The interests that captivated our childhood imagination may seem a bit trivial nowadays. Most of our waking moments as adults are spent within the routines and humdrum of the rat race. This isn’t quite the case for Yu Chenrui, a Chengdu-born artist.
For as long as he can remember, Yu has loved getting involved with hands-on creative activities. As a kid, he’d even pluck loose strands off of the straw mats at home and reassemble them into the likeness of various animals. In school, he was captivated by arts and crafts classes where he cemented his love for handmade knickknacks. This affinity for handicraft stuck around into his college years, where he stumbled upon automatons—mechanical objects that can operate with relative independence once set in motion. In all of China, there are probably less than ten artisans dabbling with these kinetic objects. Even outside of the Middle Kingdom though, it’s not a particularly popular medium.
按部就班的人生，总有少数人能将童年的兴趣一直延续下来，对于 92 年出生的成都人俞宸睿来说，这门兴趣便是手工。他小时候就是个善于动手的孩子，从凉席上扯下的席草编织成直立的动物，到手工课上班里的活跃分子，凭借想象力与无处安放的双手自制关于童年的乐趣。长大后，他依然坚持这份与生俱来的创造力，并选择了一份极其冷门的职业：机巧装置（Automata）。据他所说，这门手艺的职业匠人在全国不超过十位，哪怕放眼全球，知名艺术家也屈指可数。而他本人，或许是成都唯一可以称得上是机巧装置艺术家的人。
Items such as mechanical watches, crankshaft musical boxes, or wind-up toys are probably the most commonly known automatons. But this mechanical craft stretches much farther back in history, with mentions in Greek mythology and even a period of renewed interest during the Renaissance. Early iterations of cuckoo clocks, mechanized fountains, and clockwork puppets have captivated the imagination of people throughout the decades. The evolution of these mechanical objects are a testament to human ingenuity, and in a way, markers of technological progress. Today, many of these earlier mechanical designs reside only in museums, and only a niche few remain interested in creating automata.
In 2015, Yu was studying graphic design at the Communication University of China. At an elective woodworking course, he learned about the existence of automatons and was hooked. The lack of Chinese-language resources on the craft meant a lot of trial and error, as well as online research on Western sites. He even decided that his thesis paper would be dedicated towards the lesser-recognized craft. A background in motion graphic design meant that he had a better understanding of the expressive capabilities of movement, which still applies to the primarily wooden material he now works with. Since 2015, he’s created more than sixty pieces of original automata.
俞宸睿第一次接触这门艺术是在 2015 年，当时他正在中国传媒大学攻读平面设计专业。一次木工选修课程的课后调研，让他与机巧装置结缘。兴趣使然，他很快投入尝试。由于国内在这方面教育资源稀缺，一切全凭他无师自通。他于网络翻看大量作品和视频资料，将所能查到的统统收入囊中。两年后，俞宸睿以他对机巧装置的研究作为论文课题，伴随知识的梳理和掌握，这段经历对他日后的创作提供了极大的帮助。虽是动态图形设计专业出身，但他承认动画与机巧装置的一脉相通，“动画的背景让我更好地表达出生动的动作，只是现在创作动画的媒介变成了木头装置而已，”他说道。从 2015 年到现在，他已创作了六十余件机巧装置作品。
Most of Yu’s works are either based on myths or the minutia of everyday life. For example, Tofu Counter, a piece inspired by a traditional tofu shop right next to his studio. The piece replicates traditional tofu making process with fidelity, and at the bottom of it is a person with their mouth wide open, ready to gobble up a piece of delicious tofu.
A newer piece, titled Forbidden Fruit Plate, is based on the story of Adam and Eve. As the crank is turned, the two characters take turns reaching out toward the apple as they take furtive glances towards one another. It’s unclear whether they’re too shy to hold hands or are tempted to take a bite of the apple for themselves. It’s left open-ended, up for viewers to decide for themselves.
Humor is essential to his automatons. He believes that eliciting a laugh is the best way for audiences to connect with his work. “I believe that life is ultimately made up of a string of seemingly trivial things,” he says. “Some things may seem boring at first glance, but it’s still a part of life, and I enjoy taking it all in.”
The ability to set aside time for soaking in and appreciating life’s trivialities is perhaps something embedded in Chengdu’s way of life. Yu believes the city has been tremendously influential to his creative endeavors, and there’s nothing he enjoys more than strolling through the streets and seeing what the surroundings to offer. “Whether it’s the city or nature, I love Chengdu for its laidback vibes,” he says. “It helps me stay relaxed, and when I’m relaxed, it’s much easier to pepper my work with a dose of humor.”
Creating one of these mechanical constructs can be incredibly tedious and time consuming. A lot of focus is required in seeing it through from start to end. Plenty of time is spent on experimentation and adjustments. From ideation, to early sketches, structural design, carving, coloring, and assembly, no single step of the process is more important or less important than the rest. It can take anywhere from a week to several months to fully complete an automaton. In assembly, Yu even employs mortise and tenon, a traditional Chinese carpentry and architectural technique in which components would be conjoined with interlocking fit and no additional fasteners.
Ji qiao is a unique Chinese term that can be roughly translated as “mechanical ingenuity,” and its coinage can be traced back to the Warring States period. Yu believes this is the most apt way to describe his work—these methods of animating his designs isn’t something that can be replaced by modern methods of automation. “This ‘ingenuity’ is related to the maker’s emotional commitment, expressive intent, and design thinking, but it’s also the joy brought about through the creation process, the juxtaposition between the inanimate state and its dynamic state, plus all the surprises the artisan may hide within the piece.
Yu mostly works with cherry wood, seeing it as a material that can withstand, and even evolve, with the effects of time. “An automaton is a time capsule, and cherry wood will oxidize and change color with the passage of time—the longer the piece lasts, the deeper the color of the wood becomes.”
For Yu, his creative process and everyday life go hand in hand. Through his creations, he’s found that an appreciation towards the whimsies of life through a new perspective. In fact, the moving gears of his automatons can be seen as a metaphor for life—it’s self-powered, sometimes perhaps moving a bit too fast, but once slowed down a bit, the details are breathtaking. It’s a philosophy that’s left an impact on him. “Slow is the new fast,” he says. “Creating an automaton is tedious work, but even if there is a new piece that I really want to finish I’ll take my time to iron out every detail to the fullest extent. That way, it not only meets my personal standards, but is able to stand the test of time. To me, life is the same, I believe that if you live each day to the fullest and keep an open mind to all it has to offer, you won’t live with any regrets.”