Porsche’s industrial art
Tuesday, September 05, 2017
"Didn't you hear me calling you?"
"No," I said. "Wait ... hang on a second."
My woman stood there, arms crossed, watching me stage a 968 hydraulic timing belt tensioner in a light box for another round of photographs.
"I'm obsessed with this thing ... it's a work of art!" I said. "Do me a favor, hand me that light meter there."
"You're such a geek," she cooed.
Loving every fiber of one's being is a concept that applies to Porsches, too.
There's lust for their shape, passion for their performance, even a fondness for their quirks. But what of their functional bits? Is there the slightest bit of interest for the guts?
Tensioners, belts, conrods, valves, pumps, cadmium plated bolts, hydraulic hoses — these are works of art in their own right. Seeing the light of day briefly between birth and entombment into their packaging seems a sad. In between those two points, they live a sheltered life in boxes and plastic bags on shelves — sometimes for years. The only thing they attract is dust.
The fascination with these engineered pieces is not only in looks, but also how they're made. An engineer, possibly contracted by Porsche if not made in house, gave serious thought to their development. Calculations, geometric formulas, tolerances, material specifications and manufacturing options are factors that begin driving their form.
It was the engineer's ability to apply these factors in a creative, yet scientific, manner in order to execute its creation. The expression of the thing is theoretically Bauhaus; no pretentious semiotizations because stylistically the unimportant is omitted. It's an object of little use outside its intended purpose; summarized in one word — functionalist.
But these are "car parts," so how can such rhetoric reserved for art, product design and architecture be used in this context?
In simplest terms, these latter three practices focus on the visual, emotional and physical elements of human interaction. Remove the aesthetic element from the equation for a moment, and these same constituents apply to Porsche parts. By bringing their aesthetics into focus, however, these pieces have values used in the definition of art; that is to say Porsche parts are expressions of human creative skill and imagination.
The engineered object, whether handcrafted or mass-produced, is art.
The inner beauty of a 968 hydraulic timing belt tensioner. (Image: Porsche)
The beauty of something like a 968 timing belt tensioner can lie in its internal construction and how it functions; let’s call this the functional beauty. Aesthetic beauty might be driven by the material and its natural color, the imprint of manufacturing, and finally, the shape.
The outer beauty of a 968 hydraulic timing belt tensioner. (Image: Pablo Deferrari)
In the case of the tensioner, it's made of cast steel (the barrel's rough texture), which is then precisely machined to the CAD drawing's specifications (the smoother areas with fine grooves). The retaining pin holding the piston in its bore adds another dimension of visual interest — and an element of surprise. The shape of the pin also follows a semantic principle of product design; it's self-evident to the user.
While this part wasn't created using the principles of product design, it uses an aesthetic language (semantics) that communicates why it looks the way does.
Interestingly, it seems as if Porsche engineers make an effort to lend some aesthetic quality to some of these parts. You need only to look at timing and balance shaft belts, for example, to see that graphic elements like the word "Porsche," part numbers and country of manufacture are tattooed in primary colors.
Aside from its functional design, color lends a pleasant aesthetic quality to this balance shaft belt. (Image: Pablo Deferrari)
Pity they'll fade within a few thousand revolutions of the crankshaft. This draws two underscores for why such pieces must be staged and photographed prior to installation.
Other components — a fuel hose, for example — are visually rich with mixed materials. There's textured rubber imprinted with numerals, crimped collars dimpled with repetitive geometrical shapes and a cadmium-plated hard line coupled to a six-pointed flare nut.
While a piece such as this is manufactured using automated machinery, there are a few craftsmen still using hand-operated tools to assemble such fuel hoses in precisely the same manner. This process, by the way, is an art in and of itself and something to witness.
Appreciating the intricacies of a fuel hose’s construction. (Image: Pablo Deferrari)
After minutes of observation, a shift occurs. The passive role of viewer becomes an active one of creator. Like finding an object of beauty, it must be captured and immortalized, otherwise the moment will fade from memory.
Photography is the chosen medium here for two reasons. One, it takes the least amount of time considering there's a car in the garage, gutted, with its alloy and thermoplastic viscera all over the place. Second, photography seems better suited for industrial subjects. There's a fidelity to details that other mediums, like painting, can fail to reproduce.
There's a Buddhist meditative exercise of staring at flower closely for 30 or so minutes to observe its intricacies. The purpose, if remembered correctly, was not only to clear the mind but to also take a moment to appreciate the qualities of the flower. The same meditative practice could be done with a photograph of these parts, specifically the close-ups.
Shot against a white background, the pieces become the focus of attention. They become provocative, coming off a bit esoteric as if some sort of inside joke.
To the uninitiated, these photographs may spark curiosity. What is it? What does it do? Where does it go? To the seasoned tinkerer, they become objects of intense scrutiny with mnemonic qualities potentially triggering or further frustrating the mind to the point of obsession. Nothing singles out a Porsche geek easier than asking one to correctly identify the pieces in those photos.
This ritual is about a deep appreciation of the Marque and fascination of all that goes into producing the machines. To the indifferent, the photographs in this article may appear to be like any found on eBay or a manufacturer's website. This is simplistic in thought as if suggesting Jackson Pollock was indifferent to how he splattered paint on a canvas. Of course, such observations are, like any interpretation of art, subjective.
Getting deeper into a discourse about art here would be unfair and inappropriate. Nevertheless, in a time when anything could be labeled "art," the examples discussed here are legitimately so.
But there's a difference between Porsche parts and the contents in galleries. Aside from the visual, emotional and physical pleasure they bring to your author, they serve a pragmatic purpose that few works of art can offer — use.
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