An artist's passion for robots creates 'gentle giants'
Jan 14, 2013 (The Gazette (Colorado Springs - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
The artist Michael Salter loves robots.
In fact, Salter makes robots. Not of the scary variety, but more of the gentle giant type who wants to befriend and help humans. His creations aren't made of plastic or metal and they don't have computer chips inside them for brains.
No, Salter makes robots out of styrofoam.
He is so enamoured that he creates styrobots -- giant robot sculptures out of old styrofoam pieces. Salter, who is an associate professor of digital arts/new media at the University of Oregon, will create "Nothing Comes From Nothing," an original robot installation, at GOCA 1420. The exhibit opens Thursday.
"The actual shapes are amazing," says Salter of robots. "The icon or ideas that surround the ideas of the robots fascinate me. It's rooted back to standing in line to watch 'Star Wars,' and thinking that robots could be friendly, helpful, maybe even arrogant or funny. Ever since then, I've had an infatuation with them."
Salter has created close to 20 styrofoam robots in the past eight or nine years, he says. He's created the sculptures in spaces all over the world. Because the materials are donated by the community, Salter never knows whether he'll find the hoped for 200 to 1,000 pieces of packing material until he arrives at the gallery. He arrived in Colorado Springs earlier this week, and will spend eight to 12 hours a day during the next week or so creating a piece that could range anywhere from 12 inches to 26 feettall.
"The size depends on the space. The Colorado Springs show is a generous space, and it invites me to make it as big as I can," he says. "It depends on how much styrofoam is collected. But I'm a gambler, I'm interested. I'm going to make a giant robot, no matter what."
GOCA director Daisy McConnell says she found his work compelling.
"It combines two things I like. One part was to collect massive amounts of something that we normally throw away and feel guilty about," she says. "But then it has a way to help us conceptualize our consumption without being too naggy."
Salter's robots have changed through the years, he says. He's noticed them become a bit softer and more human-like.
"In the beginning, they had a gentle, stoic presence. They were never meant to be menacing," he says. "I'm a sci-fi addict, and I look at robots in the Eastern way: Robots are our friends. I like the idea of robots as a sentient, feeling thing. They've gotten more expressive over the years."
Thoughthe amount of materials for this project is unknown, he tends to have an idea of what he'll create before he arrive, he says, but is never certain until he gets there. For this show, he's planning to create his first robot sitting in a lotus meditation.
"The idea that a robot could be ... engaged in meditation is pretty interesting," he says. "It's something you could assume a robot could do at ease, but for humans, it's so hard. The idea of a robot and its ability to access that thoughtless, meditative place, that a robot could pursue enlightenment, is interesting."
Apart from the meditation aspect of the robot, Salter also relishes its impermanent nature.
"'Nothing Comes From Nothing' is a Zen Buddhist quote, nothingness comes from nothingness. That's the goal," Salter says.
Though there is one permanent robot in existence, living in the lobby of a Portland office, all the rest of his sculptures are destroyed once the exhibit ends. The styrofoam goes to the landfill where it begins to break down, he says, but never disintegrates. However, McConnell is working with the UCCS Office of Sustainability, and the hope is to recycle at least some of the pieces, if not all.
The destruction of the robot sculptures is fine with Salter. It's all part of the process.
"You lose all attachment to it, and expect no paycheck or praise," he says. "I'm comfortable with that, with letting it go."
It's about living and creating in the moment, he says, and Salter hopes his work speaks to others as it does to him.
"There is a moment as soon as it's done, before the opening, that I can see it in an objective, open way as I would hope somebody else sees it," he says. "I haven't been disappointed yet. They're interesting. They're very still, quiet and they have a real presence about them. I want to keep going after them."
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