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John Kalymnios: Out of Nature
December 10, 2004–February 27, 2005

John Kalymnios, Untitled (Butterfly) (detail), 2003

29 butterflies mounted on aluminum, motors, each 4 1/2 X 6 inches, variable heights

Collection of Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art


That is no country for old men. The young

In one another's arms, birds in the trees

—Those dying generations—at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or foul, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unageing intellect.


An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress,

Nor is there singing school but studying

Monuments of its own magnificence;

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come

To the holy city of Byzantium.

 O sages standing in God's holy fire

As in the gold mosaic of a wall,

Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,

And be the singing-masters of my soul.

Consume my heart away; sick with desire

And fastened to a dying animal

It knows not what it is; and gather me

Into the artifice of eternity.


Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.


—"Sailing to Byzantine," William Butler Yeats, 1927

For poet William Butler Yeats, Byzantium was a metaphor for several things: a paradise awaiting him upon exiting this world; the apogee of artistic brilliance; an

immortality achieved through a lasting work of art; and a sublime refuge for the soul. Yeats's poem reveals the longing to abandon the ephemeral realm of nature, where the ravages of time leave the artistic spirit vulnerable to destruction, where “the heart is fastened to a dying animal,” slowly killing the desire of the artistic spirit “unless soul clap its hands and sing.” Taking us Out of Nature , John Kalymnios's work allows the artistic soul to clap its hands and sing in an orchestra of languid, mechanical grace and reinvented perspective as resurrected butterflies flutter their wings, mirrors and lenses alter and dissect our perspective in a mosaic of reflections, acrylic spirals rotate in a mesmerizing rhythm, and invented cloudscapes float gently across the horizon. LikeYeats's Byzantium, Kalymnios's sublime environment offers a quiet, meditative refuge—an alternate, ethereal world that moves in a gentler, cyclical structure of time.

Kalymnios shares with Yeats a fascination with the artificial and its permanence, perfection, and supposed superiority to nature. His work may also reflect an interest in the exquisite artistry and craftsmanship of ancient Byzantium, as he forgoes complex technology and employs rudimentary means to achieve mechanical virtuosity, like the majestic works that Yeats's “Grecian goldsmiths make of hammered gold.” Although Kalymnios's choice of media is perhaps more modest (Lucite, Corian, aluminum, glass mirrors, and simple motors), he shares with the artisans of Byzantium the ability to inspire us with awe and wonderment through his optically illusive and hypnotic configurations.

Kalymnios does not merely deconstruct nature, he perfects it. He extracts from it the reverie and serenity it can bring us in our most elevating encounters with it, and then frees it from the deterioration of time by adding mechanical elements. On occasion, Kalymnios's kinetic sculptures even resurrect nature, as with Untitled (Butterfly) (2003) in which 29 dead butterflies are given new life. As miraculous as the new life from the cocoon in nature may be, it is fleeting; Kalymnios, however, allows the miracle to live on by animating the insects with the help of motorized wires. What results is a flock of iridescent butterflies moving their delicate wings in a simulation of flight, long after their demise. Kalymnios's ability to eternalize the new life of the butterfly recalls Yeats's line, “Once out of nature, I shall never take my bodily form from any living thing/but such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make … set upon a golden bough to sing … of what is past, passing, or to come.”

In other works it is our visual perception of the body that Kalymnios manipulates, with our participation at the heart of his experiment. Untitled (Fresnel) (2001) consists of two curved walls of interlocking Fresnel lenses (lightweight magnifying lenses originally created to enlarge and direct the light beams coming from lighthouses and more commonly used to assist the visually impaired) that create an effect similar to a fun house hall of mirrors. The viewer moves through the structure, but rather than seeing distorted images through a reflection, the lenses serve as a filter. Depending on the viewer's angle, the figures on the other side may appear misshapen, distorted, inverted, or remarkably clear, just as the viewer will appear from the opposite side. The viewer is simultaneously subject and object. The lenses distort, blur, soften, and obscure the very details that inform our perceptions of age or beauty. The contrast between misshapen figures and their sudden clarity force us to reevaluate the natural corporeal form we take for granted and its potential to be transformed through art. Kalymnios's Fresnel lens piece allows us to see the body spilling and stretching outside of nature's boundaries. We see the body transcending its assigned appearance in this world, bringing to mind ideas of the body's form or possible role in an afterlife and the connection of the body to the soul.

Another work that defies our perspective is Untitled (Mirror) (2001), in which a large mirror serves as a base for a group of smaller circular mirrors that rotate with the help of a simple motor. With our reflections dispersed among the moving mirrors, we feel a connection to the continuous motion of the tiny images, as the entire room is brought together on one surface. Slowly, a sense of vertigo comes over us, bringing to mind the motion of the universe, that slow rotation of the earth which we cannot feel, as well as the more frenzied motion of our modern world, its moving traffic, flashing lights, and constant stream of electronically transported information. Equally mesmerizing and dizzying is Untitled (Spiral) (2002), in which twisted acrylic rods slowly revolve, creating the illusion of an up and down motion. Such illusionistic works create a vacuum in our natural world, pulling us into Kalymnios's alternate universe, where the unnoticed space around us is finally articulated.

In Out of Nature , Kalymnios has created the “artifice of eternity” that Yeats sought so desperately in his poem. Through the manipulation of nature, Kalymnios creates an environment of heavenly otherworldliness—a perfect and unchanging dreamlike state where nature is immune to time. In Kalymnios's world, the body can take on new shapes through changed perspective, and the mind can float freely and meditatively to the quiet, continuous rhythms created by low-tech machines. Ultimately, Kalymnios asks us to identify for ourselves the shared components of humanity that enable us to empathize with Yeats's fear of aging and death. We all seek refuge from mortality and nature's race with time.

Angela Lewis

Curatorial Assistant