229 Lab is a new space that recently opened next to Place Vendome, the centre of Parisian fashion and jewellery scene. In a stripped-down ex-lawyer’s office, the four-man team behind the space wishes to hack the art world by offering this prime location to emerging art. Arthur Coquille-Hopfner’s exhibition Petite Étude de la Mécanique Obsolète is the fifth show in the space and the artist’s solo debut.
The abundance of useless or chain reaction-type machines videos on Tiktok and other similarly useless parts of the internet came to the point where those apparatuses are no longer a peculiarity, but rather something boringly ordinary. The human eye and mind, while still not being able to find the ball in one of the three cups on the streets of Paris, are now very much able to understand the complex continuity in chain reaction-type machines of Rube Goldberg. In contrast to Goldberg, a sculptor and engineer who drew his first cartoons of chain reaction type-machines in the 1920s and 30s, Marvin Minsky, the de-facto inventor of the useless machine in 1952, was a Turing award-winning cognitive and computer scientist researching artificial intelligence. (The first concept of the useless machine is a Futurist idea attributed to Bruno Manari’s 1930s macchine inutili.)
“There is something unspeakably sinister about a machine that does nothing – absolutely nothing – except switch itself off.” Arthur C. Clarke
Arthur Coquille-Hopfner’s Study of Obsolete Mechanics is based on a three-year-long research of seven sculptural pieces in repetitive – useless, absurd or ineffective – motion, presented in a site-specific set-up. His work, though, is everything but sinister. It is a playful, almost childlike exploration of the vastitude of technological possibilities, only limited by knowledge, and further, imagination. Coquille-Hopfner (1998), a sculpture student at Beaux-Arts de Paris is a former professional sportsman. His oeuvre strives to represent the human being as a perfect machine, where each function has to have a reason and an outcome. His vision of a perfect movement is a choreography for efficiency. The kinetic sculptures showcased in his Study of Obsolete Mechanics are the burlesque opposite. Noisy, fragile and inaccurate, they are the result of the infinite recycling of household appliances, scrap metal and found or appropriated objects. They are everything but perfect, reliable or efficient. They are, nevertheless, a study of imperfection and uselessness vital to wholly understanding perfection and efficiency.
Coquille-Hopfner’s useless machines are not boringly ordinary – probably because of their fragility – they radiate a gentle and intriguing (but not aesthetic) beauty – and hence, function. Through their imperfections, in an almost biblical gesture, Coquille-Hopfner’s apparatuses are given meaning. Similarly to how a Rube Goldberg machine gets meaning through being fun, a useless box through its malevolence, Coquille-Hopfner’s pieces get meaning through beauty – they become works of art.
“A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course, man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence.” Oscar Wilde
The exhibition opens with an extremely loud piece entitled (Mâchoire de) La Machine à Boucan, 2021 (Jaws of) the Boucan Machine), one of his older pieces exploring the functionality of the body. Fake jaws with real teeth are connected to an extremely loud electrical motor only to repetitively bite at the viewer in a cartoon-like movement. On the left, a plaster cast of the artist’s farmer father’s hands is mounted on a large iron stand, the hands clenched together in a finger-gun gesture, with the index finger broken off, connected with a thin string to a motor somewhere in the back of the contraption, in order to repetitively bend in a movement resembling pulling a trigger. The exhibition continues with less body-centred pieces, an extremely complicated saw-like contraption (Sice-Borne, 2022), a ballet doll dancing in circles on an old chair (Requiem for a Seat, 2023), a finger slowly knocking on a stained-glass window made by the team working on the restoration of the Notre-Dame (Machine Gun, 2023) or a toy donkey hanging from the ceiling rocking in a dangerous motion powered by an angle grinder (Le Cheval a Bascule, 2022). The most amazing of them all, though, is a boot with pigeon wings attached to it, attempting to take off from the floor but repeatedly failing (Les Sédentaires du Ciel, 2021) The heel rises every time, but the exasperating slowness of the beating of the wings leaves the shoe nailed to the ground.
Despite the fact their roots go back to modernist times and they would visually easily fit into works of arte povera, Coquille-Hopfner’s kinetic sculptures actually allude better to the heavily computed contemporaneity of programmer-cum-artists researching the possibilities of new technologies in countless studies and sketches existing only in digital space. Similar to his contemporaries, but in a much more physical and brute form, Coquille-Hopfner experiments with matter and technology. His contraptions are extremely fragile, self-destructive, even (n.b. Gustav Metzger’s Auto-destructive art), and require constant maintenance – the artist can hence be seen running around the exhibition with his toolkit, from one contraption to another, in an erratic, but beautiful performative action.
Coquille-Hopfner amazed with the much above-student-level quality of his work, showing absolute devotion to his process. The fun and energy that can be seen in his eyes while fixing his apparatuses is nothing less than inspiring. While still leaving space for progress, he shows admirable potential and is an artist worth following, and potentially buying.