July 22, 2015

Catching a glimpse of steampunk horsepower

As published in The Erin Advocate
The title of the painted horse sculpture at McMillan Park, which has arrived during the Pan Am Games as part of the Headwaters Parade of Horses, has had a few people scratching their heads.

The words of “Future Past 2412” make sense enough. The work is in the steampunk mode, which uses imagery of old-fashioned steam powered mechanics and Victorian aesthetics to create a futuristic style of art, as well as science fiction, attire and lifestyle.

But what about the 2412? Could it be a secret code or an allusion to something that will happen 397 years from now? Or maybe an obscure numerological reference – 24 being the 12th even number, the number of ribs in the human body and the number of furlongs in one league.

Clicking around the world wide web got me nowhere, so I just emailed the artists, Eva Folks and Judy Sherman, and asked about the horse’s name.

“We decided we wanted to add something personal to his name,” said Folks. “Judy came up with the idea of using our birthdays. I’m July 24th and Judy is September 12th. So there is the 2412. Mystery solved.”

The idea of man-made mechanics as part of a living being is central to the steampunk genre. The fiberglass horse stands 15 hands tall and appears to be held together with leather straps, chains, rivets, nuts and bolts, and has an ornate steam gauge that recalls the industrial revolution. There are portals into its interior showing a fiery furnace, gears and a gentleman with his hand on a lever. He is formally dressed, with a Victorian mustache and round goggles that are a trademark of steampunk fashion. 

He reminds me of Captain Nemo, from the 1870 science fiction novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne. Nemo is a mysterious, vengeful scientist; a foe of imperialism; a connoisseur of art and technology; an anti-hero who roams the oceans in the battery-powered submarine Nautilus. He has been adopted by steampunk culture.

Folks said the man was nicknamed George Frankenstein IV by two young friends of the artists who saw the painting in progress. Strangely enough, Mary Shelley’s gothic Frankenstein character from 1818 is also a favourite of steampunkers because of its quest for identity and the experimental merging of mechanical and human elements.
Steampunk seems to have only a distant link to punk music – perhaps in a gritty, anti-establishment attitude. It is also linked to cyberpunk, which can be seen in stories and movies about technology and the future breakdown of social order.

The sculpture has been funded by the Town of Erin and by Chris Naraysingh of Rapid Rentals. For more about the 26 horses (including Rosie at Century Church Theatre in Hillsburgh) and artists, visit headwatershorsecountry.ca, in the Parade of Horses section under Happenings.