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Interview by Donna Wiemann
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Kit Williams
Interview by Donna Wiemann
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Kit Williams interviewed by Donna Wiemann
Kit Williams: Engines of Ingenuity 1 Intrigued by the mystery and mastery of China’s legendary South Pointing Chariot, British artist Kit Williams set about reconstructing it and in the process created a singularly beautiful work of art.

DW: What inspired you to build a South Pointing Chariot?

KW: Recreating the South Pointing Chariot is particularly challenging because none of the original technical drawings remain in existence. It’s something that many people have done, or have tried to do, over the years and it involves a complex mechanical process from the ancient world that I find fascinating.

DW: What exactly is a South Pointing Chariot?

KW: Legend has it that the original South Pointing Chariot was built in China three to four thousand years ago for the Yellow Emperor, Huang Di. Although made using primitive hand tools it was a precision instrument with sophisticated differential gearing that enabled a pointer to constantly indicate south no matter which way the chariot was pulled, pushed or turned.

The original item looked like a little hand cart with the figure of a man mounted on a platform between the wheels. The man’s outstretched arm always pointed south.

DW: Why South?

KW: In practical terms the South Pointing Chariot was a simple direction finder. It could have been made to point in any direction — North, South, East or West. The reason the ancient Chinese chose south is probably because north was inauspicious to them. That was where the marauding hordes came from.

DW: You mentioned that no technical drawings of the original chariot remain in existence. Where did you start?

KW: I started by looking at what others had done before me. You see, over the years there have been attempts by many different people to reconstruct the chariot. In the 1930s, for example, Mechano ran a competition in a magazine asking readers to come up with a solution using mechano pieces; many schools of engineering in England have set it as a project for students. I decided that I wanted to create something that was much more elegant, both visually and mathematically, than what had been done before, a chariot I believed would be fit for Huang Di himself.

DW: How can something be mathematically elegant?

KW: Well, a differential feeds from both sides equally and oppositely so the problem, as I saw it, was to get the power back out without using some clumsy construction that would detract from the chariot’s beauty. I thought about it a great deal and then one day while I was out walking the dog it came to me. Two drives! Snap! That was it. Having designed and built several clocks during my career it suddenly occurred to me that when you look at the face of a clock both hands have the same center. It was the answer I was looking for. I was so excited I rushed home and immediately made a drawing.

Kit Williams: Engines of Ingenuity 2 DW: How long did it take you to build the chariot?

KW: Around eight months. I made every single piece myself, each individual component, so it was quite time consuming.

DW: I understand the chariot has since been sold, was it difficult to part with it?

KW: I think most artists find it difficult to part with their work but it’s the parting that keeps us alive and keeps us working. In the case of the chariot, although it’s been sold I actually still have it, just in another form. I took lots of photographs and had planned to write a treatise on how it worked, but I quickly got bored with that idea and wrote a scientific fairy tale instead.

DW: You mean the book, Engines of Ingenuity?

KW: That’s right. You see, my ambition was not to confound the engineering world but simply to create a beautiful piece of art. I chose materials — timbers and metals — of the best quality and worked as though I was creating this particular South Pointing Chariot for the Yellow Emperor himself. It inspired all sorts of whims and fancies that I ultimately wove into a fairy tale complete with muse, the earth, the moon, some famous inventors, a dog and a rabbit.

DW: What kind of whims and fancies?

KW: One example is the orrery. As I was working I noticed that the way I designed the differential gearing actually created a spare drive that sat directly below the emperor’s feet, or where they would be if he were to sit in the chariot. It occurred to me that if I added something to this drive, whatever it was would end up between the emperor’s legs and he would have complete control of it. By placing an orrery there it meant he had control of the world.

DW: What exactly is an orrery?

KW: An orrery is a mechanical model of a solar system which uses clockwork to show the relative motions of the planets. They were very popular in the 18th century. The one I made for the chariot is a simple version that features only the earth and the moon.

Kit Williams: Engines of Ingenuity 3 DW: Does it work?

KW: Oh yes, it works very precisely, in accordance with the lunar month. The earth is divided into 24 segments, each one representing one hour in time. For every twenty nine and half times the earth rotates, the moon rotates around the earth once.

DW: One of the panels of the chariot is actually a painting. What is the significance of this painting?

