This November, The Wolfsonian–Florida International University will present Margin of Error, an exhibition exploring cultural responses to mechanical mastery and engineered catastrophes of the modern age—the shipwrecks, crashes, explosions, collapses, and novel types of workplace injury that interrupt the path of progress. Revealing the consequences of mankind’s endeavor to defy and exceed limits, Margin of Error traces the narrative of technological ambition from myth and triumph to peril and accident prevention. Major artists and designers showcased in the exhibition include Man Ray, Lewis Hine, Margaret Bourke-White, Herbert Bayer, Julius Klinger, and Louis Lozowick.
Margin of Error will be on view November 13, 2015 through May 8, 2016 and brings together over two hundred works from the mid-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including decorative and graphic art, painting, sculpture, industrial artifacts, photography, and ephemera.
“Bellowing engines, towering bridges, great galleries of revolving wheels—these things all gave credence to the idea that a new era was at hand, at once thrilling and thoroughly terrifying,” explained Wolfsonian curator Matthew Abess, who organized the installation. “The exhibition is a reminder of how every step forward brings us that much closer to the edge of some cliff, as we evaluate, revise, and toe the line again—how we are in equal measures masters of the universe, and masters of its unmaking.”
Margin of Error charts the feats and follies of this process—from the aspirational spirit of early industry to its regular ruptures throughout the modern age—over three loosely grouped chapters featuring works from The Wolfsonian’s permanent collection as well as a small selection of loaned objects. Anchoring these chapters are a set of recurring mythic figures including Atlas, Icarus, and Prometheus, whose offering of fire to mankind is a gift most given to error.
Margin of Error opens with the growing influence of science and industry on modern cultural awareness, as advanced infrastructure, utilities, transportation, and modes of production gave rise to a new repertoire of visual symbols for describing visionary pursuits. As nineteenth-century engineering innovations gained greater presence in everyday life, objects and images emerged that cast man as a race of builders bending the world to its will. Works such as mechanical schematics, travel posters, photography of early flight trials, and domestic goods ranging from model trains to children’s games illustrate the extent to which mechanization penetrated all facets of life, forever changing how we think about time, space, and movement.
- A 1898 advertising poster by German designer Adolf Münzer, depicting men marshaling human strength to drive the wheel of industry;
- Gordon Coster’s photograph Silhouette – N.Y.C. Elevated Motor West Side under Construction near 14th St. (1930), showing the new elevated motorway being erected over Manhattan’s congested west side, a harrowing corridor then known widely as “Death Avenue”;
- Amateur photography of French aviator Émile Ladougne’s 1910 flight in his Goupy biplane, with the craft hovering ambiguously between steady ascent and fatal fall; and
- A c. 1925 locomotive-inspired breakfast caddy featuring a carriage for upright toast and a flat end car to support eggs and spoons.
In the second section, Margin of Error presents the cultural embrace of modern engineering alongside associated disasters—the famous, the infamous, and the everyday—that routinely disrupt the pace of progress. Major incidents such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, the sinking of the Titanic, and the wrecks of the Soviet Railway are represented.
Key works include:
- May Ray’s 1931 photogravure portfolio Électricité, including ten images commissioned by a Parisian utilities company to encourage domestic use of electricity and giving visual form to the cosmic wonder and incomparable convenience of this unseen phenomenon;
- La pietá umana [Human Piety] (1946), a painting by Alberto Helios Gagliardo echoing the composition of Michelangelo’s Pietá while drawing stylistically from neo-realist cinema in its depiction of the aftermath of an accident in the Port of Genoa;
- A mid-1930s photograph album compiled by an anonymous affiliate of a British Royal Air Force (RAF) flight training school in Egypt, with crash images coyly captioned “Error of Judge-ment,” “One of Nature’s Tricks,” and more; and
- A luster-glazed vase (1910) commemorating the burning of the British and Belgian sections of the 1910 Brussels Exposition Universelle et Internationale.
The exhibition concludes with an examination of strategies for redeeming the spirit of progress via risk awareness and accident prevention. Through work safety, insurance, and public education materials, Margin of Error will explore some of the design solutions for navigating the hazards of modern industry, both in the workplace and at home. Objects featured here include fire extinguishers, dashboard ornaments, and modernist designs for street and railway signals.
Focal points of this section are:
- A series of Czech lithographic posters (c. 1934) instructing on best practices for ensuring safety in the industrial workplace;
- Designer Joseph Binder’s poster Gib acht sonst . . [Be Careful or Else . .] (1929–30), warning of the invisible forces that might assault the human body while changing a lightbulb;
- A design drawing by Dutch architect Died Visser, proposing a modernist traffic signal that applies the expressive principles of the De Stijl movement to municipal design; and
- A series of 1938 Italian work safety postcards combining vivid graphics with rhyming couplets and quatrains to remind laborers of the many ”unspeakable misfortunes” provoked by careless behavior, ranging from loose hair caught in machinery to a lit wick igniting flammable materials.
Margin of Error will be accompanied by a richly illustrated companion book with an essay by Matthew Abess. The Wolfsonian will mark the opening of the exhibition with a public reception on November 12, as well as additional programming such as a free family day, a Takeover Tour led by a guest tour guide, film screenings, and an art-making workshop.
Visit wolfsonian.org to learn more.