Finnish artist Petri Eskelinen builds machines that are mechanical, personal, and capable of unexpected — if not unwelcome — intimacy. His sculpture “Mechanics of Hugging” is a wooden and metal contraption that looks like an aggressive act of shop-class cubism and acts like an old friend.

It is a hugging machine.

Users lean onto a platform and pull two handles together as if hugging, which causes two attached arms to pull together to do the same. The reciprocity is immediate and predictable, which makes it feel a bit like a tool — albeit an unusual one. That’s why, when I asked Eskelinen about the piece, I was eager to know if he thought it had applications outside the art world.

What are the origins of the piece? Why did you want to incorporate the act of hugging into art?

**I was thinking about the impossible idea of feeling your own hands on your back. I don’t mean just regular self-hugging with your own hands around your body, which is too familiar to everybody. It was something more twisted, that you can see your hands in front of you and also feel them on your back. Something that your brain would be thinking like, ‘Okay, what’s happening here?’

Do you see it as something other than art?

As a sculptor I was first trying to create art that would get closer and closer to the viewer, not just something to look at, but something to act with. So, my sculptures evolved to embrace the viewer. I’m trying to find ways to really make the sculpture a physical experience, not just lightly interactive, but something that you can really feel with your body. I’ve started calling it full contact sculpture.

What’s the idea behind your full contact sculptures?

It has to be simple enough that you can understand how the mechanics work at the same time, just by looking and trying it. I think that there are some fields like this in the sculpture scene that haven’t been explored yet. I have some ideas about contact sculptures being multiuser structures, for example a network of locking mechanical ‘handshakes’ for several people at the same time, which will open or close if everybody works together.

How deep into the psychology or feelings of comfort one gets from a hug did you go into when creating this? Was the idea behind it more simple than that?

When I was doing some test pieces on the idea, I found out that it felt actually nice to be hugged like this. It felt like a pause, like “Here I am and I’m going to be here for a while. I don’t have to hurry anywhere.” It had a calming effect. Also some of my friends who tried the first versions seemed to have fun with it.

Testing the 'Mechanics of Hugging.'

What were the first versions like?

First the arms weren’t formed really round, but when developing the structures it felt quite natural to try to get the arms to be as much around the human body as possible. For some reason, the bigger the surface the ‘hands’ were, the more friendly they felt. It was easier to trust them. I also included handles for people with shorter and longer arms.

I wanted this to be more of a full body experience, so I made the stand that you have to step on to. The stand has a bit of an angle, so you have to lean on the structure. You really have to trust it.

Making the 'Mechanics of Hugging.'

What was the process like in creating the final version of “Mechanics of Hugging”?

I wanted to have three turning joints in the structure, like you would have with your arms when hugging, and I wanted the piece to copy the movements of the user. The idea of an electrical hugging machine was way too scary and I threw that away quickly. It still had to be approachable. Wood always feels more warmly welcoming than metal does. I wanted the user to feel like he or she would be in control the whole time. I wanted the user to feel safe.

Did you create it on your own or did you work with anybody else to create the mechanics of the machine embracing you?

All the mechanics were made by me alone. My method is to do tons of test versions before getting to the final piece. It’s maybe not the quickest way of working, but I tend to find things I don’t expect this way. I don’t even make precise drawings — which is just stupid — but just some mysterious scribbles. I like that there’s always something that will surprise me. Of course I have the main idea of the work itself, but the road to the finished piece is more of an open ocean than a road at all.

The 'Mechanics of Hugging' in a gallery space.

Do you think you’d develop ideas that could be used outside of an artistic context? Would you create something that could be used in a practical sense or bought by consumers?

In some exhibitions I have seen parents use the machine on their children in a way, that the parent uses the arms from the other side and the child is just standing there on the stand. I have also heard that some people have gotten stuck there, they don’t do the opening movement properly with the handles I guess.

But I found out about Temple Grandin and her squeezeboxes for autistic people. I got that my hugging machine was close to the same idea, even if my starting point was completely something else. After I had installed the piece in one museum exhibition, I got a happy surprise. I received an email from a father of an autistic child. His 10-year-old son had used my hugging machine more than 50 times in the exhibition. The father said that after this, his son felt it easier to hug his own family members in the mornings. He had kind of practised hugging without a real person, so maybe he knew what to expect now.

This feedback has really stuck with me and I’m planning some new full body contact sculptures in the future. Also, I’m hoping in some way people could benefit from my work in the same way that this autistic child did. I would love to have some version of the “Mechanics of Hugging” to be in medical use or something.

Are you working on anything similar coming up?

In the movie Harold & Maude, there’s a scene where Harold lays his head on a hole in a sculpture and clearly enjoys it. It’s the temptation of a sculpture. I made a small sculpture of this and you can see it on my blog.

I’m also planning a plant or tree which takes the participation of 4-5 persons to fully make the plant or tree to grow and blossom and when people leave, it will die a little. Of course everything will be mechanical, without electricity. But I do also have some ideas with electricity.

Photos via Petri Eleskinen, Petri Eskelinen