Potato Machine – Apparatus Whereby One Potato Can Orbit Another is made from a wooden bar stool. Polke has adapted it by threading a wire through the seat which extends towards the ground. A potato is connected to the bottom of the wire and another potato is positioned directly below the centre of the seat (when the work is on display both potatoes should be exchanged periodically for fresh potatoes). On top of the seat there is a switch mechanism. When pressed, this causes the wire to move in circles, swinging the attached potato around the other one. As a result the apparatus achieves its absurd function of enabling one potato to encircle another.
Until its sale at auction in London in October 2010, the work was in the collection and then the estate of the Swiss curator Harald Szeeman. It is evidence of Polke’s anarchic and humorous approach to art history. It was made at a time when many artists were turning to common materials such as foodstuffs in an earnest attempt to connect art making to everyday life. An example from the same year as Potato Machine would be Jannis Kounellis’s Untitled work with burlap sacks, beans and other foods, first shown in Szeeman’s landmark exhibition When Attitudes Become Form in Bern in 1969 and now in the ARTIST ROOMS collection (Tate AR00069). Potato Machine also appears to be in dialogue with Jospeh Beuys’s Table with Accumulator 1958–85 (Tate AR00603), where a battery on top of a table is connected by wires to two clay balls on the floor, as if to draw energy from the earth. Polke expressed ideas about ‘the creative powers of the potato – its ability, for instance, to sprout beautifully coloured tubers in the dark’, but did so ‘only half-seriously’ (quoted in John Curley, ‘Gerhard Richter/Sigmar Polke/Konrad Lueg’, in Barron and Eckmann 2009, p.314).
Potato Machine also recalls Marcel Duchamps’s first readymade, Bicycle Wheel 1913 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), which also features a bar stool. However while the movement in Duchamp’s work takes place above the bar stool as the wheel revolves, the related movement in Polke’s machine occurs below the seat. Potato Machine can thus be seen as a complex joke about emerging tendencies in European avant-garde art of the time (namely Arte Povera), about Joseph Beuys, and about the fate of the readymade (indeed, the failure of its revolution).
Potato Machine was one of a number of works that Polke made with potatoes having earlier used the image of the potato in his painting Potato Heads (Mao & LBJ) 1965 in which the world leaders Chairman Mao and Lyndon B. Johnson were presented and satirised as potato-heads. In 1967 he made Potato House, a lattice house structure in which potatoes were fastened to each intersection. Just as Marcel Broodthaers used mussels at this time (for example in Casserole and Closed Mussels 1964, Tate T01976) to reflect critically on clichés of national identity and to question the assumption that artists are associated with national schools, so Polke also turned to a typically German foodstuff, as he had previously in his painting The Frankfurter (Der Wurstesser) 1963. It has also been suggested that there were more personal reasons for his choice of this vegetable, given that Polke had lived through a major potato shortage in East Germany in 1949. Yet if the potato was associated with difficult childhood memories, the work itself is typically lighthearted rather than melancholic.
Sigmar Polke: Join the Dots, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool 1995.
Jurgen Becker and Klaus von der Osten, Sigmar Polke: The Editioned Works, Catalogue Raisonné 1966–2000, Ostfildern 2000, reproduced p.49.
Stephanie Barron and Sabine Eckmann (eds.), Art of Two Germanys: Cold War Cultures, exhibition catalogue, LACMA, Los Angeles 2009.