Jean Tinguely: life and work (1925-1991)
As a creator of kinetic works of art Jean Tinguely counts among the great pioneering artists of the second half of the twentieth century. At the heart of his work was a preoccupation with the machine. What interested him most was how machines work, how they move, the noises they make, and their intrinsic poetry.
Here is a biography divided into chapters outlining all the important stages in the artist’s life and work.
Childhood and apprenticeship
Childhood in Basel
Jean Charles Tinguely was born in Fribourg, Switzerland, on 22 May 1925, the only child of Charles Célestin Tinguely and Jeanne Louise Tinguely-Ruffieux. Mother and son moved to Basel in July 1925, and it was there, in the Gundeldingen neighbourhood behind the Central Station, that Tinguely grew up. His father worked as a storekeeper for the firm of Kohler, while his mother was a maid for Ch. Schlumberger-Vischer. The family found it difficult to integrate in predominantly Protestant, German-speaking Basel. At home they spoke only French, and Tinguely was given a Catholic upbringing.
Later he distanced himself from the Catholic Church and was drawn rather towards Communism. One formative influence on the young Jean was Basel’s famous Fasnacht, which he was allowed to attend only at the age of twelve.
Tinguely himself once said that his interest in machines, especially noisy machines, dated back to his early youth, when he experimented with mechanical contraptions pieced together out of sound-producing objects and waterwheels driven by forest streams.
Apprenticeship as a decorator
Tinguely commenced his apprenticeship as a decorator for the Globus department store in 1941. Lack of discipline at work led to his summary dismissal in August 1943. Luckily, the independent decorator Joos Hutter took him under his wing, and after enabling him to complete his apprenticeship the following year encouraged him to attend Basel’s School of Arts and Crafts. It was there that Tinguely first began to engage with works of modern art.
It was a piece of good luck to attend the vocational art school. And there I experienced something else as well: that is, the new shock of contemporary art and the discovery of art itself, that art exists, especially the adventure that is the art of this century. Certainly the existence of (Kurt) Schwitters completely threw me. And it wasn’t easy to comprehend and perceive the being of Marcel Duchamp. You were familiarized with the ideology of Dadaism, with the message of the Russian Constructivists.
It was at Basel’s School of Arts and Crafts where he met the woman who would later become his wife, Eva Aeppli.
Freelance decorator in Basel
He spent the years 1944 to 1945 doing his compulsory military service with the Swiss Army. Otherwise, Tinguely and Eva Aeppli led an unconventional life and for a while lived in a condemned house, the now near-legendary Burghof on St. Alban-Vorstadt, near the Kunstmuseum Basel. It was during this period that Tinguely created the sculptures made of wire that are the earliest works of his to have survived.
Jean made things on the ceiling with objects and motors – a little bit like Calder.
To earn a living, Tinguely worked as a freelance decorator in Basel and Zurich; he also created window displays that before long were the talk of the town. What would later become Tinguely’s signature style is evident even in those early displays made of wire.
In the post-war period, as the economy picked up and consumer goods became more widely available, window displays became increasingly important. As a decorator, Tinguely had learned to design window displays attractive enough to catch the attention of passers-by, and hence potential customers. Similarly, the artworks that he created later were aimed not at a passive, contemplative audience, but were intended to demand notice by being at once both intriguing and spectacular.
Kinetic reliefs and sculptures
Tinguely and Aeppli moved to Paris in late 1952, leaving their daughter Miriam, born 27 January 1950, with Tinguely’s parents in Geneva. Their first few years in Paris were marred by poverty. Tinguely continued designing window displays, while Aeppli sold little rag dolls that she herself had sewn. They received support from their mutual friend, Daniel Spoerri, who had a small ballet stipend at his disposal. In 1955 Tinguely and his wife moved into a studio on the Impasse Ronsin in Paris.
Kinetic reliefs and sculptures
Tinguely worked at a breathtaking pace while in the French capital and produced several different groups of kinetic reliefs and sculptures. After stepping up his work on moving automata, reliefs, and wire sculptures in 1954, he was invited to exhibit them in his first solo show at the Galerie Arnaud in Paris in the summer of that same year. With their clanking, juddering, anything but fine-tuned mechanisms, the kinetic works were constantly changing and hence were as much a product of chance as of design.
