Can't Help Myself

Sun Yuan + Peng Yu

Kuka industrial robot, stainless steel, rubber, cellulose ether in colored water, lighting grid with Cognex visual-recognition sensors, acrylic wall with aluminium frame

Can't Help Myself is a kinetic installation by the Chinese artist duo Sun Yuan and Peng Yu.

The work was originally produced for the exhibition „Tales of Our Time“ at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York in 2016, where it has been on view until 2017. The installation is currently on view at the 58th International Art Exhibition, the Biennale in Venice, Italy, as part of the main exhibition, curated by Ralph Rugoff, currently director of the Hayward Gallery in London. Interestingly enough, the title of this year’s Biennale is titled „May You Live In Interesting Times“, which refers to a phrase of English invention that has long been mistakenly cited as an ancient Chinese curse that invokes periods of uncertainty, crises and turmoil, which becomes immanent, watching Yuan’s and Yu’s installation at it’s Sisyphean work.

For Can't Help Myself, the artist duo has placed a gigantic mechanical construction with a robotic arm, one often seen on production lines such as those in car manufacturing, inside a hermetic glass cabinet ranging between display case and cage-like observation room in a laboratory, separating the splashing robot from the viewer. The predator-prey relationship between the two and the power structure between them oscillates from states of protection to voyeurism, creating an alternating state of mutual interest and indifference.

The robot is trained by the artists (in collaboration with two robotics engineers), to perform thirty-two different movements, gestures and dance-like poses, which let’s the machine turn, flex and „booty-shake“ as part of it’s choreography. Simultaneously, the robot is tasked with ensuing a thick, deep red liquid stays within predetermined area. The blood-like fluid naturally oozes away constantly from the designated area, triggering the visual-recognition sensors and engaging the machine to shovel it back into place with it’s rubber brush end, leaving smudges on the ground and splashes on the surrounding walls. The splashed and smeared molasses-like liquid enhances the overall contrast between organic and artificial, clinically sterile and excessive mess of the installation.

As the installation is a constant interplay between the robot and the fluid, it evokes questions about the relationship and the interrelated vulnerabilities between the organic and the mechanical. With Can't Help Myself, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu examine an increasingly automated global reality, one in which territories are controlled mechanically and the relationship between people and machines is rapidly changing. However, the bloodstain-like marks that accumulate around the installation also evoke subtle awareness of the violence that results from surveilling and guarding border zones as a consequence of an increasing use of technology to monitor our environment as part of different political agendas in the past, present and possible future.

The artist duo’s large installations often incorporate technological components that often instigate powerful physical and psychological reactions in the viewer. Sun Yuan & Peng Yu’s works often challenge systems of political and social authority, as they exemplify critical comments on the modern understanding and exercise of political constructs like the nation-state, sovereign territory, freedom, and democracy.