Charles Wisseman, Mixed Media Artist



Monkey box-- The curious case of george

Posted on December 19, 2013 at 6:20 PM

THE CURIOUS CASE OF GEORGE December 2013 (the primate papers)

I first thought of this box while taking a class on Automata (mechanical toys) at Arrowmont Craft School in summer of 2013, taught by Michael Croft. He taught a fun introduction to the type of mechanical toys which had a revival in Britain, starting in the 1960’s. These are simpler than classical automata (think the movie “Hugo”), are often humorous, and have an open structure to show the mechanics. There was not really time in this one- week class, without my usual tools and materials, to make a complex box.


I just made as many models of mechanisms as I could to get a feel for how these simple subcomponents worked, left me with a set of models for inspiration and study, made me guilty for not making more, and expanded my artistic working vocabulary. If I haven’t physically made something, I tend not to think of using it again. I decided to make this box before I forgot what I had learned, and to be able to show the instructor that I really can do something original instead of just copying models. I have been putting more movement and interaction into my projects recently, which is why I chose to take the class.



This three-monkey “See no evil, hear no evil, say no evil” is an old image that I like, and I have bought some small carved versions of this in tourist shops in the past. Making a moving version of this seemed like a moderately challenging, but doable, project. Influences on designing this box include:




1. Curious George, the children’s story. Everyone loves monkeys (except for people who have to live closely with them. Monkeys in places in Asia are becoming disruptive as they are displaced from the wild into cities). Monkey gods feature in some religions. Animal rights groups recently sued to give captive chimpanzees full human rights. One description of the mammalian mind is the lower reptilian brain overlaid and constrained by the monkey brain. I have always been interested in primate behavior, human development and evolution.



When did we as a species cross the threshold into moral reasoning? Some primates appear to have a well-developed sense of fair-play. Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind is unlikely, but it is fascinating to consider that full development of the human mind took place only in historical times. I decided that this box would be about the everyman (or everyprimate), because I believe the line between man and animal is closer than most people would like to believe.










2. I took a course on the nature of evil at the local Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (retirement is wonderful for having time to do new things.) Evil comes in various types—existential (we all die), natural (bad things befall good people), and moral (people chose to do bad things). I think a lot about these things as I read the news. The NSA sees and hears too much; privacy is becoming elusive in the internet electronic age ,so lying and cheating are now both easier and harder to get away with.



Psychology and neuroscience document how slippery memory can be and how people at different ends of the conservative-liberal spectrum actually perceive reality quite differently; politicians want plausible deniability; many people don’t seem to share the same reality that I perceive; churches and priests take a moral high ground, but behave badly and cause great harm. Does human nature favor war or cooperation? Psychology experiments show that ordinary people can become moral monsters when given dominance over others.











3. I decided to use the three monkey theme to play with the idea of our dual nature:

inner vs outer man, public vs private, conscious vs unconscious.

The outer box is the everyman “George”, named after the monkey, but also all the other Georges—kings, presidents, playwrights, authors, comedians. The external case shows a face. Eyebrows and ears are hand-forged steel hinges. The ear holes have orange foam ear plugs— “Hear No Evil”.




The eyes have patterned red enameled copper discs eyes raised up on walnut wood discs, with fish-eye door security viewers through central holes. On the reverse side are small accordion-folded Tyvek curtains, which can be raised by pulling on a cord at the top of each door (concealed by the fringe of frayed canvas “hair”)—

“See No Evil”.







Wooden strips and a cloth fringe “mustache” define the nose and central face. Nostrils are steel bushings (found at a blacksmith meeting last summer). The mouth is formed by thirteen pairs of purpleheart wood sticks which are connected by springs at the back, and move in a coupled “wave” pattern when the small wooden sticks on a dowel shaft between rows turn in sequence. (Everyone in the class loved this simple mechanism). As these small inner sticks turn, they spell out-- “Say No Evil” .


A green cord hangs from one nostril—pulling this cord allows the upper two panels on each side to swing open to reveal the inner mechanisms. (I could not pass up the juvenile humor of this “booger-pull” mechanism).










The middle level on the inside contains the three cams on a shaft which operate the monkeys in the upper inside compartment. The cams raise three shafts in sequence through the floor of the upper compartment. There are identical simple monkey face graphics (found on the web) on the top of each shaft. These move up and down in sequence from left to right. The shafts also operate sliders to cause arms to swivel apart and together on the walnut wood blocks which suggest monkey torsos.




On top of each arm are red-on-white hand images (bottle caps from the left hand brewing company-- I like their milk stout—so all of the hands are left hands). These move to the middle to cover eyes, ears or mouth in sequence, and then move apart. Simple fixed legs and feet are made from plumbing pipe straps.







Behind the monkeys is a simple cloud-in-blue-sky watercolor image-- kindly painted to order by my wife. Between each monkey is a bit of beige paper made from prairie plants in my yard, with simple vertical greenish strokes suggesting foreground grass. The background for the upper level can fold down to allow in light for viewing the monkeys through the fish-eye viewers when the front panels are closed, and to allow inspection and adjustment of the mechanism.





External cranks on the mouth shaft extending from the lower level and the cam shaft from the middle level can be operated independently, or joined by a removable pulley belt. The crank handles and pulley are stored in a small compartment in the lower level, accessible from the rear. Also hidden in the lower level is a music box mechanism which plays a Scott Joplin rag, with a winding key coming out the back of the box.




I like projects which require viewer interaction, have movement, and engage multiple senses. The danger is to make something too busy or complex, but I hope every part of this box makes sense and contributes to the whole. All these things are very fiddly, and easy to throw out of adjustment—I now have huge respect for artisans who design and build these mechanisms.





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