It sounds like a riddle: what has six legs, was built for camping and can walk on its own? The answer, however, is no joke — it’s actually the incredibly complex final project of Visual Arts BFA graduate Xiao Xue.
Aptly titled “Something to Ponder On: A Walking Camper,” Xue’s project is exactly that: a classically Canadian Slumber Queen truck camper unit, enhanced by six electric-powered robotic legs which allow it to walk independently. Inspired by a fascination with insects and a friend’s prosthetic leg, Xue has created a remarkable piece that truly gives the viewer something to ponder on.
“Xiao’s walking camper is a highly sophisticated artwork that brings together her poetic, even poignant, vision with matching research and technical skills,” says Visual Arts professor Daniel Laskarin, one of Xue’s instructors. “This piece is among the finest that any graduating student anywhere might produce. Xiao has that combination of independence, imagination, and willingness to learn that made her a great student and a very promising young artist.”
Scroll down for a gallery of images of the project.
An international student from Urumqi — a 1,400-year-old Chinese city of three million on the border of Pakistan and Russia — Xue came to UVic with practically no pre-existing art background. As such, she’s an ideal example of the invaluable skills a fine arts education offers: by combining creative thinking and critical evaluation with hands-on learning, collaborative partnerships and sheer determination, she has not only achieved the practical goal represented by her project but has also earned herself admission to the MFA program at the University of Guelph.
“I make structures with revealing structures,” she explains. “In nature, all organisms that rely on a parasitic relationship need a host to survive and, once deceased, they are no longer seen if they are apart from the host. This similar parasitic relationship not only applies to objects in human society, but it’s fairly common in social relations as well.”
Originally a student in the Art History & Visual Studies department, Xue transferred to Visual Arts after taking the first-year studio elective. “If you want to work in a discipline, the end result should be contributing to the field yourself — but I couldn’t see myself contributing anything unique to art history. I’m more interested in doing than just knowing, and that’s what Visual Arts offers.”
Be sure to watch this short video of Xue’s camper going for walk to get the full effect:
No question, Xue’s piece was the hit of this year’s graduating BFA art show in April. Constructed at a cost of approximately $4,200, her 2,400-pound walking camper was financed through a combination of crowd-sourcing, scholarships, bursaries and out-of-pocket expenses. She also had the assistance of a fellow student in UVic’s Mechanical Engineering department, the support and sponsorship of local machine shop Rainhouse (“This project wouldn’t have happened without them”) and the resources of the Visual Arts department itself. “It was a consistent learning experience with the [Visual Arts] technicians. I had a great four years spending time with them.”
Xue describes the seven-month project, undertaken alongside her other classes, as “a non-stop troubleshooting process” involving hundreds of hours of sketching, welding, woodwork, electronics, 3D modelling, maquette construction and people management. “I start with the final image in my mind and then reverse-engineer it based on what I can’t afford.”
But Xue downplays her artistic accomplishment in favour of a more philosophical outlook. “People say ‘Oh, this is so amazing’ but then they go and drive a machine that goes 60 miles an hour and has air conditioning and a gearbox,” she says. “We’re living in a very impatient age. It’s the best time in history — you can achieve so much in life — but a lot of people complain about our technology and engineering without realizing how much work goes into it, and who is actually doing the work. It’s crazy how cheap technology is: they certainly wouldn’t be able to build their own car for $50,000.”
All of which offers a final insight into Xiao Xue’s walking camper: its slow pace also provides the viewer a meditative opportunity conducive to pondering.