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A Short History of Mobiles

I made my first mobile as a young guy in his first real job, working for a scientific equipment company. We had lots of old O-rings kicking around so I liberated a few, strung them together to make solar systems and hung these on wire rods from the ceiling of my cockroach-infested warehouse digs. The good old days.

As a student of science and, later, business, I missed out on formal art history. (I don’t know art, but I know what I like, ha!) However, since joining John on this Mobairu experiment I’ve been trying to figure some of it out. Like, where do mobiles come from? And how do they fit into the world of art? That’s really the theme of this first Mobairu blog, my first blog ever. Let’s see how it goes.

Right. Mobiles are presumably ‘art’. By this I mean that their primary purpose is aesthetic, not functional. Attractiveness, I propose, is one key characteristic of what constitutes a mobile – attractiveness, not utility. Some of the other characteristics of mobiles, I reckon, are movement, balance and suspension. My working hypothesis is that an object needs all four of these qualities to constitute a mobile. For example, chandeliers hang from ceilings, suspension bridges are balanced and fly strips move in the breeze, but none are mobiles.

Let’s start with aesthetics. When did we hominids start producing things to be attractive rather than purely functional? While I think the hand axe below – likely produced more than one million years ago by a Homo erectus – is visually appealing, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t manufactured to be so.  It was made to do a job – digging for tubers, skinning animals, that sort of thing. Nevertheless, stone tools like this are the first surviving objects ‘created’ by man – essential precursors to the art that would appear many millennia later.

Erectus Stone Tool, 1m BP

Erectus did, however, produce the first surviving ‘work’ that is reckoned by (some) historians to constitute ‘art’. This object is a shell (below) into which the ‘artist’ carved geometric shapes some 500,000 years ago. (That’s a mind-boggling three hundred thousand years before Homo sapiens appeared.) Whether or not you think this is art (at the risk of being called a speciesist), it is clearly not functional. Hominins had started their journey towards mobiles.

It took the arrival of us – modern humans – to generate objects that are universally accepted as art. The oldest drawing (that we know of) comes from a cave in South Africa – a rock fragment (below) with cross hatched patterns made with ochre some 73,000 years ago.

Thereafter, Homo sapiens’ engagement with aesthetics accelerated and from 40,000 years ago we were producing the cave paintings and small sculptures that are typically associated with ‘prehistoric art’. From there, artists, as ever, built on the work of their predecessors until we ended up, in recent times, with the likes of Michelangelo, Degas, Calder, etc – the modern guys.

So that’s a quick look at the aesthetic dimension of mobiles: hominins have been producing aesthetically appealing, non-functional objéts for a very long time. Mobiles, as we know them today, are just one strand of this artistic evolution. Next up: movement.

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