It was a curious dream—and perhaps that accounts for the fact that I can recall it at all, as I rarely remember anything that I've seen while asleep:
I was in the city, standing on the southwest corner of Houston and Mercer, watching cars moving east, wailing for the light to change so that 1 could cross the street, when Jon Kessler pulled up in his 1965 Ford Comet Caliente, a cream-colored convertible with red leather bucket seats, a car he had sold at least four years before, but there it was, top down, chrome polished, looking sleek.
"What are you doing here?" I asked. "I thought you were supposed to be in Paris." "I am," he explained, "but I'm here, working on a piece. I'm on my way to Brooklyn now. Why don't you gel in and come out there with me?"
Apparently I agreed, as the next scene I remember was set in a vast room, a hall of clutter, a depository for assemblages and disassembled machines. Parts and pieces were everywhere. A layer of dust covered every surface. Iridescent fabrics were draped over chairs and hung like curtains from the ceiling. The shelves running along the walls held a flea-market assortment of curiosities, giving this space the look of a wunderkammer, something of a cross between a storage vault beneath a science and technology museum and a prop room in the attic of a theater. Trying to envision it now, I find myself picturing a still life of incredible variety and scale. But despite the clarity with which I recall the overall scene, I have only vague memories of its many details.
Perhaps the thing I remember most vividly is the collection of clocks that filled an entire section of the shelves. Every kind of timepiece was represented: from hourglasses and sundials to mechanisms that were extremely complex and detailed; stopwatches and intricately crafted pocket watches and the most commonplace digitals. I was looking at a metronome from the early part of this century when Kessler called my attention to another piece, which he lifted off the shelf and set down on a table next to me. This is what I've been working on," he said, "this is what I wanted you to see." He offered a chair, and I sat down to examine the object more carefully.
A curious little box about the size of a small clock, it consisted of a number of interlocking parts, each of which had been constructed out of a different material. Covering the surface of the entire piece, a decorative pattern fashioned out of nickel, silicon, and zinc, framed by inlaid bands of aluminum, colored plastic, ebony, and rock crystal. Tiny fire opals and circles of imitation ocean pearl, set at regular intervals around the object's base, made it appear luminescent and created the illusion that it hovered slightly above the surface of the table. But, picking it up, I found the thing to be unexpectedly heavy, as if it contained something made of an unnaturally dense metal. I remember inspecting it for a length of time, marveling at its exquisite design, turning it over and over in my hands, searching in vain for some way to grasp it.
Seeing that I was completely baffled by his puzzle, that I had no clue as to how the thing worked or what it was meant to be, Kessler asked me to place it back down on the table—clearly, it was time for the secret to be revealed. He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out something that resembled a miniature key, which he inserted into a nearly imperceptible opening at the base of the piece. Then he sat back with a strange smile on his face and said: "Watch carefully."
A low-pitched note, followed by another, then a series of beeps, each one slightly higher than the other: I assumed that this was the beginning of a melody, but before a tune took place, the sequence began to repeat, slowing after each round until the rhythm became a soft, constant tone, a pulsing drone that sounded less like a heartbeat than like breathing. Then the fire opals began to glow, not simultaneously, but, again, in sequence, as if a beam of light were circling clockwise within the device, going faster and growing more intense with every revolution. It was a beautiful effect, but I remained perplexed, impatient to see what would happen next, and curious to know where all of this was going. I was about to ask when the thing began unfolding.
The process took only a few moments to complete, but for those few moments I stared in a state of absolute disbelief as the piece transformed itself into an entirely different object: a small translucent cube that shimmered in the light as if it had been dusted with flecks of mica. Looking inside, through a blue-tinted glass that encased the entire structure, I saw what appeared to be a miniature room, reminiscent of both the interior of a space capsule and an alchemist's laboratory. It was lined with copper circuit boards and stainless steel consoles, all covered by geometric patterns formed by scores of flashing orange and yellow diodes. In each corner, there were at least a dozen crystal shafts with bubbling phosphorescent liquids flowing through them, and, at the center, something that resembled a bellows, making a discomforting but strangely soothing sound as it moved slowly up and down, its action setting countless metallic gears into motion. But the thing I found most curious at the time—and which no doubt led me to perceive the piece as a miniature interior—was the fact that it also contained two tiny reclining chairs and a doll's house version of a Persian carpet.
When it appeared that the device had reached the end of its cycle, I turned to Kessler and applauded, telling him that I had been amazed by his programming feats and by the range of effects he had mastered. I asked a few questions about the construction of the mechanism and was curious to know where and when he planned to show the piece. His reply took me by surprise, for he explained that the invention wasn't a work intended for exhibition, but was, instead, a working model of his time machine.
By way of explanation, Kessler offered some background information, though I remember only aspects of the narrative he told: while conducting research in the archives at the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers, he had apparently stumbled across a manuscript; the plans were flawed and fragmented, but he had succeeded in filling in the gaps and making the necessary adjustments; after years of failed experiments and more than a few explosions, the machine now worked as intended.