When the Galerie Denise René staged an exhibition of kinetic art called ‘Le Mouvement’ in April 1955, Tinguely was able to contribute four of his most important groups of work to date.
This was the first major overview of kinetic art as a genre in its own right. Among the works on show alongside Tinguely’s were Marcel Duchamp’s Rotary Demisphere of 1925, two mobiles by Alexander Calder, and various pieces by Tinguely’s contemporaries, Yaacov Agam, Jesús Rafael Soto, Victor Vasarely, Pol Bury, Robert Jacobsen, Richard Mortensen, and Robert Breer. Also included in the exhibition was a programme of abstract films from the period 1918–1935.
All the artists of that period who experimented with movement began with an abstract, purely geometrical language of forms. The kinetic aspect of their works manifested itself in a wide range of ways and could be either purely optical or entail the movement of the object itself. While some works needed interaction, that is to say, manipulation on the part of visitors, others, like Tinguely’s, were driven by motors. Calder’s mobiles, in contrast, were set in motion merely by the air circulating in the room. There were several groups of works by Tinguely on show. In addition to the many Méta-Malevichs (mechanical reliefs), there were a number of Méta-Herbin-type, free-standing sculptures, a Volume Virtuel, and his first drawing machine, the Machine à dessiner I. One of the sculptures on show, the Sculpture méta-mécanique automobile, was set up on the floor and had to be wound up with a hand crank. That done, the wheels of the mechanism began to turn, and the sculpture itself began to move around the gallery.
Jean Tinguely and Yves Klein
Tinguely first met Yves Klein in 1955. He was especially impressed by Klein’s ‘Le Vide’ exhibition at the Galerie Iris Clert in 1958, for which the artist emptied the gallery of everything except a single vitrine and painted the entire interior white, but without actually exhibiting anything. By November of that same year, Klein and Tinguely were able to exhibit some of their joint creations at the same gallery. The mechanical contraptions themselves were built by Tinguely, while the coloured dials were the work of Klein. The idea was to make the dials spin so fast that they could no longer be read, becoming instead just single blobs of colour.
It was through Klein that Tinguely came to have a hand in the interior of the music theatre in Gelsenkirchen, the contract for which had gone to Klein and the architect Werner Ruhnau. Tinguely’s involvement with Klein and his quest for ways of expressing the virtual and the immaterial ultimately bore fruit in his own works about time, as is especially evident in his intricate, virtual line-producing Variations.
Do It Yourself
Tinguely invented his Méta-Matic drawing machines in 1959. The invitation to his exhibition at the Galerie Iris Clert challenged all those who attended to produce their own works of art. By the time the works went on show, however, Tinguely had already filed a patent application for his machines. The interactive Méta-Matics enabled Tinguely to question and cast doubt on the classical relationship between the creative artist, work, and viewer.
Tinguely also launched a 50,000-franc Iris Clert Prize to be awarded to the best Méta-Matic drawing selected by a high-calibre jury made up of Jean Arp, Pierre Restany, and Yves Klein. For the equivalent of three Swiss francs, visitors could purchase a token with which to set the machine in motion. Tinguely promoted his exhibition by distributing flyers in cafés and bars and before long had attracted large numbers of visitors, who with their 4,000 machine-made drawings, turned the show into a great commercial success. Even Marcel Duchamp, an artist he greatly revered, tried his hand at a Méta-Matic drawing.
Biennale de Paris
Tinguely presented his Méta-Matic No. 17 in action at the opening of the first Biennale de Paris at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris in October 1959. Besides moving around freely, creating drawings outside the museum, the mobile drawing machine driven by a petrol engine also squirted lily-of-the-valley scent and inflated a large balloon literally to bursting point. Tinguely also built a portable Méta-Matic with which to advertise his exhibition in bars all over Paris. Méta-Matic No. 17 was the great sensation of the exhibition and for Tinguely marked the apogee of his meteoric rise to fame in those early years.
