Turning to the Fourth Dimension

Peter Rand

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As if three dimensions were not enough!!!  But adding the fourth can tax the creative ingenuity and add artistic value and pleasure. Graceful movement, real movement, adds a whole new dimension to artistic content and perception.  Motion attracts, and can even mesmerize.  Throughout the ages artists of all kinds have conveyed the idea of motion in imaginative and effective ways. What I explore here is the idea of adding real motion to artistic wood art.  It appears to open a huge number of possible directions.


It all started when a hedgehog-like creature that I had turned looked at me from its shelf for a year, begging for appendages.  Some leftover guitar strings and an oversupply of walnuts provided the right weight and spring to append two long feelers-cum-eyes-cum-chemosensors to the head. Their slow swaying and long-lived movement were mesmerizing. I added a tail and suspended the whole on a log with three wire legs, legs as long as would provide support without collapsing (Figure 1). This "thingsect" (it has three invisible legs!) danced and swayed, wiggled and quivered itself into my heart; movement can do that.

Figure 1  



Many woodturnings are made to appear to move; walking and running and dancing bowls, carved waves, baseball bats that flowed as a baseball apparently grazed through it!!. There are many many others where implied movement is a prominent feature of the art.   But what of real movement, not just apparent or implied movement within static pieces?

Many woodturnings do actually move in interesting ways –such as rocking bowls and vessels with round bases, “trembleurs” where most of the wood is removed, and thin wood constructs.

It is useful to separate motion in a piece of wood art into two parts, whole body motion and internal motion.  In whole body motion the whole piece moves as a unit, such as the rocking bowl; internal motion involves relative movement between elements within the piece.


The properties of "weight-on-a-wire" began to intrigue me when I saw the wonderful motions of the ‘thingsect’.  I took the opportunity to explore this idea at the second Australian Collaboration in Mittagong in the fall of 2001.  Having travelled the week after September 11 I arrived without tools, and, being much too slow on a lathe to share it, I turned to mounting weights on vertical wires onto a naturally attractive log of firewood. I used a standard set of various caliper spring steel guitar strings, and gathered unfamiliar nuts and cones and many 'found' objects as weights.  Soon my 'collaborators' were turning and carving and painting objects to suspend on these vertically anchored wires.  The piece became a dynamic popourii of endless movement. I couldn't bring it home, such objects may never travel! - it was auctioned and helped provide travel money for the collaborators.  I have since created a Canadian version in further exploration of the many possible variations of weight-on-a-wire (Figure 2).

Figure 2

How can weights on a wire be so interesting?  Because of the amazing movements, based on fundamental physics, that one can get if some care and attention is taken.  Imagine a spring steel wire strictly upright, anchored at the bottom end and with a weight balanced and fixed to the top end. If the weight is not too much or the wire not too thin, the swaying motion when the weight is displaced  is pleasing,  especially  the longer and slower motion of a longer wire or heavier weight. Up to a certain length for a given weight, the system always comes to a rest at the original vertical position. But at longer lengths the system comes to rest flopped over in a graceful curve in some arbitrary direction.  Very importantly, at the boundary between these two conditions of length there exists an amazing complexity of motions - swaying, oscillating, rotating, shaking, bouncing, quivering.  At this critical length the system is sensitively poised where it can't 'decide' whether to be upright or flopped over.  This is the position of "Euler Instability", known in the physics and mechanics of things like buckling beams and plates. Very fundamentally, such boundaries between states in all systems, including mechanical, biological, ecological, and geological, represent the most interesting places to 'be'.  This is because since the system is poised among several alternatives, it has the most complex behaviour. Sensitive control of that behaviour can be effected at such boundaries by flipping it between states, and this endows the system with its most interesting properties. Disease states and damaged systems can also arise when control is hindered; and chaos can be born when all control is lost or when the system sits too close to the boundary between states.  You can explore these general principles with a wire held at the position of Euler instability.

Now, turn the wire upside down.  It is still a pendulum with the weight at the bottom. Will it oscillate more slowly, the same, or faster at the same length as when upright??!!  I was very surprised when I tried it.  In asking many friends to guess what would happen, the world divided into two in a surprising way I certainly didn't expect - my smartest physicist friends got it wrong, my more artistic less scientific friends got it right, almost invariably.  Guess.  Then try it.  Are you scientist or artist?

Whole body movement adds another, fourth, dimension to wood art. The weight on the wire can be almost anything, conventional turning, abstract object, perhaps several objects combined in narrative and 'installation' fashion. Instability can exaggerate real and beautiful motion, adding its grace to the art Figure 3a,b,c.

Figure 3a,b,c


Importantly, the closer the balance is to Euler instability the more likely the motion will be apparently "perpetual" or continuous: air currents can be picked up by very light pieces with lots of 'windage', or push very delicately balanced pieces: shaky floors can make heavy pieces 'talk'. For me movement created from interaction with the environment, or perhaps from a gentle nudge or blow from a participatory viewer, can contribute an exciting artistic element to wood art.


The movement born out of pieces assembled with flexible connections can be explored in 'deconstructed' woodturnings Figure 4.

Figure 4


Salvador Dali's soft watches, obvious and 'necessarily' hard objects, were painted to appear fluid, to have flowed.  Such surrealism inspired me to explore the possibilities of making woodturned objects which are both reshaped, as if they were soft, and connected so they actually move internally.

  My first attempts involved cutting simple shallow platters into many straight narrow and parallel strips, manipulating them in three dimensions and wiring them together with various springy wires.  They dance and wiggle, sway and bob (Figure 5), especially when mounted on a single springy support.

Figure 5


Next I tried cuts that were curved to various extents, in different directions and at changing intervals, and mounted on a single wire (Figure 6).

Figure 6


Some pieces show more direct connection to the original turned piece (Figure 7).

Figure 7


The spaces between parts can be varied in width.  They can be filled with coloured textiles and assembled into whimsical pieces (Figure 8). The possibilities seem endless.

Figure 8



The challenge for me is to add movement to the artistic, or rather more importantly, create an artistic whole which includes real movement.  So far I am personally predisposed to keeping the origin of the stationary woodturned piece at least within view. In that way one perceives that movement, both the reshaping of the object and the kinetics within it, has transformed a familiar object, be it platter, bowl or other identifiable vessel into a piece of kinetic art. Another quite different approach would be to sculpt in a similar way but to start, not with a 'turning', but with selected wood objects and combine them into a moving piece, creating kinetic art as is done in other media. For me surrealism is a great attraction; Dali's surrealistic soft watches, if they were not transformed hard objects like watches, would be more ordinary and realistic puddles or soft material of some kind. So at the moment, I envisage keeping the turned object, however reshaped, within view, and reflected, however remotely, in the final moving piece. To begin with a platter, bowl, vase or some other identifiable object, and then start sculpting it to include flowing shapes and real movement has exciting possibilities that appear to be largely unexplored.

(Reprinted from "American Woodturner" Vol. 17 No.3  - Fall 2002)

Peter Rand,

1278 Line 2 RR#6

Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario,

Canada. L0S1J0

Tel : 905-468-2889

e-mail:   rrand@brocku.ca

www:    http://peterrand.ca