Aristotle's Cage

Image of Michael C. McMillen's Art Installation Aristotle's Cage

O ne of the fascinating qualities about the classic 1931 film version of Frankenstein is the set design, especially Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory with anomalous machines and electrical effects that gave the movie its atmosphere. I personally recall as a child thinking how unusual the castle was with its ancient connotations juxtaposed with the laboratory’s modern, reckless technology. This may also explain why I’m attracted to Michael C. McMillen’s multimedia installations that cleverly merge two mediums into one: the technical elements of film set design and assemblage tableaux.

McMillen’s art is no doubt influenced from his father who was a Hollywood set designer and builder, but he also had the experience as a child to visit Kenneth Strickfaden’s workshop. Strickfaden just happened to be the set designer of the 1931 Frankenstein movie as well as other classics such as The Wizard of Oz, The Mask of Fu Manchu and television’s The Munsters. McMillen recalls:

After school I’d walk down the alley and stop in his workshop and run Nikola Tesla coils for him. He was making all this stuff in his garage. I thought that was so exciting that I wanted to become a scientist because I thought that was what science was. I didn’t realize that was theater or the extent of art. [Strickfaden] was a very interesting kind of a mentor to me because he tolerated, first of all, me in his workshop, not that I was obnoxious, but I was very happy to watch him do things. I learned a lot about the creation process outside of school that way, just watching him build things.

When McMillen was a young adult he did end up working as a set designer for fifteen years before his art career took off. Although McMillen’s craft is superb and reveals the influence of film set design, his art is more than technical craft—the miniature worlds he creates are disturbing and explore complex realms of imagination, history, and memory.

An excellent example of McMillen’s installation art is Aristotle’s Cage (1982-1993), which is part of the permanent collection at the Oakland Art Museum. The installation is presented in a small dark room entered through a porch-like door that opens with a creaky sound and slams behind you if you’re not careful. Inside the dark room you are transported out of the museum and into another realm. Through a cage appears a miniature world that immediately feels apocalyptic, yet magical. Decayed tools, oil drums, tumbleweeds, abandoned cars, old motorcycles, and a mobile home exist in an end-of-the-world desert landscape. The sky is a muzzy orange light created with background lights reflecting on a wall. In the distance is a lone oil tower. There are no signs of human life, but the lights coming from the interior of the mobile home suggest that someone lives or works there. In the sky are two skeletons, a dinosaur and a human, both hung by wire. The two skeletons give the installation the needed depth to make thematic connections.

The art critic Silas Cook said of McMillen’s themes: “Viewers are confronted with what often feels like a parallel universe—one that looks, feels, and perhaps even smells like ours, but is divergent in hidden and extraordinary ways.” I’m drawn to Cook’s phrase “parallel universe,” hinting toward the possibility of what could be if a chain of events had been slightly different.


Now that man is placed alongside the dinosaur the installation prompted me to consider that man too could possibly become a fossil fuel for a desolate, future world.

The skeletons bring humor and movement to the installation, which is otherwise static. They are sepulchral partners flying across the sky laughing at the cruel world they exist in. It could be a wicked, humorous scene from a movie. McMillen presents the skeletons as an investigation of the intertwined themes of time, change, and illusion. They are evidence of what once existed on earth. My immediate impression was linking the oil fields with the dinosaur, as it is commonly known as the source of fossil fuels. Now that man is placed alongside the dinosaur the installation prompted me to consider that man too could possibly become a fossil fuel for a desolate, future world.

The installation’s title, Aristotle’s Cage, references the Greek philosopher, one of the great thinkers of ancient time. What is McMillen suggesting with this reference? The installation is presented in a cage. It is in reality a small world in a cage. Great men who are great thinkers are limited in perspective. They have history, but they don’t have the future. Aristotle had neither, only senses and logic. The world McMillen presents is bleak and desolate; no one would want to live there. In Aristotle’s time, from our perspective, life seemed rather bleak too, and no doubt the philosopher was as brilliant as he was limited in his knowledge, and like him, no matter what stage of life we are in, we are no different.

What is exciting about McMillen’s work is that the viewer can have multiple interpretations, but what is not immediately noticeable about the installation is a looped soundtrack. Wind and mumbling voices are faintly heard. I noticed the sound as the last element of the piece, which is interesting because it reveals that my eyes were more powerfully drawn into the installation than my ears. The same thing happened to my wife (who was alongside me) and who didn’t notice the soundtrack at all until I mentioned it to her. This was perhaps due to the volume of the soundtrack being very faint or simply because the visual presentation of the installation is powerful and lures the eyes more than the ears.

Good art that is technically brilliant makes one ask a simple question: how did the artist do it? McMillen’s art is more than just models constructed from kits bought at a hobby shop and so the question of how McMillen did it is replaced with an awe for the craftsman who has transformed craft into art and makes us think outside of Aristotle’s Cage.