Crucial to Tinguely’s success as a celebrated artist was his capacity to make friends. He was what we would now call a born networker. His friendship with the Swedish art historian Pontus Hultén, for example, began in connection with the exhibition at the Galerie Arnaud in 1954. But he soon had contacts abroad as well and had an exhibition in Milan as early as 1954 as well as another at a gallery in Stockholm the year following. Tinguely and Aeppli first met Niki de Saint Phalle and her husband Harry Mathews in 1956, when the latter couple visited Tinguely’s studio and purchased one of his reliefs. The year 1958 saw a deepening of Tinguely’s ties to Yves Klein as well as the art historian Pierre Restany, and the gallerist Iris Clert, who exhibited his installation Mes étoiles – Concert pour sept peintures at her gallery in Paris.
It was Klein, moreover, who put Tinguely in touch with the Düsseldorf art scene, especially the Galerie Schmela, which in 1959 hosted a show of his works. Tinguely was henceforth in contact with the artists of the ZERO group, among them Heinz Mack, Otto Piene, and Günther Uecker, as well as the champions of Fluxus John Cage and Nam June Paik. He even inspired the former group to begin motorising their own works. So Tinguely’s European network was far-flung even then: in 1959, for example, he had an exhibition at the Kaplan Gallery in London and took part in a group show called ‘Motion in Vision/Vision in Motion’ in Antwerp, for which he also acted as co-curator.
point of 1960:
Tinguely organised his first actions and happenings as early as 1959, when he allegedly dropped 150,000 flyers bearing his manifesto ‘Für Statik’ onto the city of Düsseldorf from a small aeroplane. The performance came to the public’s notice only through the photographs of Charles Wilp and doubts as to whether the flyers were ever actually dropped have persisted to this day.
In November of the same year, Tinguely was invited to give a talk on ‘Art, Machines, and Motion’ at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. The evening was broken up into several parts, including a demonstration of a bicycle-like drawing machine driven by two cyclists, which all but buried the audience under reams of paper.
Homage to New York
The real turning point in Tinguely’s career, however, came with his Homage to New York on 17 March 1960, when he premiered the world’s first auto-destructive work of art in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The machine was made of assorted objects that Tinguely had found in the scrapyards and junk shops of New Jersey: motors, a weather balloon, steel tubes, numerous bicycle parts, a piano, a radio, and much more besides. The artist Robert Rauschenberg also took part in the action with a small sculpture of his own. The invited guests looked on as the monumental machine Homage to New York auto-destructed before their very eyes.
Almost nothing went according to plan, which appeared not to trouble Tinguely very much. Among the 200 spectators were fellow artists Robert Breer, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Barnett Newman, Adja Yunkers, Philip Guston, and Mark Rothko, as well as important collectors such as Walter Arensberg and John D. Rockefeller III. The work made Tinguely famous all over the United States literally over night and assured him of a place in the annals of art history.
This instensive life of this machine is the cause of autodistruction
One particularly good example was a work that I demonstrated to the public in New York. The machine was simply there, without trhe culture establishment somehow having managed to absorb it, make it museum-suitable, frame it, conserve it. It was a gleaming work of art and it vanished. It had no value, no sense, a refined thing that was in no way commercial ... In no way was this a search for stability. Total instability in vanishing, in smoke, and in the return to the trash can.
Tinguely’s travels in the USA ushered in a new phase of work as his kinetic reliefs and Méta-Matics were supplanted by generally loud, cacophonous machines crudely welded together out of pieces of junk and scrap metal, which the artist preferred to leave unpainted. After his return from New York, the Galerie des 4 Saisons staged an exhibition called ‘L’art fonctionnel de Tinguely’ at its showrooms in Paris. To transport his works from the studio to the gallery, Tinguely recruited several friends and laid on a parade-like happening called simply Le Transport.
An End of the world
Over the next two years, he staged still more destructive performances that were variously interpreted as warnings against society’s over-reliance on technology, as a way of detaching art from matter, and as critique of the custodial, conservationist function of the museum as institution.
The auto-destructive installation Étude pour une fin du monde No. 1, for example, formed part of the opening festivities for an exhibition at the Louisiana Museum in Denmark in 1961.
