Jeanne Jaffe’s Elegy for Tesla at Rowan

Roberta sees a tech-savvy and poignant installation by Jeanne Jaffe and says the piece raises all kinds of issues about time, history, fame and artistic vision. - artblog editor

Walking through Jeanne Jaffe‘s immersive installation, Elegy for Tesla, at Rowan University, is like walking through a puppet theater, with individual, spotlit areas, like Acts 1, 2, 3 in a play.  Two large and several small, motion-activated puppets are the main actors in the artist’s multi-media sound, video and puppet tableau. The subject is the visionary inventor, Nikola Tesla (1856-1943).  In Jaffe’s life-stages immersion, time is an undercurrent, as Young Tesla speaks to you about how he belongs to the future; and Old Tesla talks about pigeons, stating that when his favorite pigeon dies his work will be done.


This dreamy place with the beautiful-odd puppets is also filled with dream sounds, distracting sounds, loud and soft sounds, ghostly sounds — clicks and drips, and everywhere, the overwhelming and inescapable roar of Niagara Falls emanating from a video projection.  Niagara, in Jaffe/Tesla’s world, is the inescapable engine of artistic invention, the powerful brain, which never turns off.  It’s a burden and a blessing, a beauty and a beast.

Who was Nikola Tesla?

A Serbo-Croatian emigre, 6 ft. 2 inches and thin as a rail, Tesla was an engineer and scientist, a man of great intelligence and insights whose prescient vision of the future included AC current (the standard throughout the world today) and wireless communication.  He created the first hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls, which was used to power the city of Buffalo, NY. A thinker and humanist as well as a visionary, the man’s tragedy is that he moved through the world alone, without family, inside his head and living and breathing his visions.

The double-edged sword of artistic vision

What Jaffe brings to this tragic story is the insight of the beautiful but threatening artistic drive, which can be the engine of good and bad.  While Tesla’s visions and drive brought great things to the world, they separated him from others. Jaffe gives Tesla a family in this installation — his pigeons.  They flank Old Tesla on his rock outcropping and hang suspended, like the Tesla puppets themselves, part of the great man’s flow.  With a nod to the passage of time and to family photos, Jaffe gives the artist a family portrait wall, with photos of Tesla’s “family” –  Young Tesla, Old Tesla and The Pigeon.

Jaffe’s use of narrative in her art

Jaffe, an accoladed artist and educator and good friend of Artblog, has found in Tesla a perfect story for her art.  While the artist has not used a historical character before in her installations, she has long plied the territory of stories, recasting the story arcs. Drawing from fairy tales like Snow White and Red Riding Hood, she has restaged the tales to reveal something hidden beneath the accepted plot.

Her retelling of the Red Riding Hood story (staged at the Schuylkill Center for the Arts as “Little Red Riding Hood as a Crime Scene” in 2011) could have been called “Elegy for Wolf.” The table-turning plot transformed the wolf’s murder into the main event and made the viewer the witness. Another recent installation in Philadelphia, “Four Quartets,” at Marginal Utility in 2012, took T.S. Eliot’s poem of the same name and transformed it visually into a fairy-tale-like space where language became superfluous in the larger scheme of time passing.

Jeanne Jaffe Elegy for Tesla detail of installation at Rowan University Art Gallery
Jeanne Jaffe, Elegy for Tesla, multi-media installation with animatronic puppets and stop action animations at Rowan University Art Gallery. Photo by Ken Yanoviak, courtesy of the artist

A collaboration between the artist and the Engineering Department at Rowan

It’s fitting that for an installation focused on one of the world’s most important inventors, Jaffe worked with the Engineering Department at Rowan.  The engineers created the computer programs and the system of gears, switches, pulleys and motors for the animatronic puppets. Suspended in the air and controlled by a complex network of computer commands, the puppets are at eye level or higher and they twitch, speak, raise and lower their arms and move their heads. The artist, who loves to collaborate and is no slouch in the technology department, also collaborated with NextFab Studios, where she made several 3D pieces — a model of a remote control submarine of Tesla’s and a model of Tesla’s hydroelectric power generator and other pieces in the exhibit.

Jaffe has pushed her art into a new realm with this piece, which not only explores the life of an individual, but places that life within larger questions about time and individual and societal history.  What would Young Tesla have to say to Old Tesla?  And what would both Young and Old Tesla make of Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors?  There are no answers to my questions, but they were all raised by this excellent, beautiful, haunting installation.

Elegy for Tesla, to Jan. 30, 2016, Rowan University Art Gallery, Westby Hall, 201 Mullica Hill Road, Glassboro, NJ 08028 –