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Gallery Tripping: building the oerfect brain

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Iris Adler says it takes her about four months, on and off, to build a human-looking heart or brain. She makes them out of found objects, electrical devices from mail-order catalogs, and parts from boom boxes, tape recorders, speakers, and clocks.

"The heart is a real pretty and tender thing, yet it's also so gory and frightening," she says. "The brain is a really sexy-looking, sensuous organ."

Adler isn't a mad scientist. She's an artist who builds hearts and brains for her kinetic sculptures, which are often adorned with religious symbols. When they're plugged in "blood" flows through tubes, lids open and close, figures move, colored lights blink, brains glow, hearts throb, and machines buzz, beep, and rumble, often to the accompaniment of tinkling music box tunes.

Adler, who says she's "more than half a century old," is a reclusive but cheerful iconoclast who lives in Highland Park and likens her creations to the tingly feeling you get in the back of your mouth when you eat a grapefruit. She received a graduate degree from the School of the Art Institute 15 years ago, her heart set on inventing eccentric mechanical devices.

To make her hearts look realistic, Adler says she studied still photos of heart operations and hooked up with hospitals that gave her broken or discarded equipment, like respiratory tubing and valves. "I'd take them home and play with them," she says. "I was always trying to figure out what went where, so if a doctor looked at a heart it would look right. After you know what tubes go where, then you can fool around and make [the organ] look odd."

She provides the viewer (and potential buyer) with a detailed drawing of each circuit's schematics as well as written instructions on how to repair or replace the motors, transformers, lights, and switches. "Everything has to be in a certain pattern, I have to color code all the wires. Still, I get shocked sometimes crossing wires. People are afraid to buy these things, afraid of the electricity. But they're no more dangerous than a lamp, they're not going to hurt you."

Adler hopes that her art gives viewers "sensations they haven't had before, strange and disturbing feelings. These organs make you realize how you're so vulnerable--that if one little cell doesn't get in the right place, your eyes are crossed or you can't read. You think they make sense, but they don't make sense. God and electricity, that's what makes them run. But I still don't know how electricity works, and I don't know how nature puts things together. When you think about it, it's magic. When you plug in something and it works, it's amazing."

Adler's Electronic Audio-Visual Heart and Brain Machines are part of an exhibit called "Inventors, Visionaries, and Science Fictions" at the Aron Packer Gallery, 1579 N. Milwaukee, until March 23. The opening reception is from 6 to 10 this Friday night. Gallery hours are noon to 6 Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 5 Sunday. Call 862-5040 for more information.

--Jeff Huebner

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