Unlike paintings or sculptures, kinetic art relies on movement to capture the eye and provide meaning. How exactly that is implemented is just as subjective as any other kind of art and is up to the artist to determine. And, as with other art forms, kinetic art requires both technical skill and artistic vision. A painter needs to be capable of precise brush strokes, while a kinetic artist needs to be skilled with their fabrication tools of choice. These mechanical zen gardens, created by Jo Fairfax, are a fantastic example of what that kind of skill and vision can achieve.
These art pieces are, of course, inspired by traditional Japanese zen gardens. Those are intended to facilitate tranquility as the “gardener” carefully brushes the sand. Fairfax’s mechanical zen gardens do something similar, except that they do it all on their own. His reinterpretation of the zen garden consists of a large box with a clear cover. The box is filled with fine iron filings. As a person approaches a mechanical zen garden, it will spring to life and begin drawing patterns in the sand-like iron filings.
The mechanism used to draw the patterns is what makes this project particularly interesting to us. Inside of the box and underneath a barrier separating it from the iron filings, there is a motorized arm covered in an array of electromagnets. An Arduino Uno board controls both the movement of the arm and if each magnet is activated. By activating the magnets at specific points through the arm’s movement cycle, a variety of geometric patterns can be drawn. Fairfax has produced at least a couple of these mechanical zen gardens, though the only major difference between them appears to be their shape and the movement patterns of the motorized arms.