U-Ram Choe’s animatronic organisms are at once ultramodern and quaintly aesthetic, evoking the antiquated futurism of Jules Verne. Entering the darkened space of the John Curtin Gallery, visitors encounter a fictional ecosystem populated by cybernetic life. Didactic panels convey the data collected by the mysterious U.R.A.M. (United Research of Anima Machines), stating that these mechanical creatures live symbiotically within the urban environment, feeding off human by-products such as electromagnetic energy and atmospheric pollutants.
The lifecycle of the sky-dwelling Urbanus species is presented through an interactive installation. The visitor’s movements trigger the reproductive spasms of Urbanus Female, a flower-like creature which discharges electrically charged light particles from her genitals. Her gaping, ferocious-looking petals open wider and wider as her internal light whirrs ecstatically. We are told that the male Urbanus flock around her to absorb the photons she emits, and we observe the Urbanus Male Larva, a diminutive specimen which flutters delicate petals resembling Art Nouveau fans. The Urbanus Female Larva is even more delicately wrought, fanning filigree-like leaves in response to the activity around her.
The monumental scale, meticulous engineering and luxurious design of these kinetic sculptures is powerfully seductive. Decorative motifs rendered in shining chrome take the work far beyond the utilitarian copper and leather flavours of Steampunk, which could be compared to Choe’s aesthetic of nineteenth century gadgetry. His work possesses an unashamedly popular appeal, captivating the general public as well as art audiences. This is primarily due to the spectacular qualities of the sculptures, but the frame in which he presents the work is also one which most audiences will be familiar with: the natural history museum.
It is easy to navigate this work, slipping seamlessly into the reverential attitude of wonder that nineteenth century museums attempt to cultivate. We are reminded of a time when the natural world was largely unknown, when there was a frenzy for discovery, classification and collection. At times this parallel is a little too direct, as we encounter long fish forms reminiscent of the whale skeletons that graced many a ceiling in the temples of natural history. The more abstract works are arguably most effective—Cakra-2552-a, a rotating mandala of chromed curlicues, is hypnotic in its motion.
This is an exhibition that achieves the rare feat of inspiring wonder in a broad audience without making overt concessions to the art outsider. Choe’s pursuit of ever more sophisticated and delicate machinery marries neatly with his fascination with the intersection of nature and technology. He asks his viewer to share his celebratory vision of this nexus.