WRITER: Warren Singh-Bartlett
Working with materials others consider unlovely rubbish, Theo Kamecke crafts exquisite pieces of sculpture that embody duality and which belong simultaneously to the ancient past and the far-flung future.
I vividly remember the first time I saw Theo Kamecke’s work. It was a freezing cold morning in February 2007. I was at home, procrastinating, already way past deadline on a story about a local architect about whom, regretfully, I could find very little to say. So instead of typing diligently, I was site hopping. Scrolling through one of my favourite (now sadly defunct) blogs, I came across one of the most exquisite pieces of, well, I wasn’t sure what it was - furniture? sculpture? - that I’d ever seen.
A sloping black obelisk of a box, its uppermost panel was adorned with a head-sized black sun that gave off golden cruciform rays, around and below which a profusion of delicate silver tracery reigned. There were repeating bands of pattern, some seemingly floral, some messily organic, others more suggestive of hieroglyphs or Arabic calligraphy, words that I felt I should be able to read.
My jaw dropped. This object, whatever it was, exuded a power that was palpable through the screen. I could only imagine the overwhelming effect it would have in person. Visceral and primordial, it was at once curiously familiar and disconcertingly alien. The patterning channelled ancient Egypt, Abbasid Baghdad and Chichen Itza but its smooth, rigid geometries suggested somewhere else altogether. If told it had been found in a 3,000-year-old tomb or by NASA, orbiting the Earth, I wouldn’t have blinked.
Entranced, I read on and came across two names. One was for the object - it was called the Frog Scribe’s Chronicle - the other was for its maker. Theo Kamecke. A little Googling revealed that he was a former filmmaker – his Moonwalk One, a documentary shot for NASA about the Apollo 11 mission, that manages to weave in images of Stonehenge, is a poetic cult classic - and artist. A little more revealed that what I was looking at had been assembled from old circuit boards.
At this point, my own circuit boards almost fried. Now that I knew what I was looking at, I could see it but I would never have guessed. I also discovered that he lived not on Titan’s moons but in upstate New York and while both destinations were, at thatpoint, equally unreachable, I resolved that one day, I would find a way to meet him.
And so it was that in the slightly warmer April of 2013, I find myself on a train heading northwest out of New York, on my way to meet the man who made that obelisk. I alight in Hudson and we drive out to Kamecke’s studio, an 18th century farmhouse in Catskill country. It reminds me instantly of another workshop in deepest Essex, which belongs to a close college friend, who is one of Britain’s premier violinmakers. I have only just arrived but immediately, I feel at home.
After a cup of tea and some biscuits, we amble across the garden, past a couple of wind-chimes made mostly from household objects and farm implements Kamecke has unearthed over the years, to the big barn where he makes his pieces.
As classical music plays in the background, I wander around the expansive workshop, a wonderland of carefully boxed and labelled circuit boards bearing names like Serpentine, Glyphs, Byzantine, Indian, Gabon, Northwest and other boxes of startlinglylarge old school computer chips and assorted plastic body parts, left over from an earlier series involving mannequins.
Compositions in various stages of readiness, from entire panels to ideas still in formation, lie on the tabletops. In the far corner, to the right of a gigantic cabinet draped in a sheet to protect it from dust are his tools. Drills, rotary saws, chisels, screwdrivers, it’s more joinery than artist’s studio. Upstairs – there’s a small mezzanine level at the opposite end of the barn – some of Kamecke’s completed pieces stand. Totemic, they are essays in duality. Ancient and modern. Primitive and Science Fictional. Ethereal and utilitarian.
“The job of a circuit is only to fulfil its function,” Kamecke tells me, adding that the designers of these boards had no sense they were creating such beauty. Like enlightenment, their allure is a by-product. “If the lines wiggle, it’s so that they can get around other lines or other contact points and so that it will fit whatever component will later be fixed on the board. There’s no aesthetic thought given to any of this.”
Well, not until Kamecke gets hold of them. Like any sculptor, he is able to see beneath a surface and in his hands, these unassuming fibreglass boards are reworked, clipped, dyed black to throw their intricate metal circuitry into relief and arranged in sets and parallels, until their inadvertent artistry is revealed.His entry into the world of circuity was inadvertent too.
