In 1738, the inventor Jacques Vaucanson exhibited “an artificial Duck made of gilded copper which drinks, eats, quacks, splashes about on the water, and digests his food like a living duck.” The lever-driven mechanism was a sensation in Paris, drawing praise from even Voltaire. Unfortunately, the only image we have is a nineteenth-century photograph of it (or of a ruined copy made by a German clockmaker) depicting a plucked, skeletal, metal bird standing, featherless wings outstretched, atop a mechanical apparatus with gears the size of tree trunks.
Dave Meeker would have applauded the automaton, too: as a child obsessed with mechanical life, he dreamt of becoming a robot himself. As an adult sculptor, he now chooses to “bring to life [the discarded and invisible] dead objects” of contemporary industrial society. In his 2005-07 series Breathe, he equips plastic bags and condoms with motorized artificial respiration, combining the modernist traditions of kinetic art, assemblage/collage, and sex-machine imagery (from Dada and Surrealism). The most egregiously funny of these works is “Dandy,” a trio of mechanical dandelions with blooming/wilting latex petals, and a title referring to the Parisian dandies and boulevardiers of the 19th century, affluent types who supported modern art and should have used protection. An array of condoms similarly grows and dies in “Fescue,” named after the popular variety of grass, and “Resurrection Fern (Bag Slab),” named after the epiphytic air plant Polypodium polypodioides. Erectile function continues in “Balloon Time Jack,” a set of telescoping cardboard boxes that lengthens into an oedipal edifice (with setbacks), and collapses into itself, like a Chinese coiled-paper yo-yo. More strictly botanical in feeling are “Lupine (Blue Hawaii)” and “Grape/Raisin,” respectively cycling through growth and decay, or plump juiciness and desiccation.
Earlier works dating from the 1970s and 1980s satirize religion and politics. “Unintended Consequences: Rio de Janeiro” lets viewers deluge a souvenir statue of Christ the Redeemer, arms extended, crosslike, with air-tossed foam, suggesting an electrically powered snow globe. “Unintended Consequences: Washington DC” lets viewers switch on powerful lights, heating up the thermometer mercury in the Washington Monument souvenir. Even more scathing are “Housewife,” with its crumpled sex doll in her house-shaped vitrine awaiting rejuvenation from an attached Electrolux vacuum cleaner, and “American Handicapped, Deaf, Dumb and Blind,” a simulated white marble bust (made from Parisian toilet paper) of a bald or hooded man with his eyes and mouth stitched shut. Plugged In 1978-2009 runs through February 27 at Mercury 20 Gallery (25 Grand Ave., Oakland). 510-701-4620 or MercuryTwenty.com