Can’t Help Myself – The Guggenheim Museum

The star of Can’t Help Myself - often referred to as Kuka Servo - frantically attempting to clean up its surroundings while on display for its audience.

hypercritic.org

The star of Can’t Help Myself – often referred to as Kuka Servo – frantically attempting to clean up its surroundings while on display for its audience.

Milo Martinson, Photojournalist

Art comes in all shapes and sizes. The art exhibit Can’t Help Myself, located in the Guggenheim Museum in NYC, is a true example of how abstract art can be just as beautiful as paintings. 

Created in 2016 by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, the art piece was an industrial robot encased in transparent acrylic walls. Its objective was to keep blood-like liquid within a specific perimeter. When the liquid would drift outside the perimeter, causing the robot’s sensors to go off, the robot would proceed to frantically move to clean up the mess.  As the robot attempts to clean itself, it only creates more stains and smears its surroundings. It continued this tireless cycle until the robotic arm slowly came to a halt and died in 2019.

The meaning of art often isn’t made clear. The meaning is decided by the interpreter. One person may get something completely different out of the art piece than someone else. The thing I get out of this piece more than anything is the comment it makes on human nature. No matter how hard an individual tries to clean up their mess on their own, more of a mess is made. I think this is pointing to the fact that humans can never really help themselves. It’s human nature to frantically move to fix anything that doesn’t align with how we see ourselves, but by doing so, we create more stains within ourselves until we eventually can’t continue the cycle anymore. It’s a morbid thought, but maybe the piece is also referencing the miserable pattern in which humans live their mortal lives. Spending our whole lives trying to control our world only to die in chaos: completely out of control. It almost feels like watching a caged animal, feeling the spark of life slowly die within it. The robot demonstrates its pain to the audience; the eager eyes watching as it suffers. Doing nothing as a being and exhibiting so many signs of life while being nothing but artificial intelligence, feels wrong in ways that don’t leave when you stop looking. This piece manages to tap into human sympathy, which is rapidly decreasing due to how desensitized our society has become.

In my eyes, this is a beautiful piece of art that I wish I could have seen in action. Videos of the machine went viral on TikTok not too long ago. The videos showed the robot when it was first created, seemingly eager and excited to fulfill its only purpose, and again near the end of its life, slow and almost screaming in pain as it continued to clean. It adopted almost human-like qualities and made the world feel differently about AI’s than they did previously. 

I think that human existence is abstract and absurd; art reflects these intangibles.”

— Alanna Yeung (12)

“I think that human existence is abstract and absurd; art reflects these intangibles.” Alanna Yeung (12). Can’t Help Myself made a strong impact on almost everyone who witnessed it. It made people think about their own lives, and it certainly made me consider myself in a way I had never done before. Overall, I think the creators of this piece deserve huge props; they created something that made people think outside of their own worlds. Something like that is hard to come by nowadays, as technology tends to numb the mind to most concepts. This work of art is a beautifully tragic work of art that is a pleasure to watch in action. We all have something to learn from art… what does this piece teach you?