“Danger! Danger, Will Robinson!”
Lost in Space
. . . and robots we will have. Along with our communicators, dinner-in-a-pill and our flying cars, these sleek, gleaming metal men and women with cybernetic brains, cleansed of the pesky weaknesses, foibles or emotions of humanity, were a staple of the futuristic visions—uptopian and dystopian—of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. And the Sonoma County Museum has them, just for us.
First, a spoiler; they aren’t real robots.* They aren’t Carpet Roombas or machines that build cars. The displays in the exhibition Robots, Evolution of a Cultural Icon, are artistic, not historical, as various artists give full creative rein to their inner ten-year-olds.
The Museum is located at 475 7th Street, in Santa Rosa, one block west of B Street, right across the street from the Santa Rosa Mall parking structure. Back in the 1970s or early 80s when they split Old Courthouse Square, they put the 1910 Santa Rosa Post Office up on rollers and moved it to 7th Street where it sat (on rollers) for months or maybe years until somebody rescued it and it became the museum. The floors are marble; the doors have a strong Arts and Crafts influence, as do the brass chandeliers. All of this, somehow, is a perfect contrast to a show about robots. In the foyer, three metal robot masks by Nemo Gould hang on the wall. A robot with a light in its hand flanks the curving staircase up to the upstairs gallery.
Robots are manifested in metal, in paint and paper, and in video. On one wall, a shadow box depicts a boxy robot, with its robot dog, sitting in a recliner with a box of tissues, watching a 50s-era console TV. On canvas, we are treated to a celebrity installment of Robots Behaving Badly, featuring the Lost in Space robot, in Michael Mew’s Pulling the Plug. There are several found-object sculptures. One of my favorites is a small robot made from a lawn sprinkler and a garden trowel. Patrick Amiot, western Sonoma County’s renowned “junk sculptor” has two charming pieces in the show. There are three video displays. One incorporates books, both physical books and digital footage of pages, riffled by a robotic hand, until they morph into film. There is also a music video by the pop singer Bjork which features two female robots falling in love. This is in the Mature Audiences section of the exhibit. No, really. I’m not making that up.
Nemo Gould must really love robots, because he is well-represented in this show. Several of his pieces are interactive. Two small, non-threatening robots have push buttons. One is called Blink. Guess what it does. The other one rocks from side to side when you press the button, and is waa-aay more interesting than I just made it sound.
His third interactive piece is a six-foot-tall mechanical man with red eyes and twin gun holsters. Its curving metal fingers hover just centimeters above the handles. This robot, connected to a motion sensor, rolls its shoulders in a menacing way whenever an innocent bystander comes within range. This robot disturbed me, but fascinated me. It kept reminding me of Stephen King’s Gunslinger series, and not just because it’s a gunslinger. There are animatronic animals in the Gunslinger books, and there is a gunslinger (duh!) but there isn’t, to my recollection, a robotic gunslinger. Still, this guy evoked those books for me. I’m still not sure why. Something about the low-pitched whirring sound the machine makes as the shoulders roll, unlimbering those arms for a quick draw and fire. . .eek! I’ll just go over here and look at the nice oil paintings now.
This is a fun show, and mostly great for kids. The cost is $5 for adults. It runs through the first week of April.
While I was there I went upstairs to check out that gallery, which had old oil paintings of northern California—redwood trees, lakes, rivers, waterfalls—combined with some historical artifacts including the hot spring spas and the narrow-gauge railroad. Since then, that exhibit has been replaced with an Artquest show, displaying the art of Santa Rosa’s artistic high school students. I imagine it’s a pretty good show.
But the robots are the coolest.
*The museum has added a display of robotic toy and “real” robots in one of the side rooms.