Much Remains After 'Things Fall Apart' In Kansas City Public Library Photography Show

Mar 31, 2017

Taking things apart and putting them back together again is almost hypnotic. And that is what Canadian artist Todd McLellan does in Things Come Apart, an exhibition from the Smithsonian Institution opening this weekend at the Kansas City Public Library.

A time-lapse video patches together images of objects swiftly being disassembled then reassembled. Buttons, coils and wires are exposed, neatly organized against a white background.

Bit by bit, McLellan deconstructs objects people have thrown away, or that he's found in second-hand shops – rotary phones, wind-up clocks, smart phones, accordions – and documents the process with more than three dozen photographs.

Todd McLellan's 'Rotary Telephone' shows 148 components in the device made by Northern Electric in the 1980s.
Credit Photograph by Todd McLellan

McLellan’s work began with his childhood curiosity about how things worked. His mother was an electrician and his father a construction worker, and McLellan says he was inspired their creative ways of thinking about how to solve problems.

He began dismantling things when he was eight — objects such as his toys and his father’s radio. His parents once found him at the little workbench in his bedroom, smashing his toy cars with a hammer.

“You’d look inside and see the seats. So I thought, ‘Ok, maybe there’s a steering wheel that moves.’ I took it apart and got in trouble,” McLellan remembers with a chuckle.

Todd McLellan's 'Smartphone' shows the 120 components in a 2007 BlackBerry.
Credit Photograph by Todd McLellan

For Things Come Apart, the Toronto-based McLellan photographs his deconstructed pieces, some while suspended, seemingly exploding in mid-air. Others are laid out neatly.

There’s a commercial aspect to the crisp, well-lit images. McLellan, who also works as an advertising photographer, likens the style of “Things Come Apart” to diagrams in electronics manuals or IKEA catalogues.

McLellan’s work “challenges our disposable culture by exposing the things – the quality, beauty, and care that went into making them – that we regularly discard as outdated,” according to the Kansas City Public Library’s description of the exhibit.

“I wanted to document these things that were being discarded in a way, but the standard way to photograph wasn’t appealing to me,” he notes.

One of the most interesting pieces to take apart, he says, was the typewriter. Each moving piece was visible, easy to understand and dissect — unlike the iPhone. With its discrete moving pieces and highly-advanced technology, the iPhone is a wonder, McLellan says, but he couldn’t see anything happening. While typewriters were designed in a way that exposed the inside parts, the iPhone was designed to conceal those parts and instead focus on the exterior.

Todd McLellan at work.
Credit Courtesy Todd McLellan

“With older objects you can understand what’s kind of happening to it,” he says “It’s that curiosity that kept me going.”

Exploring objects in what he describes as “a very rudimentary way” also helped him understand something else: Taking apart discarded and unwanted objects connected him with observers around the world who do the same.

“The world is pretty small when you don't show the world,” he says. “But when you do show the world, you notice how many people are doing it.”

After all, it’s hypnotic.

Things Come Apart, April 1 to June 25 at the Kansas City Public Library, 14 West 10th Street, Kansas City, Missouri, 64105; 816-701-3400.

KCUR contributor Vicky Diaz-Camacho has written for multiple local and national publications, including Alt.Latino. Follow her on Twitter @vickyd_c.