks, and have caught her smiling when backs are turned."

Mike Libby, Dynastidae: Eupatorus Gracilicornis, Rhino beetle with brass/steel gears, parts & spring, 2011
While some artists are drawing, painting or digitally creating a Steampunk world, others are bringing their creations into our world like sculpturist Mike Libby.  Libby is litterally splicing insects with machine parts.
It started when he found a dead beetle and decided to outfit it's remains with the parts from an old watch. Here's what Mike Libby has to say about his creations:
"In reality, engineers look to insect movement, wing design and other characteristics for inspiration of new technology.  Some of the most advanced "aircraft" is no bigger, or heavier, than a dragonfly, and NASA scientists are making big steps in walking rovers and "swarm theory" probes for planetary exploration.  Man made technology is finding that the most maneuverable and efficient design features really does come from nature.
Ironically and often, this technology closely resembles the musings of science fiction."
Like the mash-ups of insects with watch workings, or humans with machine parts, Steampunk seems to mash-up naturalistic art with surrealism and future with past. Artist attracted to this trend aren't trying to impress with hyperrealism nor are they obsessed with a process. They are longing for a past they missed and hoping for a future yet to come. They embrace a time when craftsmanship and beauty weren't only found amongst the elite and fine art but in everyday objects. An everyday full of possibilities. If Steampunk is still unclear, check out this video from PBS:
Off Book: Steampunk from PBS arts

-Jill Ewing

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