the uncertainty of flight: flying machine #4

Flying Machine #4 (2001)

Ed Osborn's Flying Machine #4 (2001) does not speak to us in a language we understand. Like the echoing reverb of Osborn's Recoil (1999), or the distorted swan song of his Night Sea-Music (1998), this work emits the almost-familiar syllables of a lost language. The distorted sounds seem to originate from somewhere beyond our human comprehension, from an animal lair that lies beneath the world of speech, meaning and logic. The motors, speakers, wires, rods and blades contribute to the construction of a beast that twitches like an expectant critter one moment, and spins circles after its own tail the next. These random, seemingly spontaneous, movements mock our simplistic understanding of the machine as a product of human ingenuity. Rather, Flying Machine #4 emerges from the same impulse that created "Frankenstein's monster," from the desire to mate machine and animal.


Although the visual encounter with Flying Machine #4 is striking, it is the auditory element that guides our relationship to the work as a whole. As Osborn notes, "while there will always be visual information in the gallery setting… the sound creates a form of orientation for the listener." The mellifluous sounds spark our imagination, opening a door to the many associations which go unnoticed by the eyes. Osborn's titles often hint at the rich associations imbedded in his work. For example, Flying Machine #4 obliquely refers to Leonardo Da Vinci's fascinating ornithopter or "flying machine" sketches which were developed between 1485-1503. With wing-like attachments for the human body, Da Vinci morphed human and animal elements in order to visualize the possibility of human flight.


Osborn's Flying Machine #4 consists of three arm-like structures suspended from the ceiling. With a circulating fan and a speaker attached to each arm, Osborn's machine, like many of Da Vinci's sketches, resembles a great bird. Beneath the wingspan lay a swarm of small twitching fans in a nest-like configuration. Osborn explains the significance of the low throbbing vibrations – a confluence of the whizzing fans and murmuring speakers – by recalling that, when his cat would jump on his chest to fall asleep, "I remember wishing I could sleep on the cat, and wondering what that would sound like." As this recollection suggests, Osborn is not interested in domesticating his creature. Instead, he reverses the customary human/animal relationship by encouraging the listener to take comfort in the sounds like a pet on the chest of its owner.


While Flying Machine #4 is meant to evoke a winged creature, there is a twist. Osborn notes that "there aren't many birds that fly and make low sounds. The bigger birds don't get off the ground." And this big bird is not built for flight. Thus, it is incorrect to perceive Flying Machine #4 as a perfect melding of animal and machine; it is far more ambitious. This work alters our expectation that science will ultimately preside over "wild" nature. Rather than a robot designed for our comfort, industry, or pleasure, we are confronted with a curiously independent being that indifferently goes about its business with or without us.


It is interesting to note that while Da Vinci's sketches radiate a fascination with the technology of flight, the fact that his models could not actually be built attests to his own uncertainty regarding man's accession. For Osborn, as well, his machine doesn't aspire towards any purposeful goal. It ambiguously hovers. Since Flying Machine #4 never leaves the ground, we are unable to celebrate the feat of man over gravity; we can not gather to cheer its departure or arrival. At the same time, we experience a sense of relief as our fantasy of flight is ruptured, and then forgotten.


Dore Bowen
Paris, April, 2001


Dore Bowen is an art critic and theorist currently residing in Paris. She is completing her dissertation, "The Moment of Vision: Phenomenology and Post-War Photography," at the University of Rochester, New York.


Catalog essay for an exhibition at Klangturm (St. Pöltens, Austia), April - November, 2001