Tamara Gupper

PhD Researcher in Social and Cultural Anthropology | Computer Scientist in the making | Humanoid Robotics and AI | she/her

Apollo Kithara

Nov 2, 2023

Jeff Koons‘ “Apollo Kithara” (2023) was one of my highlights of the exhibition “Machine Room of the Gods” at Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung in Frankfurt am Main. This colorful and more than two meters tall statue depicts Apollo playing the kithara with an animatronic snake right next to him. The snake moves to the simultaneously playing sounds of a kithara and modern pop songs. I already wrote about some aspects of the exhibition in my last blog post and will focus on one – the interrelatedness between technology and art – here.

I personally like art that combines seemingly conflicting elements, and Apollo Kithara does so in several ways. Despite knowing that most Ancient Greek statues were probably painted, I found it somewhat surprising to see such a statue in vibrant colors. The sounds of the kithara in the background, which fit with the instrument Apollo is holding, simultaneously harmonize and clash with the pop songs. I also found it thrilling to see the tension between the replica of an ancient statue which I connect with millennia-long immobility and the mesmerizing movements of the animatronic snake.

The conceptual separation of technology from art we know today has only been made in the 20th century (Brinkmann 2023, 15), and the exhibition clearly demonstrates that the technological ingenuity of certain objects has astonished people throughout time. Insights from my research project on humanoid robots show that this astonishment remains a crucial aspect of currently used technologies. The fascination these objects evoke can be incredibly productive when it serves as a source of inspiration for artistic engagement or further technological development. At the same time, I argue that it is important not to confuse our imaginations with the material reality of these objects. Demystifying technological objects that astonish people is an important goal of my work on robotics and AI, and it often surprises people to hear that it is not a particularly new one. One of my predecessors, so to speak, was Henri Decremps who described the functioning of several well-known automata of his days in the book “The Conjurer Unmasked” in 1788.

I could, unfortunately, not find any information on how the movements of Apollo Kithara’s snake are technically implemented, which I would have found very interesting to know. Personally, I would also have loved an element of interaction with the snake – maybe based on sensors that measure the visitors’ movements or other aspects of the environment, similar to, for example, bleeptrack’s “Plant Human Interface” project. At the same time, it was a great experience to just stand there and watch the snake’s majestic movements, to be an unseen and unnoticed visitor to this statue as it simultaneously danced and stood immobile.

Brinkmann, Vinzenz. 2023. “Wie unsere Zukunft erfunden wurde: Eine Einführung in die Frankfurter Ausstellung Maschinenraum der Götter.” In Maschinenraum der Götter - Wie unsere Zukunft erfunden wurde: Eine Ausstellung der Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, Frankfurt am Main, 8. März bis 10. September 2023, edited by Vinzenz Brinkmann, 14–23. Berlin, München: Deutscher Kunstverlag.