Aaron Kuffner turns Indonesian gongs into a robotic orchestra

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A gamelatron is a sound-producing kinetic sculpture. It has robotic mallets that play the gamelans instruments automatically uses a techonology control by smartphone or tab. (photo: IO/Aldo)

IO, Jakarta – Across Indonesia, but particularly on the islands of Java and Bali, gamelan is the most popular form of traditional music. A gamelan ensemble consists of a variety of metal percussion instruments, usually made of bronze or brass, including xylophones, drums, and gongs. It may also feature bamboo flutes, wooden stringed instruments, and vocalists, but the focus is on the percussion. The name “gamelan” comes from gamel, a Javanese word for a type of hammer used by a blacksmith. Gamelan instruments are often made of metal, and many are played with hammer-shaped mallets, as well.

Aaron Taylor Kuffner is a New York-based conceptual artist who created gamelantron after being inspired by Indonesian gamelan. Kuffner studied at the Indonesian Institute of Art, Yogyakarta, and majored in Karawitan and Ethnomusicology (2003-2006), where he started to submerge himself into the art of traditional Indonesian gamelan musical instruments and village life.

A gamelantron is a sound-producing kinetic sculpture. It has robotic mallets that play the gamelans instruments automatically. Each artwork is a combination of acoustic resonance and robotic technology, a fusion of sound, sculpture, technology and engineering, as well as the tension and harmony of uniting the ancient and the modern.

Kuffner works with Indonesian craftsmen to hand-forge the gongs, then he fine-tunes them and puts finishing touches on them. Next, he hand-machines the big mechanisms, produces the electronics and fabricates sculpture mounts. Lastly, he uses a mobile application to create the compositions played by the gamelantrons. Each composition is written specifically for that artwork in the space. With rhythmic movements and sounds creating the meditative, haunting, and almost hypnotic, a gamelantron is an invitation for the observer to spend time and connect with the artwork in the hope that it can be spiritual nourishment for those who can appreciate it.

The exhibition “Gamelantron: Sonic Kinetic Sculptures”, curated by ISA Art Advisory brings forth technology as a new element of the contemporary art world, and how it can be used to promote and preserve culture. Kuffner’s robotic sonic sculptures expose the audience to the nature of resonance and how sound as a sense perception can affect one’s soul and experience of the world. Each gamelantron is its own orchestra, and draws upon Indonesia’s thousand-year-old tradition of gamelan ensembles. These handcrafted, masterfully-tuned orchestras of vibraphones, drums, chimes, bells, and resonating bronze gongs played by robotic mallets are installed to immerse the observer in living kinetic sculptures.

Compositions range from solitary reverberations of massive gong and singing chimes to full ritual or storytelling orchestrations. The exhibition will present six different types of gamelatrons, including new works by Kuffner and the largest one called ‘Gamelatron Bunganya Dewa’, whose only public showing to date was a special exhibition at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles in 2017.

Kuffner has performed and exhibited work more than 400 times in 22 countries in the last eighteen years. He has created more than twenty gamelatron sculptures in the last seven years. His recent installations have been exhibited by the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, California (2017); the Drawing Center, New York (2016); 56th Venice Biennale at the Palazzo Grimani Museum Venice (2015); The Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C. (2013); and The Clocktower Gallery, New York (2012). He also received grants, in-kind support and awards from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts in association with the Clocktower Gallery, New York; The trust for Mutual Understanding; The Experimental Television Center; The New York Council for the Arts; Ableton GmbH; The CEC Artslink; Scope Arts; Artist Wanted; Techshop; The New Orleans Airlift; The Indonesian Foreign Ministry; The Dharmasiswa Scholarship; The Berlin Arts Council; The European Commission; I-D Media Berlin; Schloss Brollin Art Labor; The Black Rocks Arts Foundation; The James F. Robison Foundation; The Soros Foundation; Swiss Air; The Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation; the US Artists International partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts; and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. (Aldo)