La Machine invades Yokohama!

Francois Delaroziere on those spiders crawling around the bay

by Danielle Demetriou

“You know ‘e is a crazy man,” Fredette, a feisty, flame- haired assistant, warns in a French accent as she hands over a yellow hard hat. “A mad man. Un fou. And very, very busy. You must be quick.”

And so it is something of a surprise when a tall mild-mannered man with a soft voice and smiling eyes turns up on a bicycle only minutes later and introduces himself as Francois Delaroziere, the force behind Yokohama’s recent infestation.

For those who missed it this past weekend, two giant mechanical spiders were set loose on the city, and now a stroll down the streets of Yokohama will never be the same. To mark the 150th anniversary of the port, one of the arachnids is making the bay area its home for 150 days, taking daily walks and living in Red Brick Warehouse in Yokohama’s Bayside Area, where it can be visited up close. With the machine standing more than 12 meters high with eight spindly legs, 50 hydraulic joints, 10 human operators and weighing no less than 37 tons, arachnophobes would do well to stay at home.

“It is a massive industrial operation,” Delaroziere says calmly. “And this here is the spider. As you can see, she is a little busy today with her final rehearsals.”

Delaroziere is the artistic director of the French group La Machine, the vividly imaginative brains responsible for the as-yet-nameless beasts. The giant spiders are the latest addition to a series of attention-grabbing, oversize mechanical creatures dreamed up by La Machine, whose visit to Japan this spring is their first. Just three years ago, there was the massive, foot-stamping, crowd- drawing “Sultan’s Elephant,” which brought London to a standstill when the 50-ton pachyderm appeared without warning in the center of the city.

As we wander around the harbor front, the fortysomething Delaroziere, from Marseille, explains the inspirations behind his larger-than-life creations.

“We like the idea of making the city a big theater; of staging something in a place that people see every day and take for granted and showing it in a completely different light,” he says, speaking with a poetic Gallic lilt. “Hopefully they will never see the city in the same way again. We want to make poetry from everyday trash.”

Beneath blazing sunshine and blue skies, the waterside area hums with industrial activity: Teams of workers with headphones, bicycles, walkie-talkies and helmets bustle around the space. But the day before the spiders’ debut weekend of performances, a slightly panicked atmosphere reigns at the vast quayside space as final rehearsals take place. One of the giant mechanical spiders is elegantly limbering up, stretching one leg then another, walking forward then backward before practicing projecting its hot breath.

Pointing out the meticulously detailed structure at alarmingly close quarters, Delaroziere highlights its respiring abdomen, containing a tank for special effects; its salivating mouth; its hot, steamy breath; the 10 human operators strapped to various body parts and its life-of-their-own limbs.

“We use very simple materials: no plastic or resin, but instead steel, wood and leather. Sunshine makes the wood turn brown and ages the leather,” says Delaroziere. “It is all very organic, so our machines can age more beautifully.

“This is the opposite of a robot,” he says. “It is more of a puppet. Every gesture comes from the mind of an operator. There are computers and robot technology out there but for me, I prefer a big wheel. That’s all I want. Then we can create a dance of la machine.”

One of two Yokohama spiders is the same arachnid that caused chaos and rapture in equal measure in Liverpool in 2008. It went on a rampage through the city — which was celebrating its year as the EU Capital of Culture — in a mesmerizing flurry of smoke, wind, light and sound before scurrying up the Mersey Tunnel.

“The spider in Liverpool attracted a massive amount of publicity and crowds of 400,000 people. The people of Liverpool even gave it a name, ‘La Princesse,’ ” says Delaroziere. “I hope that the Yokohama spider has the same effect. Maybe the Japanese will come up with a name for this spider, too.”

More than 20 years ago, Delaroziere moved from designing theater sets to creating elaborate mechanical creatures such as giraffes and rhinoceroses with the street theater company Royal de Luxe. Today, he is at the helm of La Machine, a company with more than 75 artists, designers and technicians based in the picturesque southern French town of Nantes, home to a vast studio and a mechanical elephant that takes visitors for daily walks.

Yokohama’s oversize urban spiders are part of the artist’s development of an ongoing series of what Delaroziere calls Les Mecaniques Savantes — intelligent mechanical beings: “Rather than duplicating or imitating the living, we are trying to create a new gender: the order of Les Mecaniques Savantes.

“A spider is an obvious choice thanks to the theatricality of its movements. I immediately saw in it a ‘dancer’ who could wander around, walk, step over bridges, captivate an entire city.”

Delaroziere’s imagination is sparked by wild and varied sources, from Jules Verne and Gustave Eiffel to Dadaism and railway bridges. The biggest source of inspiration, though, is that which is not man-made: nature.

“I do not dream, but I do have waking dreams, when I am walking, or in nature,” says Delaroziere. “I work in this space. This is where I get ideas. They come to me like little pearls, like a dream.” Interrupted by his walkie-talkie crackling that a “crisis” requires his attention on the edge of the dock, Fredette attempts to bring the interview to an end. But Delaroziere lingers for a moment.

“We need to make things that make us feel we are living,” he says. “If I look back at the past, the only things that stay with me in my life are related to emotions.

“Movement is an expression of life. Movement creates emotion. So you could say, we are an industrial factory for emotion.”

With that, he smiles politely, makes his excuses and calmly cycles off to attend to the crisis. Whether those who encounter his eight-legged creation in the streets of Yokohama remain quite so composed, however, remains to be seen.

La Machine’s new spider will be exhibited near the Red Brick Warehouse in Yokohama’s Bayside Area until Sept. 27 and take daily walks, throughout the city, except on weekends. For more information visit www.lamachine.fr or event.yokohama150.org