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Artist Martin Smith discusses the craft of his wondrous automatons

The automation artist Martin Smith, who lives and works in the United Kingdom, explores his practice that engages the audience’s perspective of space and objects.

by Manu SharmaPublished on : Jul 19, 2023

The British artist Martin Smith, who was born in Hannover, Germany, and lives and works in the United Kingdom, has a practice grounded within research that explores people's perceptions and interpretations of spaces and objects. He creates intricate automata and kinetic art that are simply sublime in their functioning. The artist also undertakes large architectural commissions that interact with the spaces they are housed in, along with his audience, through mechanical movement. Conversely, Smith also pursues the engineering of smaller mechanical devices that investigate themes of repetition, beauty, precision and rules. He says, “These utopian objects and spaces are what currently drive my work forward,” which is very telling of his fascination, and perhaps even reverence, for his own craft.

Wishing You Well, 2019 | Martin Smith Studio | STIRworld
Wishing You Well, 2019 Image: Courtesy of Martin Smith Studio

Smith is one of those artists who feel spurred to perfect the intricacies of the artefacts he constructs; a world away from creatives that favour minimalism. While each indeed has its own place, work such as his likely cannot be understood quite as easily as the craft of many other creatives, leaving audiences with a mixed sense of awe and befuddlement. Smith certainly goes against the grain where creative genres are concerned, but, in his own words, “I find rules allow me to find freedom, as I push against their edges in order to develop and make work that is independent and convincing.”

Applause Money Box, 2020 Video: Courtesy of Martin Smith Studio

Smith tells STIR, “Constant research and investigation underpins my creative practice; weaving a thread through all the works I produce. This knowledge adds to my visual language and conceptual thinking, feeding into new lines of enquiry, ideas and works. Part of my creative practice is concerned with making kinetic devices that investigate themes of humour, nonsense and futility.” A subversive sort of humour in particular plays a much greater role in his practice than one might initially imagine. Take The Applause Machine, for example. The artist originally designed and produced the piece in order to gently poke fun at himself. He mentions that his audience often finds this piece to be a bit frivolous, but to him, there is a rather sarcastic, or even dark undertone present here. “Its cheerfulness is underpinned with cynicism,” he says. “My work involves telling stories but not in a literal and linear way. When you are activating or engaging with one of my pieces, you are then part of the performance. I hope to bring joy and a little bit of wonder by creating mechanical illusions. My work is bright and happy, subtly hiding its dark undertones.”

Cache Machine, 2016 Video: Courtesy of Martin Smith Studio

The automation artist sees himself first and foremost as an artist and maker before a researcher, with all of his work being made in his studio. “As a reflection of my work, my creative space and time is divided up sequentially and methodically. There are usually five projects, each at a different stage, running at the same time. Mondays are manufacturing days where I use the time to make editions and parts. This structured start to the week gives me a way into the creative process and allows me to think of the problems ahead. Tuesdays to Thursdays are used on projects and commissions, where harder thinking is required. If it has been a good week, Friday is playday,” Smith shares. He mentions that his career path was influenced by artists he describes as bastions of British art in automata making. These include Sam Smith, Paul Spooner, Peter Markey and Rowland Emett. His practice is also informed by the philosophy and approach of Bauhaus and American kinetic sculpture, specifically by George Rickey and Alexander Calder. Apart from these artists, Smith possesses a love for stop motion animation and its ability to tell stories, and cites Cosgrove Hall, Aardman Animation and The Brothers Quay as particular examples of creative excellence within the genre.

Wishing You Well, 2019 Video: Courtesy of Martin Smith Studio

The artist explores his background, and tells STIR, “I am a British artist but was born in Hannover, Germany as my family was living there in the early 1970s. I was one of those children who was always taking things apart and putting them back together again. I wanted to know how things worked, and that combined with a love of art and design showed me my way forward in life. Eventually, I studied at Herefordshire College of Art in the UK.” It was in England that he became excited by materials and their possibilities. Over the course of his career, Smith has become extremely meticulous about every aspect of his work. Ideas for new work are sketched neatly in notebooks and each prototype is made with as much care as the final, finished object. A piece such as his Heart Machine has dozens of different pieces and is entirely handmade. “I know some people think that I buy the components in and it’s just a matter of assembly, but honestly, it’s not. Every nut, every bolt is made from scratch.” This displays a startling, and perhaps what some might call excessive commitment to authenticity within his use of automation technology, but there is a sense of creative liberation here that most artists who assemble by hand will not be able to access: Smith decides every single detail of his work, right from the dimensions of his pieces to the way his parts interconnect, and is not even held back by standardised mechanical dimensions.

Portrait picture of Martin Smith at work in his studio | Martin Smith Studio | STIRworld
Portrait picture of Martin Smith at work in his studio Image: Courtesy of Martin Smith Studio

The artist is quite happy at the acclaim he has received for his fascinating creative practice, and says, “I am very lucky that my works are commissioned and exhibited worldwide. Collectors include the fashion designer Sir Paul Smith who has several of my pieces as did the late actress Carrie Fisher.” He adds, with a touch of humour, “As an avid Star Wars fan, I’m particularly proud Princess Leia owned an Applause Machine.” And, yet, the artist’s star continues to rise, with ever more intricate work coming out of his studio. He does not disclose too much about his plans for the near future, but ends his interview with STIR with these words: “I carefully plan ahead but not too far as things happen that surprise and knock you off course. The scale of the work is continuously increasing as clients ask for bigger and more complex site-specific pieces.”

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