The performance was to begin with the last-minute escape of a live dove built into the machine – here symbolising a world doomed to destruction just moments later – followed by a runaway doll’s pram, a blaring siren, a crazed rocking horse, the shooting down of an effigy of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, and the ignition of numerous rockets that whizzed up into the sky and detonated. It ended with the French flag parachuting back down to earth where, to the enthusiastic applause of the Danish audience, it was retrieved by Tinguely himself, elegantly clad in a dark suit and tie.
Tinguely staged his Study for an End of the World No. 2 for the TV network NBC in the Mojave Desert in Nevada on 21 March 1962. An NBC film crew followed the artist himself and Niki de Saint Phalle foraging for materials, building the contraption, and then transporting everything to the site of the happening: a dry salt lake 35 km south of Las Vegas. Not everything went according to plan during the half-hour-long performance, in the course of which numerous fireworks were set off and 100 sticks of dynamite ignited. The remote fuses worked only sporadically so that Tinguely had to do the job manually in some instances. His Studies for an End of the World must be viewed against the backdrop of the Cold War and imminent threat of nuclear war.
Changes of 1960
Tinguely’s success as an artist manifested itself in his first solo show in a museum at the Haus Lange in Krefeld in 1960. On 27 October of that year he and Yves Klein together with six other artists and the art critic Pierre Restany signed the manifesto of a new group who called themselves the Nouveaux Réalistes. Tinguely marked the group’s tenth anniversary by staging his last major auto-destructive performance, a work called La Vittoria, in front of Milan Cathedral in 1970. La Vittoria was a 10-metre-high phallus made of papier mâché, spiked with fireworks, and then set on fire.
The year 1960 saw some important changes for Tinguely at the personal level, too. Eva Aeppli left him and her place on the Impasse Ronsin was taken by Niki de Saint Phalle. Aeppli nevertheless remained an important person in the lives of both Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle.
Black sculptures from the mid-1960s
Tinguely achieved his breakthrough in Switzerland in the winter of 1963/64 when he created the sculpture Heureka for the Swiss Expo in Lausanne. He had been commissioned to build a beacon for the Department of Defence’s section and the result was a giant machine that he painted all over in black.
Tinguely drew inspiration for his Heureka from the Russian Constructivist Vladimir Tatlin. It was his largest and most expensive machine to date, built mainly out of new, high-quality materials. It now stands at the Zürichhorn in Zurich.
Everything is moving more than ever in the present age – totally and absolutely. What I mean is that movement is really something that we are now feeling in every way – through the machine and through the mechanisation of our age.
Heureka became the trademark showpiece of the Lausanne Expo as well as ushering in a new phase in the artist’s oeuvre. The black-painted sculptures that ensued seem much more homogeneous than many other bodies of work by Tinguely; he downplayed the assemblage aspect and gave much more prominence to the machine’s actual movements. Tinguely then took single elements of Heureka and built on them to create a series of independent sculptures called the Chars, whose martial movements are reminiscent of ancient war chariots. The Chars also invite comparison with another subgroup of the black sculptures that Tinguely produced later on in the sixties, namely the Bascules, whose pendulum swings in defiance of gravity recall acrobats and trapeze artistes flying gracefully through the air.
Another notable product of Tinguely’s ‘black period’ is Hannibal II. This colossal machine was acquired by the Basler Verkehrsverein following a successful fund-raising drive in 1968, and for many years was installed in its premises at Schifflände in Basel.
World fair in Montreal
Tinguely made two contributions to Expo 67 in Montreal: one was a black, wall-mounted relief called Requiem pour une feuille morte for the Swiss pavilion and the other a sculpture garden called Le Paradis fantastique, created together with Niki de Saint Phalle for the French pavilion.
Jean and I proposed filling the roof with a monumental ensemble of sculptures, which was to represent a joyous combat between Jean’s black masculine figures and my sculptures with round feminine forms and vibrantly colored designs. A game ... with no winners and no losers.
Niki de Saint Phalle
Chaos No. 1
Another black monumental sculpture, Chaos No. 1, was commissioned by Cummins Inc. of Columbus, Indiana, in 1973 for installation in a shopping mall called The Commons. Tinguely built Chaos No. 1 with the help of Seppi Imhof, while Bernhard Luginbühl flew in with his wife to provide technical support. The contraption, which weighs 7 tons, is pieced together out of numerous wheels and motors and even has a ball track supplied by conveyor belt with a steady stream of iron balls. One especially striking feature of the piece is the huge worm drill poking up into the air. Chaos No. 1 was actually finished only in 1974.
