Ingenious Displacements: Hope and Failure in the Works of Manolo Rodríguez
Flight has been the dream of mankind for centuries. A lofty desire inspired by nature, present in most mythologies, ancient cultures and religions, from Greek mythology to Persian literature and Christianism. In these, flying suggests divinity, winged flight a province of the gods and the powerful. But he who dares to fly we are advised, much like Icarus, might be destined for failure. This myth in particular has influenced generations of experimenters and inventors, as they struggled between optimism, speculation and defeat, fashioning ornithopters and flying apparatuses in their search for knowledge and perhaps a mystical experience. Nonetheless, the mechanical processes that we have developed, as well as our expanding knowledge on aeronautics, have allowed us to create extraordinary machines. In this quest for scientific and technical understanding, art has played a significant role. The Italian Renaissance gave birth to an era where artists were experimenting with different techniques which revolutionized the ways we produce art and see the world. A time where art and science replaced religion to pave the way for a more hopeful future. Visual artists were as much painters as engineers and inventors. Leonardo da Vinci’s engineering sketches, for instance, had plans for war machines and proto-helicopters. But producing a flying device was perhaps da Vinci’s ultimate dream.
Manolo Rodríguez’s first solo exhibition at Universidad de Sagrado Corazón titled Concerning Methods of Propulsion draws from the complex history of art, aviation and physics. The exhibition could be considered a contemporary reliquary to the illusion of flight, featuring 12 new sculptures and an installation comprised of schematic drawings that explains each object’s inner workings. Made of cardboard, rice paper and aluminum, the new pieces are flying machines with counterproductive propulsion systems and absurd configurations. Contradictions that produce unlikely paradoxes; pieces with opposing propellers than cancel each other out rendering them useless. The contraptions are based on physical concepts such as laminar flow, terminal velocity and propulsion, however, they are not meant to be functional pieces, but rather the experimental material of an unrealizable desire, solely functioning as maquettes or models for more ambitious sculptural experiments.
Although Rodríguez uses a scientific and experimental approach in his work, his visual language is based on a very personal memory. Since childhood the artist has been fascinated with the means by which an object is able to displace its mass through the sky. When his great grandfather died as a child, he became obsessed with the idea that he had ‘gone to heaven,’ thinking that in some mechanical way his body had ascended to the skies. He then proceeded to realize an experiment with the remains of a dead moth, burying it in an attempt to experience firsthand its flight to the sky. An action that seeks to join the physical world with the divine one. But it is perhaps only through art that Rodríguez is capable of reconciling science and religion; the mechanical aspect of displacement with the esoteric aspect of death.
Art has come to embody a contemporary religion, the venerated art object a physical manifestation of divinity, the institutions that shelter them a mausoleum to its processes.  Housed in individual display cases, Rodríguez’s objects become relics; shrines to improbable desires and hopeful aspirations. Each artifact a speculative design based on faith. Capacete alado, an interpretation of Hermes’ winged hat, visually relates the mythological with the art historical. The hard hat used to create the sculpture was utilized by the architect that designed the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico (MAPR) during its construction. By intervening the hat’s sides with feathers and relating it to the myth of Hermes, Rodríguez seemingly bestows upon the art institution a divine but ingenious purpose. Hermes was the herald and messenger to the Greek gods, roaming between the heavens, the earth and the underworld, but also the god of merchants and thieves. It is undeniable that museums play an essential role in defining and interpreting the history of art, in validating an artist’s work through acquisitions and exhibitions. The institutionalization of art, however, is not without peril, as it compromises the unmediated aesthetic experience. It is significant that Rodríguez chose to present his sculptures in what could be considered museum displays, which in turn become art objects to be presented in an institutional setting. During the 1950’s Jorge Oteiza’s “Experimental Laboratories” suggested the idea of the museum as a laboratory.  Here, Rodríguez creates the setting for the preservation of his sculptures through contained environments, which function as laboratories for flight configurations. Considered within this context, it would seem that Manolo Rodríguez’s objects attempt to reassociate art to its spiritual dimension, a reiteration of Oteiza’s art as sacrament. 
Rodríguez’s flying machines are ultimately conjectures. Each attempt purposely destined to be unsuccessful. But although failure is inevitable, in the end it is completely superfluous to its true purpose. The technical improbabilities create moments of hope as well as doubt in the spectator, maintained through oscillating and opposing movements, concepts and notions. And it is only through these circumstances of opposition that we can begin to decipher the complexities of science, art and life.
 Adorno, T. W. “Valéry Proust Museum”, Prisms, trans. S. and S. Weber. MIT Press, 1983.
 Zulaika, J. “Introduction: Oteiza’s Return from the Future”. In J. Oteiza, Oteiza’s Selected Writings, ed. J. Zulaika, trans. F. Fornoff. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2003.
 Cobos, Juan. Jorge Oteiza art as sacrament, avant-garde and magic. Reno: University of Nevada, 2008. Print.
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