Being car-less and Manchester based, it was always going to be a bit of a trek to get to the Oxford Steampunk exhibition but I finally made the journey at the weekend and it was well worth suffering the unique traumas of the National Express. If anyone is considering going to see the exhibition I would strongly urge you to do so before it close on the 21st February 2010. The exhibition is being held at the Museum of the History of Science, or the Old Ashmolean. The museum was built in 1693 and houses thousands of fascinating science related instruments and documents, making it worth a visit in itself, without the added benefit of the Steampunk exhibition.
When I began working on Steampunk as an academic venture, the main problem I faced was convincing people that Steampunk was a cohesive and popular enough aesthetic or fictional genre to be worthy of study. Now it seem you can't escape the term; the Steampunk's have launched a successful assault on the mainstream consciousness from a variety of angles. Note the exhibition's triumphant proclamation on the historic building's facade:
The exhibition is curated by Art Donovan, a New York based artist who work with brass, glass, and light. His Siddartha Pod Steampunk Lantern was a particular favourite of mine in the exhibition. I took a rather awful photograph of it that fails to apprehend its beautiful detail so to head over to the artist's blog to see a more fitting likeness. In a special issue of the museum's Broad Sheet, Steampunk is described as a movement 'rooted in the aesthetics of Victorian technology' without being a 'nostalgic recreation of a vanished past'. The Broad Sheet proclaims that the driving impetus of Steampunk is celebratory rather than cynical, pertinent rather than nostalgic. Certainly, in his choice of artists and artifacts, Donovan has managed to capture that sentiment.
There are far too many outstanding pieces to discuss here. Again, check it out for yourselves before the exhibition closes. There are a few artists that particularly resonated with my own perceptions of the aesthetic that I will pick out here. The first of these is Tom Banwell, a leather worker and resin caster whose range of fantasy masks combine his interests in 'history, costuming, mechanics and fantasy'. This image is of the Pachydermos Gas Mask, my favourite of his works on display. There's something about the potential type of being that would utilise such a mask and the dystopia that they would be inhabiting that fits in with the darker side of Steampunk that I am drawn to in my work on the subject. On the other hand, has there ever been a more triumphant and celebratory animal that the elephant? This mask fits in at one and the same time with the strong dystopian elements of much Steampunk fiction and the more light-hearted impetus that this exhibition proclaims to capture.
Interestingly, on his website Banwell states that while Steampunk began as a literary genre in the 1980s, he has not read 'a single 20th century author writing in the genre'. Rather, the Steampunk works he has read are those that inspired the movement: those by H.G Wells & Jules Verne. I find it fascinating that contemporary Steampunk literary works aren't as instrumental in the motivation behind Steampunk art as I had originally expected in the early stages of my research. In fact, I think the reverse is true, that visual Steampunk work's have far more influence on the direction of the movement than do literary pieces.
The next artist I want to flag up is Stéphane Halleux. His blogged about his work some time ago so it was excellent to see a number of his pieces on display at the exhibition. I think what surprised me about see his work in person was the size of them. While they are by no means huge, they were generally much larger in scale than I had imagine. Seeing the images on the web, and recognising the intricate nature of the sculptures, I had imaged model sized pieces. But many of the pieces were approximately two thirds of my height and all had a visual bulk to them that had passed me by in the 2d images I had seen before hand. The below image is entitled Robot Pet and for me implicates a much larger Steampunk world to which such a creature would belong. Such a world draws strong parallels with the world of Shane Acker's recent 'StitchPunk' film 9.
Finally, I was pleasantly horrified by this piece by Molly 'Porkshanks' Friedrich. It's called The Complete Mechanical Womb and as you can see in the close up image, the true horror is in the detail. Again, this piece appeals to a more sinister apprehension of the Steampunk aesthetic and may be at odds with the 'celebratory' impetus identified by the exhibition's curators, as the three previous pieces do. However, I have chosen these three pieces because they stood out particulary for me; the exhibition certainly contains many less macabre artefacts than Friedrich's.
The Oxford Steampunk exhibition is, in my opinion, excellent and I hope to see more exhibitions and events as a result of its success. Again, I urge you to see it for yourself as there are many more fantastical pieces on display that can only be fully appreciated by seeing them up close. You can also purchase a copy of the museum's special edition of its Broad Sheet for the reasonable price of £1. The Broad Sheet contains a specially commisioned double page strip of Sydney Padua's Lovelace and Babbage comic. If you are unable to get down in person, the Broad Sheet is available to download in PDF format. And, if you like the comic, Padua's Lovelace and Babbage series can be found at her website: http://sydneypadua.com/2dgoggles