If you’re roaming the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s modern art galleries, a cacophony of whistles, bells, thuds, and clashes may interrupt your serene stroll. The source of the ruckus is an unexpected one: a grinning wooden canine atop a plinth, inverted and affixed to a number of instruments — and it also snaps its maw and waves its legs to the sounds.
This curious creature is the “Kaleidophonic Dog,” an audio-kinetic sculpture crafted by Los Angeles–born artist Stephan von Huene (1932–2000) in 1967. Acquired by LACMA in 1973 as a gift from the Kleiner Foundation, it went off public display in 2005, when its mechanics began to occasionally malfunction. Now, as LACMA recently announced, the clamorous canine is back in place and fully functional, having spent about six months in Frankfurt undergoing an intricate restoration process. Its surgeon was Professor Werner W. Lorke, an experienced sound-sculpture restorer at iO Interdisciplinary Objects, who also spent some time working in von Huene’s studio — likely the only person equipped to properly patch up the pooch, according to its conservators.
Hand-sculpted and connected to xylophones, organ pipes, cymbals, drums, and other percussion instruments, “Kaleidophonic Dog” was von Huene’s first audio-kinetic work, probably created in his LA workshop before he moved permanently to Germany in the late 1970s. It is also one of his most complicated ones, as Don Menveg, an Associate Conservator in LACMA’s Conservation Center told Hyperallergic, although the creations that followed the belly-up dog were just as eccentric: there’s the comical “Tap Dancer” (1967), a truncated pair of dancing legs; “Washboard Band” (1967), which plays against itself; and “Rosebud Annunciator” (1967), a sculpture based on the architecture of houses in von Huene’s LA neighborhood.
Now fully electronic, “Kaleidophonic Dog” was originally controlled by a pneumatic system consisting of punched card technology: cranking a device would cause holes to be punched into paper, allowing air to pass through and control the instruments (watch video of it here). The mechanics, Menveg explained, are essentially the same as those incorporated into the automated music machines often found in small-town carnivals in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“What I’ve read both on the internet and in some of the catalogues is that [von Huene] had this tremendous interest in the old organs, the player pianos, that sort of thing, and he remembers this from his childhood when he saw such automatons,” Mark Gilberg, Director of the Suzanne D. Booth and David G. Booth Conservation Center, told Hyperallergic. “He became much more interested in sound and how sound can be produced, and he worked that into his sculptures.”
Von Huene chose to switch the system to an electrical one in 1983, but the early computer is now outdated and many of its original parts are no longer manufactured, making its restoration extremely challenging from a conservator’s perspective, both technically and ethically. Although LACMA conservators wanted to maintain the sculpture in as original a condition as possible, it was impossible for it to fully run on its original equipment, Gilberg said.
In Frankfurt, Lorke repaired the dancing dog’s hole-filled rubber bellows, cleaned and restored the original leather and woodwork, and returned its electronic components to full operational capacity. The tone of the sculpture’s composition, however, has changed slightly from what Menveg recalls. Although its sounds don’t form a tune, it doesn’t just play random notes, either: it follows a unique score von Huene wrote.
“You might want to think of von Huene as an atonal composer as well,” Menveg said. “Each of these pieces had a specific sound, a specific composition, which was as much of the piece as the mechanical movement of the piece, if not more.”
The resulting arrangement would fit in at a circus, and just as the songs of old fairground instruments would attract people to the carnival, “Kaleidophonic Dog” draws visitors from other galleries to gather around and watch it when it plays. The work’s high-maintenance mechanics will inevitably deteriorate, so to keep it on view as long as possible, the museum only activates it at select — and unannounced — times.
“We purposely do not let the public know the exact time it’s going to come on,” Gilberg said. “It’s totally the opposite of how we handle ‘Metropolis,’ Chris Burden’s piece. We have this on a timer, and it comes on three or four times a day for a three-minute run. So what happens is — because it’s so loud — everybody hears it, and they come running in.”