“I was once at a factory that made circuits and there was a pile of stuff waiting to be recycled for gold content. I said ‘wow, these are really beautiful’ and they looked at me kind of oddly because you know, they don’t find these things beautiful,” he says, irony tingeing his voice. “I said ‘how much would you charge for this?’ They gave me a fair price and I just kept the stuff. Somehow it ended up in my basement and one day, when I was getting bored, I looked at it and wondered what I could do with it.”
As he rummages through his collection, for a moment, he seems to become a scryer, peering at tea leaves until shapes, figures and words emerge, so obvious in retrospect that it doesn’t seem possible anyone could have missed them. But that is Kamecke’s particular genius. If the intrinsic beauty of the circuit board is obvious to him, it isn’t necessarily to the rest of us.
“The most common reaction people have when I tell them what I do,” Kamecke tells me, pulling an incredulous expression by way of illustration, “is disbelief. They say, ‘you’re working with what?’ and their eyes glaze over a bit. I get that a lot.” He laughs. It’s rapid fire, staccato, a complete contrast to the measured, considered way in which he speaks.
I understand. Had I been told to have a look at a piece of art made using old computer circuits, my eyes would have glazed over too. But under Kamecke’s ministrations, these awkward components take on an elegance that seems impossible. They variously become swathes of material, inscriptions, early Modernist abstractions, totemic images, anything, in fact, but what they are.
Pieced together, the result isn’t furniture, even if the cabinet-like shape some of the pieces have sometimes suggested otherwise. None of Kamecke’s early pieces – he sold his first in 1988, to a buyer who had no idea what it was made of - were functional. If later ones have become mildly more so, as his skill as a carpenter has improved, their functionality remains an afterthought. These are objects to be looked at, not used. Made to be meditated upon.
“I loved filmmaking. I love the movement of images, all the kinds of things that you can combine in the craft of film but I also like the idea of something that just sits still, that impresses your mind, that doesn’t have any blinking lights. They could have been made thousands of years ago,” he says, waving at his objects, “they don’t do anything to make you look at them.”
I cut him off. Yes, I say, his objects do sit still. They do not whirr, or buzz, or light up but even sat mutely in a corner, they are anything but undemanding. Even his smallest boxes radiate a presence that is impossible to ignore. Kamecke laughs again. I persist. Put their materials and sophistication to one side and they could indeed be objects made “thousands of years ago” but their duality, their ancient modernity, means they exist outside of time and so speak to us on a primal, even a religious level. These obelisks and boxes and wall panels are urns, burial chambers, objects that should be orbiting the stars. Mysterious. Majestic. Divine. I’m half-convinced that were it not for the cumulative conditioning of 5,000 years of monotheism, I might have flung myself to the floor in supplication there and then.
“People like to be overwhelmed, they like to be awed and that’s what I went for. Besides the material lends itself to that,” he concedes, adding that thanks to the rapid evolution of technology, the replacement of circuit boards with ever-smaller computer chips, those materials are becoming harder and harder to source. “In that sense, I think of these pieces like Trilobites, they’re like looking at our ancient ancestors. That might be important in the future because I really believe that in 100 years, no one will be able to understand what technology is because it will be so small, it will be all around us. All around us and invisible.”
And so our conversation turns from Art, first to biological circuits and then to the hierarchy of human and machine. The immanence of technology. Spirituality. Soul. It could seem, given his love for circuitry, that Kamecke is another proponent of the hybrid, cyborg future some futurologists say awaits us. He isn’t. While it may be less and less obvious than before, the divide between (hu)man and machine is important to him. His pieces could be read as eulogies to the man-made, panegyrics to technology but really, they’re more about finding and then asserting the biological beauty, however inadvertent, in the artificial.
“Besides, if we get to the point when we agree the machine can do that,” he says of the Bach cantata playing on the radio, “which has changed, the machine or us?”
WHO Theo Kamecke
WHAT Filmmaker-turned artist/sculptor
WHERE Upstate New York
WHY For their sheer upcycling, otherworldly – and unlikely – beauty, Kamecke’s sculptures are astonishing. Quiet and quietly demanding, they are objects that are meant to provoke reflection as much as they are to be admired.