As a prelude to the actual demonstration, Kessler, anticipating skepticism, suggested that I inspect the table so that I wouldn't suspect him of any sleight of hand. Seeing that I was satisfied, he asked me to take a seat and to watch carefully as he continued with his preparations. Once again, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a tiny key, which he somehow inserted into the blue glass sheath, causing the panel to lower like a car window. He pointed to a pair of levers that were placed between the chairs and invited me to select a destination: The silver one would send the machine into the future; the black would cast it back, into history. I can't recall what I said, or if, at that moment, I was capable of speaking; nonetheless, Kessler proceeded, touching buttons on the miniature panels with a tool that looked like a pin. When a number appeared on one of the consoles' screens, the sheath reappeared—as did the inventor's peculiar grin.
JON KESSLER, TAIWAN 1987, mixed media with tights and motors, variable dimensions, detail.
Whatever happened happened very quickly, so quickly that I'm not quite sure if I actually saw the thing disappear. I recall a brief, blinding flash, and by the time my eyes had readjusted, the surface of the table was bare. I've gone over the event countless times in my mind, playing it back frame by frame, trying to picture the action in slow motion; and perhaps this has confused me further as, by now, fact has been fused with speculation, and I can no longer distinguish between imagination and memory. At this point in time, all that remains is a list of unanswerable questions: Did the piece just fade into space, becoming progressively more transparent; or had it imploded in a series of folding motions, like some elaborate origami trick? What color had that ray of light really been: An array of the entire spectrum would be my guess; but then why do I still see it as a burst of black light that, for an instant, transformed every surface in the room into a soft, violet velvet? And the accompanying sound track: Did I actually hear that quick succession of inhaling sounds, or have I just invented them in order to see the piece being sucked, once again, into a whirlpool of light, into the idea of a perfect vacuum? In any case, one thing was clear: The time machine had vanished, and, if Kessler's calculations were correct, it was now somewhere between here and the distant future.
"Am I supposed to believe..." I wondered aloud before Kessler interrupted: "It should be returning in a minute or two; in the meantime, come with me into the other room, and I'll show you the larger version." I followed him through the piles of clutter, to a wall at the far end of the studio. There, he produced yet another key, and, after opening the door, pushed aside a series of curtains.
Before he activated the machine, I could see it clearly, sitting in the middle of a vast, empty room, glowing in the darkness. It was the color of a swimming pool illuminated at night, and, had I not just seen the model, my first impression might have been that the cube was an aquarium of some sort, or perhaps, an undersea tableau from a natural history museum. Using a remote-control device, Kessler switched on all the internal lights and lowered one of the blue-tinted panels, revealing the full-sized version of the familiar interior. The shift in dimensions was somewhat disorienting, but the vertigo passed quickly, and I started looking around, examining the details inside this bizarre contraption.
It was a curious space, at once Victorian and futuristic, as if the style belonged to no particular lime at all, as if in any age it would have been anachronistic. Eclectic but nonetheless consistent, it was funkier than I had envisioned; the surfaces that I had expected to be made of burnished copper and stainless steel were, in fact, a patchwork of industrial scraps and corroded metals. Other variations accompanied the shift in scale: There were cabinets filled with Py-rex beakers; coils of fiber optic wire lined Plexiglas shelves; a stuffed bird was perched atop one of the consoles; and on dozens of small monitors were displays of colorful charts and graphs. The shafts of glass in each corner of the room were far more exquisite than I could ever have imagined; the multicolored fluids flowing through them were more substantial than I'd supposed, now having the consistency of molten lava; and what I had taken to be bubbles were actually thousands of opalescent particles, each radiating a light less intense but just as bright as neon.
I was standing in the corner with my back to the room, staring at those slowly swirling liquids, completely immersed in their currents and rhythmic tides, when a loud gong sounded, cracking my concentration and snapping me out of my reverie. I turned around to see Kessler holding a silver object out to me: a cross between an old leather football helmet and an aviator's cap, just like the one he was wearing. "That signals that the machine is ready," he said. "Do you have time to go for a ride?" I looked at my watch to see if I needed to return to the city, and, realizing that I'd fallen for Kessler's joke, laughed.
"We'll be back in no time flat," he added, clearly unable to resist using the line.
We were already strapped into our seats—here, red leather bucket seats, not the reclining chairs that I had seen inside the model—when Kessler raised the sheath and asked whether I wanted to see the future or the past. I pointed to the silver lever, and then leaned back, still doubting that anything would happen and yet hoping that everything he had described would in fact come to pass. The room on the other side of the glass was disappearing when I saw a flash of light and heard another sound, an unpleasant noise, shriller and yet fainter than the previous gong. I took it to mean that the machine was working, but I was disturbed when I heard the ring again. The room on the other side had been dust for over a century when the telephone rang a third time and I realized I was in bed.
JON KESSLER, TAIWAN. 1987, mixed media with lights and motors, detail: 16 x 22 1/2 x 7" / 40,6 x 57 x 17,8 cm.
DOUGLAS BLAU, critic, curator, etc., lives in New York City. His exhibitions have included: Fictions, The Observatory, The Times, the Chronicle C7* the Observer; The Library, and, most recently, The Naturalist fathers.