Mengele – danse macabre
Material / technique: Scrap iron, harvesters made by Mengele (Augsburg), hippopotamus skull, electric motor
Size: 300 x 440 x 420 cm
Catalog: Bischofberger 0703
Creditline: Museum Tinguely, Basel
On 26 August 1986 a dramatic fire burned down a farm near Tinguely’s studio in Neyruz. The artist describes here for us the tragic incident that inspired him to create the work cycle he called «Mengele-Totentanz». “It was a lovely day. It hadn’t rained in fourteen days. All of the harvest had been brought in, including that of Mr. Dafflon with his beautiful old farm from 1801. At two o’clock in the morning the house was struck by lightning. We woke up from the boom of the thunder and everything went red. Not even two minutes passed before the farm was ablaze. The lightning went like a ball of fire back and forth along the guardrail in the wooden framework of the farmhouse, explosively lifting the tiles from the roof. It was a fearsome, all-consuming fire, a dramatic, erotic, hellish experience. People came from all around, mesmerised. Only a bull and seven calves were in the stall. The bull blocked the exit, probably injuring the calves in the process, and all of them perished. The other animals were still in the meadow or up in the mountains at this time of year. The house continued to burn on into the morning, and then for two days and two nights came the dreadful stench of burned corpses. The source of the fire was so hot that not even a bulldozer would have been able to churn it up and disperse it. It was hell, it was diabolical. Then came the grieving, because it had been such a beautiful house. I took the first step intuitively: I bought steel-toed shoes and asked if I could pick remains from the pile of ruins. I began to pull out pieces of iron from the tepid refuse, without knowing why. I knew only one thing: I didn’t want the rain to fall and rust the iron. These pieces of iron were not only bent; they also had taken on a protective covering from the fire, a kind of chemical glazing phenomenon stemming from the huge amounts of hay that had burnt. It looked so dreadful that it seemed to me like something from a German concentration camp. The carbonisation phenomenon was a horrific experience for me; the cow flesh might have been human flesh. I suddenly felt the whole concentration camp incineration catastrophe in it. The grey of this material inspired me. I toiled there for one week; piece for piece I came upon a military vehicle and brought it to safety under a roof where it was protected from the rain. I became obsessed, working with somnambulant certainty. I even retrieved pieces from the later rubbish pit. The last piece was the large monster maize machine on which the name ‘Mengele’ was emblazoned, the name of that Nazi doctor family. The idea came to me with this maize machine that looked so horrible.” (from an audio recording made in 1986)
The danse macabre group of fourteen machine sculptures is dubbed “Mengele”. The ambivalence of this name served to embody Tinguely’s notions of torture, dying and death. He began to build a spectral winged creature, a dark bat figure with arduous, slow movements, the slaughterhouse atmosphere of the fire constantly passing before his mind’s eye. He transformed a large hippopotamus skull from Bernhard Luginbühl into a monstrous personified demon. The same skull had served shortly before as the head of the “Monster Witch” in the carnival parade of the “Kuttlebutzer” clique for Fasnacht in Basel. Now it formed the soul of the altar monster. It nods beckoningly to the viewer, challenging him to enter its realm of shadows and ghosts. Although the movement of the head is clearly inviting, however, the artist always fixes his skulls on loose wire or spring constructions, thus achieving a free, imprecise nodding movement that makes the machine creatures all the more lifelike. The demon has huge forelegs with barbed hooks, which open up to allow a view inside. The sensual, vulva-like form turns it into a diabolical seducer. Four acolytes gesticulate before the colossus: “Der Fernseher“, “Die Schnapsflasche“, “Die Gemütlichkeit“ and “Der Bischof“. Tinguely calls these “lateral companions”, evoking the image of altar boys in church and the Catholic liturgy. Their props come from the burned-down farm.
At the time Tinguely created this huge altarpiece with the four acolytes, he neither recognised its later key position within the danse macabre, nor did he plan to make a work cycle based on this theme. The artist crafted the machines out of the remains of the fire in a delirious frenzy, without aim or purpose. The charred material and an obsessive, feverish work pace completely occupied his creative powers. Only later, after the machine-sculptures had been completed, did Tinguely grasp the actual meaning of the ensemble of works. But by then he had already sold the “Mengele Hochaltar” and “Die Sonne” to F. Hoffmann-La Roche AG. He thus began planning a crypt or chapel on the hill Schönenberg near Pratteln with Paul Sacher and Fritz Gerber, in order to create a fitting exhibition space for the whole group. He also planned to donate further works. The thought of creating a new danse macabre cycle in Basel completely fulfilled the artist; after all, the medieval depiction of the Basel dance of death on the cloister wall of the former Dominican monastery had guided his vision.