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TED2012

Reuben Margolin: Sculpting waves in wood and time

March 1, 2012

Reuben Margolin is a kinetic sculptor, crafting beautiful pieces that move in the pattern of raindrops falling and waves combining. Take nine minutes and be mesmerized by his meditative art -- inspired in equal parts by math and nature.

Reuben Margolin - Kinetic sculptor
Reuben Margolin's moving sculptures combine the logic of math with the sensuousness of nature. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Usually I like working in my shop,
00:15
but when it's raining and the driveway outside turns into a river,
00:17
then I just love it.
00:22
And I'll cut some wood and drill some holes and watch the water,
00:24
and maybe I'll have to walk around and look for washers.
00:27
You have no idea how much time I spend.
00:30
This is the "Double Raindrop."
00:33
Of all my sculptures, it's the most talkative.
00:35
It adds together the interference pattern
00:43
from two raindrops that land near each other.
00:46
Instead of expanding circles, they're expanding hexagons.
00:50
All the sculptures move by mechanical means.
01:00
Do you see how there's three peaks to the yellow sine wave?
01:10
Right here I'm adding a sine wave with four peaks and turning it on.
01:14
Eight hundred two-liter soda bottles --
01:35
oh yea.
01:39
(Laughter)
01:41
Four hundred aluminum cans.
01:53
Tule is a reed that's native to California,
01:59
and the best thing about working with it is that it smells just delicious.
02:02
A single drop of rain
02:21
increasing amplitude.
02:24
The spiral eddy that trails a paddle on a rafting trip.
02:48
This adds together four different waves.
03:03
And here I'm going to pull out the double wavelengths
03:06
and increase the single.
03:09
The mechanism that drives it has nine motors
03:12
and about 3,000 pulleys.
03:15
Four hundred and forty-five strings in a three-dimensional weave.
03:27
Transferred to a larger scale --
03:32
actually a lot larger, with a lot of help --
03:35
14,064 bicycle reflectors --
03:38
a 20-day install.
03:42
"Connected" is a collaboration
04:05
with choreographer Gideon Obarzanek.
04:06
Strings attached to dancers.
04:10
This is very early rehearsal footage,
04:13
but the finished work's on tour
04:16
and is actually coming through L.A. in a couple weeks.
04:18
A pair of helices and 40 wooden slats.
04:27
Take your finger and draw this line.
04:53
Summer, fall, winter, spring,
04:56
noon, dusk, dark, dawn.
05:00
Have you ever seen those stratus clouds
05:06
that go in parallel stripes across the sky?
05:09
Did you know that's a continuous sheet of cloud
05:12
that's dipping in and out of the condensation layer?
05:15
What if every seemingly isolated object
05:18
was actually just where the continuous wave of that object
05:21
poked through into our world?
05:25
The Earth is neither flat nor round.
05:28
It's wavy.
05:33
It sounds good, but I'll bet you know in your gut that it's not the whole truth,
05:37
and I'll tell you why.
05:43
I have a two-year-old daughter who's the best thing ever.
05:44
And I'm just going to come out and say it:
05:46
My daughter is not a wave.
05:48
And you might say, "Surely, Rueben, if you took even just the slightest step back,
05:52
the cycles of hunger and eating,
05:56
waking and sleeping, laughing and crying
05:59
would emerge as pattern."
06:02
But I would say, "If I did that,
06:05
too much would be lost."
06:07
This tension between the need to look deeper
06:11
and the beauty and immediacy of the world,
06:15
where if you even try to look deeper you've already missed what you're looking for,
06:18
this tension is what makes the sculptures move.
06:22
And for me, the path between these two extremes
06:25
takes the shape of a wave.
06:28
Let me show you one more.
06:30
Thank you very much. Thanks.
07:15
(Applause)
07:18
Thanks.
07:21
(Applause)
07:22
June Cohen: Looking at each of your sculptures,
07:26
they evoke so many different images.
07:28
Some of them are like the wind and some are like waves,
07:30
and sometimes they look alive and sometimes they seem like math.
07:33
Is there an actual inspiration behind each one?
07:36
Are you thinking of something physical or somthing tangible as you design it?
07:38
RM: Well some of them definitely have a direct observation --
07:42
like literally two raindrops falling,
07:45
and just watching that pattern is so stunning.
07:48
And then just trying to figure out how to make that using stuff.
07:51
I like working with my hands.
07:56
There's nothing better than cutting a piece of wood
07:59
and trying to make it move.
08:01
JC: And does it ever change?
08:03
Do you think you're designing one thing,
08:05
and then when it's produced it looks like something else?
08:06
RM: The "Double Raindrop" I worked on for nine months,
08:08
and when I finally turned it on,
08:11
I actually hated it.
08:13
The very moment I turned it on, I hated it.
08:17
It was like a really deep-down gut reaction, and I wanted to throw it out.
08:21
And I happened to have a friend who was over,
08:25
and he said, "Why don't you just wait."
08:27
And I waited, and the next day I liked it a bit better,
08:29
the next day I liked it a bit better, and now I really love it.
08:33
And so I guess, one, the gut reactions a little bit wrong sometimes,
08:36
and two, it does not look like as expected.
08:41
JC: The relationship evolves over time.
08:43
Well thank you so much. That was a gorgeous treat for us.
08:46
RM: Thanks. (JC: Thank you, Reuben.)
08:46
(Applause)
08:49
Translator:Timothy Covell
Reviewer:Morton Bast

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Reuben Margolin - Kinetic sculptor
Reuben Margolin's moving sculptures combine the logic of math with the sensuousness of nature.

Why you should listen
Reuben Margolin makes wave-like sculptures that undulate, spiral, bob and dip in gloriously natural-seeming ways, driven by arrays of cogs and gears. As a kid, Margolin was into math and physics; at college, he switched to liberal arts and ended up studying painting in Italy and Russia. Inspired by the movement of a little green caterpillar, he began trying to capture movements of nature in sculptural form. Now, at his studio in Emeryville, California, he makes large-scale undulating installations of wood and recycled stuff. He also makes pedal-powered rickshaws and has collaborated on several large-scale pedal-powered vehicles.
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