Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Top Ten Pieces Of Art: 10 - 'Dalek' by Terry Nation & Raymond Cusick

They’ve been around as long as I have! They are a true cultural icon of the 1960s and have continued to confirm this status ever since, officially becoming part of the English language (see the Oxford Dictionary). I am also cheating, sort of, because by citing the Daleks as one of my favourite pieces of ‘art’, then by association, I also get Doctor Who and the TARDIS into the bargain!

This is what I grew up with. To me, the Doctor was like a third parent, or another sibling. I know that the character, along with the series, has been one of the really big influences on my love of imagination, sense of wonder, general attitude and approach to life. Of course, in the broad sense, a television series can be considered a work of art, but the Dalek is a definite objet, recognisable even to people who have never watched the TV show, and can be more easily analyzed in terms of its form, meaning and cultural contexts. For these reasons, I have decided to focus on the pepper pots of ultimate evil… (Everyone loves a great villain.)

The concept of the Daleks was devised by Terry Nation (the human pictured above), the look of the Daleks by prop designer, Raymond Cusick. Terry Nation’s directives were that they should be mechanical and have no human characteristics… he described them as "hideous machine-like creatures, they are legless, moving on a round base. They have no human features. A lens on a flexible shaft acts as an eye. Arms with mechanical grips for hands." The story goes that the concept of the Dalek was being discussed in the BBC canteen, shortly after Cusick had been to see the Russian ballet. He had been impressed with the way that the dancers seemed to glide across the stage and demonstrated this smooth motion with the salt and pepper pots on the table… and the basic design for the Dalek was given form!

But are they art? Yes! You can approach them analytically in the same way that you could any sculptural piece. They have a rhythm of form in the repetitive pattern of the ‘bumps’ ascending to the series of discs towards the top dome creating a tension in the interactions between the sphere, the dynamic upward thrust of the cone and the stacked cross-sectional circles. They actually are mobile, which makes them kinetic sculpture and of course they are three dimensional, though designed to be viewed via a two-dimensional screen surface from varying angles and points of view.

Their meaning is more complex... Terry Nation was pretty clear-cut in his intention to create a metaphor for the Nazis of WWII and was also keen to have them portrayed as non-human. Perhaps he was intending to make a statement that the Daleks embody everything that is negative in the human – hardness, anger, hate, ambition, and a desperate drive to be judgemental of others and prove oneself superior… If these traits had been visible on the surface of the Nazis, then they would not have been able to insidiously take control of almost an entire Nation’s psyche. The Nazis themselves realised that people who are physically beautiful are generally taken to be more honest and truthful than ‘odd-looking’ people – they were obsessed with creating a physically ‘perfect’ and beautiful ‘master race’. The Daleks share the ideology of Nazism but they have been dehumanised. This, of course, is what the Nazi regime attempted to do with the races they deemed inferior, such as the Jews. In order to create a common enemy, they dehumanised sectors of their society. The one good thing that can be attributed to the Daleks is that they also present a common enemy that has, in the Whoniverse, united races that might otherwise have been in conflict with each other.

So, the Daleks can be viewed formally as kinetic sculpture, aesthetically as an icon of the sixties, and discussion of their symbolism can lead to some very serious themes that take in historic and contextual issues and even pose questions about personal identity and what it means to be human…

You can find Jon Green’s rather good overview of Dalek design history here

The Daleks will be back on Saturday 23 November, 50 years after their first appearance:

I also discuss the Dalek as art in my book Evolution of Western Art

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