In 1960 Swiss painter and sculptor Jean Tinguely showcased his "Homage to New York" self-destroying machine in the sculpture garden of New York's Museum of Modern Art.
The twenty-three feet long and twenty-seven feet high machine integrated a piano, an old Addressograph machine, eighty bicycle wheels, steel tubing, a meteorological balloon, a huge klaxon on wheels, a wide assortment of mechanical devices and various chemicals including smoke and flash powders.
As the main motor was switched on, the piano keys were struck, wheels turned, the klaxons sounded, the radio played and the machine emitted smoke, while several small objects were hurled in the air. The piano eventually caught fire, and the museum authorities called the firemen who finished off the machine.
Though the artist had worked on the piece to make sure it would follow a precise destructive sequence, he also hoped it would spontaneously self-destruct, as it did (even though partially, while his machine "Study for an End of the World No. 2", exploded successfully in 1962 in the desert outside Las Vegas...).
The machine embodied eternal dichotomies - being both beautiful and terrible (a juxtaposition that referenced the concept of the sublime), and being designed to follow a precise destructive path, while acting of its own accord, following its own path of destruction in a chaotic way. This meta-machine represented therefore the opposite of fixed and established works of art, but also the opposite of the fossilised architectural models, both ancient and modern, from the Pyramids to skyscrapers.
There aren't any self-destructive machines threatening to explode at the current exhibition focused on Jean Tinguely at New York's Gladstone Gallery, but there's plenty to see, since the event features works going from 1954 through 1991, some of them displaying the influence of Alexander Calder and Bruno Munari.
Tinguely's "Meta-Malevich" relief is the earliest work in the show: the piece references constructivist compositions in its title and includes a hidden pulley and rubber band system behind the pictorial plane moving white geometric shapes in front of the black background in non-repeating arrangements.
The Gladstone Gallery event also features his motorised sculptures: "Scooter" (1960), a scooter with only one wheel rotated by a motor concealed within a sodier's tin helmet; "Raichle Nr.1" (1974), a pair of the Swiss-branded ski boots topped with shears snipping at the air; and "Trüffelsau" (1984), the skull of a boar brought to life with its jaw chomping while its driftwood tail rotates slowly. There are also several of Tinguely's lamps, including "L'Odalisque" (1989), a 6-part sculpture with light fixtures and moving components.
Most pieces include welded and assembled found objects from junkyards: bits and pieces, mechanical elements and old motors (often decommissioned from 78rpm phonographs) represent byproducts of consumption.
In these jumbles of chaos and disorder, wheels prevail: usually such elements symbolise a circular movement, continuity and eternal repetition, but also point at the possibility of renewal. There is instead a healthy dose of mechanical disorder in Tinguely's wheels that create inconsistent movements caused by chance and accident that prompt viewers to think about transformation.
The event should therefore be considered first as a celebration of freedom and of continuously imperfect movement, something Tinguely wrote about in his 1959 manifesto "For Statics" when he stated, "Everything moves continuously. Immobility does not exist. Don't be subject to the influence of out-of-date concepts. Forget hours, seconds and minutes. Accept instability. Live in Time. Be static - with movement. For a static of the present movement. Resist the anxious wish to fix the instantaneous, to kill that which is living. Stop insisting on 'values' which can only break down. Be free, live. Stop painting time. Stop evoking movements and gestures. You are movement and gesture. Stop building cathedrals and pyramids which are doomed to fall into ruin. Live in the present, live once more in Time and by Time - for a wonderful and absolute reality."
The second key to read the event is to consider Tinguely's insanely hilarious constructions of motorised junk as a reaction to the established society and a way to satirise the mindless overproduction of material goods in advanced industrial society. Who knows what kind of materials Tinguely may have used if he had been alive now, but you can bet he would have included quite a few discarded clothes and accessories...
"Jean Tinguely", Gladstone Gallery, 130 East 64th Street, New York, NY 10065, USA, until 19th December 2015. In October 2016, an exhibition of sculptures including Tinguely's "meta-magic" drawing machines will be on view along with his graphic works and artist's books at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.
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