The Hamilton Museum of Steam and Technology houses two of the oldest Canadian-built steam engines. This historic site is where Hamilton established their first waterworks to supply the city with clean water, and is currently where Steven White’s exhibition The Combine Project is being held.
Entering what once was the boilerhouse, White’s exhibition of “large kinetic sound sculptures” made from deconstructed parts of an abandoned combine harvester are on display. Five sculptures are included in this exhibition, one occupying each corner of the modest space of the gallery, the fifth welcoming visitors into the exhibit. Lining the walls of The Combine Project are White’s lithographic prints on steel and wood that depict layered images of crops and drawings from the original manual of the combine.
Like his previous exhibitions, White makes the viewer an active participant by giving them the tools to transform his hushed sculptures into moving musical objects. In Grain Bin Sound Machine, White uses a cubic section of the combine harvester to contain a forty-foot long track that is lined with bells. Viewers can insert a ball into the opaque, rust-coloured cube through a circular opening near the top of the piece. This then sends the ball spiralling down the track, ringing bells along the way. Viewers can look through small peep holes into the machine and watch the ball, while listening to the wind chime-like sounds. Printed on the outside of the piece are pale blue and pink depictions of crops that are surrounded by gears and machine parts. Other sculptures, such as Tooth Organ, Cricket and Molecular Roulette all have a crank which viewers can turn to create a unique sound.
The largest lithograph at 42” x 108”, Bee Breakdown, is again printed on combine parts. On the right of what appears to be a sheet of glass, a large depiction of the combine in pale yellow immediately grabs the eye. After further observation, pale blue and orange insects and crops cover the rest of the glass. Behind is a grid-like piece made of metal and wood through which light passes, creating a large shadow on the wall.
Although each of White’s pieces vary widely in form and sound, the use of combine harvester parts in all of his work and the reoccurring connections between agriculture and technology help tie White’s sculptures and lithographs together. While kinetic sculptures and the theme of environmental tension is not new for White, the specific issue of aging technology and the resulting impact on the agricultural industry is unexplored territory for this artist. By using an outdated combine harvester as the medium in his works, and incorporating additional agricultural references with lithography, White highlights the struggles of the family farm. The importing of international agricultural products has made it hard for family farms to make any profit. The interactive nature of this exhibit emphasizes people’s individual contribution to the family farm’s struggle, as most shop at large chain grocery stores and not at local farmer’s markets. In addition, advancements in technology have left family farms and combine harvesters in the past and put factory farms and more efficient machinery as the present and future. What some may consider as improvements in technology is also what is phasing out family farms in the agricultural industry. This toss-up is what The Combine Project addresses.
White’s focus on the interaction between technology and the natural environment makes his work seem particularly at home in Hamilton’s Museum of Steam and Technology. The museum showcases obsolete machinery that was used to harness a natural resource, and today is a reminder of the advancements in technology that has occurred over centuries. The Combine Project is created with an out-dated combine harvester that was used to harvest crops, and represents the consequences of changes in technology within the agricultural industry. While the museum celebrates the advancements in technology that gave society access to clean drinking water, The Combine Project highlights the negative changes such types of advancements can have on society. This interesting discourse exposes gallery and museum viewers to the difficulties behind technology and its so called “advancement”.
While White is successful at showing the complexity of the relationship between technology and nature, there are additional aspects of this relationship that could have been explored. Had White showcased more of the gradual abandonment of the combine harvester, perhaps with lithographs of the machine being taken apart, piece by piece, it would have helped narrate a feeling of change and evolution of technology, rather than simply a choice to abandon a way of farming. Paralleling this gradual change of machinery with the gradual change in farming infrastructure could have further established the influential role that technology can have on society.
White has received much deserved attention and praise for The Combine Project, and it has been showcased at the Tom Thomson Gallery, Robert Langen Art Gallery and the Grimsby Public Art Gallerymbed. It will be at the Hamilton Museum of Steam and Technology until June 20