“Nationalism has caused one war after another, has poisoned Europe, has reduced it to pygmy status”
Words uncomfortably relevant to the present from the Swiss inventor of living sculpture who died aged sixty-six
Jean Tinguely was born in Fribourg in 1925 and died of a stroke 30 August. His early career was not a happy one; he was sacked from his job in a department store where he entertained customers by dismantling wall clocks and the clocking-in machine. He went on to study art, where he discovered a strong interest in materials and ways of assembling them. Tinguely admired Malevich, Schwitters, Mondrian, Kandinsky and Max Ernst, and saw Calder’s mobiles as the key to a “language of movement”, the deafening and ironic apotheosis of the Futurist myth of speed. In the 1950s, he made his “Meta-Malevich” and “Metamatic”, drawing machines capable of producing 40,000 abstract drawings a day. These were a sly dig at abstract artists and at the Surrealists’ automatic writing. He invented the “sound sculptures”, made from frying pans, bottles, funnels and glasses which were hit by rows of small hammers. His “Philosophers” depicted Bergson as a rusty metal basket revolving on a motorised base, Hegel as a laboriously rotating stump, and Marcuse as a blacksmith’s anvil.
In 1961, Tinguely met Niki de Saint-Phalle, who became his lifelong companion and the ideal assistant for his spectacular and irreverent “happenings”. These included the fiery bull unleashed in the bullring at Figueras in 1961; the Dylaby, a dynamic maze displayed in Amsterdam; the silhouette of a golden phallus in a firework display in Milan’s Piazza del Duomo to celebrate ten years of Nouveau Réalisme in 1970, and the “Robot Fountain” installed in 1980 in a square in the Beaubourg in Paris.
Pontus Hulten was one of the first to discover Tinguely. He held two retrospectives, one at Venice’s Palazzo Grassi in 1987 and the other at the Pompidou Centre in 1989. By now the mood of Tinguely’s work was becoming more gloomy, the symbolism more threatening. Tinguely was an enthusiastic follower of Formula One racing: “I love it because it represents the most intimate encounter between man and machine, between man and his folly, and it doesn’t get him anywhere”. He had come close to death in 1957 after a serious racing accident. His “Lola T. 180” was dedicated to an imaginary driver and consisted of a tombstone bearing a portrait of the victim, with a metallic heart rotating in its chest. Perhaps the most memorable works at his exhibitions in Paris and Venice were the macabre epiphanies of “Inferno” and “Mengele”, the latter built after an ecological disaster in Switzerland. His last creations resembled a tragic, mocking dance of death.
Here is Tinguely himself on Tinguely, recorded nine years ago when the world political scene had a very different aspect, but containing words of poignant relevance today.
“I am an artist of movement. I started out as a painter, but I came to a full stop; painting proved a blind alley. Art history and the fine art school inhibited me. So I decided to introduce movement. My starting point was Constructivism. I drew my artistic language from Malevich, a Russian suprematist painter, from Kandinsky, Arp and several other artists. I recycled the elements of their work and set them in motion, to achieve a re-creation, a picture which continuously recomposed itself due to the motors and mechanical components driving it from behind the scenes. So, gradually, I came to realise that movement had expressive possibilities in and for itself, which would enable me to obtain plastic effects different from anything done before. I met artists such as Anton Pevsner. Pevsner was an old man with a hand-knitted look: he wore pullovers because when he was welding he always felt the cold. When I met him (he was with Daniel Spoerri), Anton Pevsner, one of the artists who—with Garbo—had signed the manifesto of Russian Çonstructivism, told me that movement was nothing, that it didn’t work, they had all tried it without success. Then I smiled to myself because I felt that, under it all, in common with a whole generation of artists, they had a great yearning for movement, and the only real winner among them had been Alexander Calder.
With his mobiles, Calder had found a direct and powerful means of expression. He was working a quarter of a century before me and had constructed substantial, absolutely extraordinary sculptures with joy and an element of humour. This gave me confidence. Suffice it to say that the rediscovery of Alexander Calder opened a door for me. I went on in that direction and discovered the inexhaustible possibilities that movement offers. That was also the origin of my self-destroying works such as “Homage to New York”, a work that was ephemeral, transient as a shooting star, and definitely not intended for mummification in a museum. It was to have its day, be thought about and discussed, and that was all. The next day it was gone, back on the junk heap. It had a certain complicated sophistication bound to lead to its suicide. It was a machine with a death wish. I must say, it was a wonderful idea. That was in 1960, in New York. I had the support of men like Richard Huelsenbeck, the Dada artist. I have always kept in touch with Dada because I had been Dada-Duchamp, Dada-Ernst: Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp had influenced me. The Dadaists liked me; they took an interest in my work...
With the Dada artists I shared an aversion for power. The feeling is characteristic of the Dadaists and also of the Fluxus group, and has emerged again in the attitude of New York artists of the second generation. Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns have blown conventions sky high. Art is a form of open revolt, total and complete, a political attitude with no need to found a political party. There is no question of winning power: when you are against power, you have no desire to gain it... In the same way, we are automatically anti-nationalist, not necessarily anti-patriotic, but opposed to nationalism. It is necessary to fight against the concentration of political forces in any country. In my opinion, the greatest disasters have derived from the emergence of the French nation state as a result of the power politics practised by Richelieu, Mazarin and then Louis XIV. That was the beginning of the end...
Maybe in the internationalism, the behaviour, the choices of the Dada artists at Zurich there is something wonderful which wants to build a hedge against the horrors of nationalism, because nationalism—let it be said—has not done us any great service. It has caused one war after another, has poisoned Europe, has reduced it to pygmy status. Finally, there was Hitler. And after Hitler the Soviet Union stepped in to cut Europe in two. The result of these nationalist aspirations has been to diminish Europe and oppress its peoples. Sooner or later, we shall have to rediscover a true inspiration: the power of liberty.
The kind of liberty you find in small countries, like the old regions of Germany or the former Italian states. They were provinces where individuals lived together in close community, with a sense of belonging together based on ethnic origin and a common language. Some of them are small peoples, like the Alsatians, gathered around their cathedral at Strasburg, or the Basques. These yearnings for autonomy are really beneficial, even though nowadays they lead inevitably to terrorism. But it would be a wonderful thing, a great adventure, if Europe could free itself of nationalism.”
From a tape recording of the programme “Notre Monde”, a discussion organised by Jean-Pierre Van Tieghem, Radio Télévision Belge de la Communauté française, Brussels, 13 December 1982. Published in Pontus Hulten Una magia più forte della morte (Milan, Bompiani, 1987)
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as '“Nationalism has caused one war after another, has poisoned Europe, has reduced it to pygmy status” '