Soisy-sur-École and Neyruz
Starting in 1969, Tinguely shuttled back and forth between two homes: in addition to Soisy-sur-École, a former guesthouse that he shared with Niki de Saint Phalle, he also spent some of his time in Switzerland, to be more exact in Neyruz near Fribourg. The same year also saw the birth of Milan Gygax, son of Jean Tinguely and his new partner, Micheline Gygax.
Joint projects of the 1960s and 1970s
I have always tried to work together with other artists, if only to get beyond myself. Because sometimes I feel like I’m trapped inside myself, and forced to be myself, I feel like one condemned. I cannot do otherwise than what I do.
Jean Tinguely thrived on intensive dialogue and collaboration with other artists. In the course of time, he also increasingly took on the role of co-curator of group shows of kinetic art. Even as early as 1959, for example, he shared curatorial responsibility for the exhibition ‘Motion in Vision/Vision in Motion’ at the Hessenhuis in Antwerp. And not only were his own works central to ‘Bewogen Beweging’, the major touring exhibition of kinetic art that opened at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam in 1961, but Tinguely himself was active as its co-curator – alongside Daniel Spoerri and Pontus Hultén.
Dylaby, the dynamic labyrinth that Tinguely co-curated in the autumn of 1962, again at the Stedelijk, was a new kind of interactive installation set up over a period of just three weeks by Tinguely himself along with selected fellow artists: Niki de Saint Phalle, Per Olof Ultvedt, Robert Rauschenberg, Daniel Spoerri, and Martial Raysse. Like a fun fair, Dylaby comprised several different stations, each of which offered visitors a different kind of experience, whether optical, physical, acoustic, or psychic.
Visitors to Dylaby could shoot at a relief with bags of paint built into it, could grope their way through a blacked-out room full of objects, or could dance the Twist next to an inflatable pool. There was an anti-gravitational room by Spoerri and a room full of balloons by Tinguely. All these obstacles, and others like them, had to be overcome. Tinguely’s personal contribution to Dylaby consisted in a radio sculpture and a work called Baluba Homage à Anton Müller.
So thrilled with Dylaby was Pontus Hultén that he expressed an interest in showing it at the Modern Museet in Stockholm. This project actually went ahead only in 1966, however, and then only in a modified form, since what Tinguely, de Saint Phalle, and Per Olof Ultvedt installed in Stockholm was not a labyrinth at all, but Hon – an katedral (She – a cathedral). Hon was actually a giant, 28-metre-long, reclining female figure in the style of Niki de Saint Phalle’s Nanas.
Visitors entered the work through the vagina and once inside encountered a milk bar, a gallery with forged works of art, a bottle-smashing machine, a chute, and a viewing point. Tinguely’s radio sculptures could also be seen and heard.
The group of artists made the acquaintance of Rico Weber, a Swiss fluent in both Swiss German and Swedish, who worked at the museum canteen and whom they recruited on the spot to help them build the monumental sculpture and who afterwards stayed on as an assistant to both Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle.
The combinations of sculpture and architecture that Tinguely produced from the 1960s were intended to amuse and entertain. Yet neither his Lunatour – Labyrinthe dynamique, a work created with Claude Parent that was to have been an incredible 110 metres high, nor a joint project with Bernhard Luginbühl called Gigantoleum (1968) ever advanced beyond the drawing board. In 1970, however, Tinguely at last had an opportunity to go ahead with his idea of a ‘culture station’ – as he himself called it – for which a couple by the name of de Menil placed an area of forest in Milly-la-Forêt at his disposal. The project was to be called Le Cyclop, and it was with this in mind that in the summer of that year, Tinguely hired the trained mechanic, Seppi Imhof, to be his assistant. The actual work on the sculpture in the forest – a monumental, walk-in head, 22 metres high – began only in 1971 and was brought to fruition by a concerted effort on the part of several artists.