KW: In the fairy tale the painting represents the here and now. The book is actually divided into five sections, through which the key character, the muse, leads us. The female figure represented in the painting could be the great-great-great-great granddaughter of the Yellow Emperor and represents impoverished aristocracy. In the present world, in which no-one believes in living gods anymore, she is a travelling player who as transported around in a beautiful South Pointing Chariot hoping to attract an audience. But no-one ever comes to see her perform. In a past life she may have been the Yellow Emperor’s wife, the Lady of the Black Peony, who called upon the craftsman Fang Bo to build for her husband a chariot that always faced south because she wanted him to always feel the warmth of the sun upon him.

Today she is the lady of death, which I believe is the best muse to have.

DW: Why is that?

KW: It’s because the knowledge that we are mortal, that life must come to an end, is the best inspiration and motivation an artist can have.

DW: What about the famous inventors, the dog, the rabbit and the hoop. What role do they play in the tale?

KW: The dog, the rabbit and the hoop all feature in the painting, and take the place of the orrery. If you look closely you can see that they are all interconnected, symbolic of a never-ending circle in which it is simply impossible for the dog to catch the rabbit. The mechanism illustrated is not from an orrery but from a music box — its purpose is to create jingles.

DW: Advertising jingles?

KW: Precisely. The engine of ancient society was religion but the engine of contemporary society, as I see it, is advertising. If we listen human instinct actually tells us what we need, but advertising makes us want things we don’t need and things we can’t have. It’s a never-ending cycle and it makes us dissatisfied. The hoop is there to remind us not to jump through it, not to submit to someone else’s control. The dog and the rabbit are telling us not to chase unattainable material goals.

Kit Williams: Engines of Ingenuity 4 DW: This scene is repeated in the intesia (marquetry) below the painting, isn’t it?

KW: Ah yes, but in that scene the little dog is curled up asleep. He’s far too clever to chase a rabbit he cannot catch. The rabbit is significant in that the handle on the original South Pointing Chariot was carved in the form of a rabbit. Because the handle extended out front it meant that wherever the rabbit went the chariot had to follow.

DW: What about the inventors?

KW: There were several things in the history of science that I wanted to include in the tale in a kind of whimsical way. Leonardo da Vinci, for example, was an expert on differentials and made thousands of drawings of gears in his lifetime, largely for military purposes. He was so tenacious he defied the distraction of women by refusing to have them in his presence, just as later in life he denied his blindness by calling for more and more candles. As the tale reveals, his muse is destined to pace up and down in the street, but even then differential impossibilities remain.

DW: And Daedalus?

KW: Daedalus was the master of the maze and also built a chariot, similar to the South Pointing Chariot, which he pulled along to map out complex grids of interlocking pathways that were never allowed to cross. The rabbit in this segment is my invention and was introduced to demonstrate how much more creative a three dimensional labyrinth would be.

Newton, of course, was the inventor of differential calculus so his place in the tale is quite special. Even the loss of two years worth of formulae wasn’t enough to dislodge him from his dogged path, if you know what I mean...

DW: Yes, Diamond had a lot to answer for. The segments of prose are short but beautifully written and full of mystery.

KW: Food for the imagination.

DW: At the end the muse isn’t particularly happy, is she?

KW: She’s not happy about the life she is living but to jump through the hoop would mean to succumb to death. Looking back she sees the moon coming over the horizon and realizes that in life anything can happen, whereas in death...

DW: In the book Engines of Ingenuity your chariot lives on and its beauty and elegance will be shared and enjoyed by many. What actually happened to the original?

KW: The chariot was purchased by a private collector who took it home to New York. I take pleasure in knowing that it was built to last for at least a thousand years.

Interviewed by Donna Wiemann

Donna Wiemann is a freelance writer, translator and editor based in Sydney Australia. She has worked with Gingko Press for over twenty years and collaborated on projects that include Man Ray: Photography and its Double, Yiddishland, the Yesterday series, and most recently Urban Illustration Berlin. For Gingko Press she has interviewed Jim & Karla Murray, Jean Holabird and Kit Williams.

From 1995-1998 she headed SBS Telelvision’s (Australia’s multi cultural television channel) Subtitling and Translation Services division.

About the Artist:
Kit Williams
(born April 28, 1946 in Kent, England) is an English artist, illustrator and author best known for his book Masquerade, a pictorial storybook which contains clues to the location of a golden (18 carat) jewelled hare created by Williams and then buried "somewhere in Britain."
See also:

Kit Williams: Engines of Ingenuity
Kit Williams: Engines of Ingenuity
Engines of Ingenuity is an intellectual and visual journey of discovery that takes us briefly into the worlds of Daedalus, da Vinci and Newton, all of which are places contrived to entangle a man’s sensibilities. “Metaphysics! Quantum physics! Take your pick! See the Natural Laws turned upside down and stood upon their heads.” more...