Le Cyclop is also a friendship sculpture in that it shows how essential personal relationships were both to Tinguely’s work and to his joint projects undertaken with friends. The design for the mirrored, one-eyed face was the work of Niki de Saint Phalle. Its long tongue, down which water flows into a basin, was originally conceived as a water chute. Tinguely also integrated a giant ball track and a sound-producing Méta-Harmonie. The ‘monster in the woods’ also features a railcar by Eva Aeppli recalling the Nazi instigated deportations, a Compression by César, a pinball machine by Bernhard Luginbühl, a room tilted through 90 degrees by Daniel Spoerri, as well as works by Arman, Jesús Rafael Soto, Larry Rivers, and others. Installed on the roof of the construction is a reflecting pool conceived as a Hommage à Yves Klein. And because Le Cyclop was equipped with a rudimentary kitchen and places to sleep, the artists were able to actually inhabit it for a while.
Le Cyclop, a joint project and Gesamtkunstwerk financed by Tinguely himself, was actually completed only after his death in 1991.
Pontus Hultén invited Jean Tinguely and Bernhard Luginbühl to create a giant sculpture for the opening of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 1977. The result was the Crocrodrome created in collaboration with Daniel Spoerri. Tinguely not only designed the body of the dragon, adding rods and wheels to lend it a spikey ‘back’, but he also integrated a ball track and neon writing to the piece.
large mechanisms from 1978
Tinguely took part in Felix Handschin’s ‘Hammer Exhibition’ in a disused factory in Basel in the autumn of 1978. It was his desire to create something spectacular for that show that led to the creation of his first Méta-Harmonie. The Méta-Harmonies are huge, motorised mechanisms fitted with all sorts of different musical and above all percussion instruments. Once in action they not only make a terrific din but are a visual, almost theatrical experience.
My contraptions do not make music; my contraptions use sounds and I play with those sounds; I sometimes build sound-mixing machines to mix sounds and then let thesounds go, give them their freedom.
That first edition of the work was later sold to the collectors Peter and Irene Ludwig, leaving Tinguely with no choice but to build a second Méta-Harmonie for his 1979 exhibition at the Städel in Frankfurt am Main. His mobile sculpture Klamauk – consisting of a tractor surmounted by a mechanism fitted with countless percussion instruments – was also created for the show in Frankfurt. Its cymbals, cowbells, metal drums and fireworks conspired to give the viewer a percussive sound experience every time the tractor was driven.
A Méta-Harmonie for Japan
The 1980s saw the creation of three more Méta-Harmonies, including the Méta-Harmonie that Tinguely installed inside the monumental sculpture Le Cyclop. The second was Pandämonium No. 1 – Méta-Harmonie 3, a work commissioned by the Seibu chain of department stores in Tokyo. This machine, built in 1984, was not only more elaborate than its predecessors, but also rather morbid in character owing to the artist’s integration of animal skulls.
When Tinguely began using the disused factory premises of Von Roll AG, a former foundry in Olten, as a studio in the spring of 1985, he was delighted to find there numerous wooden wheels that had once served as die models and that he was able to build into his Fatamorgana – Méta-Harmonie IV.
The Méta-Harmonies mark a highlight of Tinguely’s preoccupation with sound as an artistic material.
These are also the works with which he made the transition to the huge, room-filling mechanisms of his late period, a development that culminated in the Grosse Méta-Maxi-Maxi-Utopia of 1987. This walk-in work was created specially for Tinguely’s largest retrospective to date at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, a show curated by Pontus Hultén that brought together an amazing ninety-four machine sculptures under one roof.
Utopia is 8 metres tall, 17 metres long, and a good 8 metres wide. It is assembled out of numerous wooden wheels in various sizes and colours, its heaviest element being the large red wooden wheel in the middle, which alone weighs come 600 kg. Josef Imhof, the artist’s erstwhile assistant, reported that Tinguely had initially planned to create a large relief, and to achieve the desired height had attached various steps and ladders that were to have been removed later on. In the course of his work, however, Tinguely decided to leave the steps going up and down and even installed additional platforms and stairs. Thus, the artist’s first and only walk-in machine sculpture was created.
When building Utopia, Tinguely had at his disposal the premises of a disused foundry, Von Roll AG near Olten, which had an overhead crane. The majority of the more than forty wheels that he discovered there are models that the foundry had used for making casts – almost all of them in the original colour – which Tinguely was allowed to use. As Utopia was built for an exhibition in Venice (1987), it features a number of elements relating to the city on the lagoon. Utopia was in fact the centrepiece of the Tinguely retrospective in Venice and hence was given pride of place in the courtyard of the palazzo.
Dance of Death
of the 1980s
Bones and skulls
Jean Tinguely began working animal skulls into his art in 1981. His first machines to feature built-in bones and skulls went on show in an exhibition organised by the automotive group Renault in June 1981. Despite his assertion that the skulls lent emphasis to the burlesque element, they are also symbolic of his own growing preoccupation with death. This awareness of his own mortality is also evident in works like Inferno, which Eberhard Kornfeld exhibited at his gallery in Bern in late 1984. The skulls, like Tinguely’s ever more extensive use of consumer products and neon tubes, became a defining characteristic of his late works of the 1980s.
There is no death! Death exists only for those who cannot accept evolution. Everything changes. Death is transition from movement to movement.
Tinguely’s long-cherished passion for Formula 1 car racing is also thematised in some of the key works of this period. His Fontaine Jo Siffert erected in Fribourg in the spring of 1984, for example, is a tribute to the racing driver, Jo Siffert, who died on the racetrack. Tinguely also installed a rotating sculpture made of components gleaned from two of Renault’s own Formula 1 racing cars into the Renault works in both Paris and Bern. Called Pit-Stop, this work is unique in Tinguely’s oeuvre in that it also incorporates the medium of film in the form of footage of a real-life pit-stop projected onto the walls of the exhibition space by a combination of 16-mm projectors and convex mirrors. In 1988 Tinguely combined racing car components and bones to build Lola T 180 – Mémorial pour Joakim B., a machine-cum-altar created in memory of his friend, the racing driver Joakim Bonnier, who was killed in 1972.
Mengele-Dance of Death
By mid-December 1985, Tinguely was so ill that he had to be admitted to Tiefenau hospital in Bern, where after undergoing heart surgery he spent several days in a coma. On the night of 26 August 1986, while still convalescing, he witnessed a huge fire at a farm in his home town of Neyruz. So fierce was the blaze that the farmhouse dating from 1801 was razed to the ground. All that was left were carbonised wooden beams, pieces of scorched iron, and agricultural machinery deformed almost beyond recognition. It was out of these relics, retrieved from the still glowing embers two days later, that Tinguely created a key work of his late period, the Mengele-Dance of Death. The first to show this ensemble comprising thirteen different machines was Ernst Beyeler, in January 1987. It also featured in the Tinguely retrospective in Venice in 1987, when it was installed in the church of San Samuele. The choice of a church as exhibition space underscored the sacral character of the piece, as did the fact that the ‘High altar’ of the Mengele-Dance of Death came to rest in the central apse, right in front of the high altar of San Samuele.
I am creating a game, a dance, a dance of death with this death. I am playing with it, trying to thumb my nose at it, to do mischief with it, in the style of joke articles, but as a living person even I, of course, am also condemned to die.
‘Without death – no life!’
Tinguely’s health continued to deteriorate and in January 1989 he was once again admitted to hospital with heart problems. A solo show of his works opened in Moscow at the Central House of Artists in the spring of 1990 and it was for that exhibition that he created Le Safari de la Mort Moscovite, a mobile sculpture built onto a Renault 4 chassis and larded with numerous skulls and a scythe. Tinguely’s mobile sculptures essentially took his kinetic art a stage further. Not only are they kinetic in themselves, but they can also move from one place to another. Josef, aka ‘Seppi’, Imhof, the artist’s assistant of many years’ standing, later recalled how one night, he and Tinguely drove their work through the streets of Moscow, kindly escorted by the police.
The show ‘Jean Tinguely: Nachtschattengewächse’ at the Kunst Haus Vienna in July of the same year was the last exhibition to be installed by Tinguely himself. After a heart attack on 20 August 1991 Tinguely was again admitted to hospital in Bern, where he died ten days later. When he was laid to rest on 4 September, more than 10,000 people lined the streets of Fribourg to pay their last respects to him.