Tuesday, October 27, 2020 -
Print Edition

A kid’s delight, an adult’s nightmare

Jean Tinguely InstallationIf I can succeed, somehow, in capturing the utter craziness of this museum in Switzerland, I guarantee you this: In reality, it’s twice as crazy, ten times as crazy, gantz meshugah, as they say in Yiddish. You must take whatever I write and multiply it. Then — you decide whether this is part of the craziness or something else — this meshugeneh place disguises a dead-serious message.

Notice the contraption pictured here. It’s got a gazillion moving parts, but it doesn’t move backwards or forwards a single inch. It huffs and puffs and jingles and jangles, with countless pulleys and gears and wheels and wires — and goes absolutely nowhere. All of its moving parts turn and rotate and screech and twist slowly, but the item as a whole does not move. Not to mention, most of the contraption does not even move in place; it is an ingenious combination of rusted coils, worthless cheap tin, rotted pipes, old shoes and 100-year-old wheels.

Oh, and did I forget? The skulls. Animal skulls. Human skulls. Real skulls. Artificial skulls. Who knows. Welcome to “Museum Tinguely” in Basel, Switzerland.

The biography of Jean Tinguely, whose works fill this museum, notes that he became a follower of the Basel anarchist Heiner Koechlin in 1947. Anarchy is the perfect description of Tinguely’s unconventional art, literally constructed from junkyards.

You see pictures of the late Tinguely leaning over the junk, shifting through it and scrutinizing it with this utterly beatific gaze on his face, the way others would appear on the day of their wedding or in some deeply religious trance. What prized Italian marble was to Michelangelo, throwaway metal is to Tinguely.

His art is what they call “large-scale work.” Some of it is 12 feet high and 20 feet long. You can climb it (on some of the ladders it incorporates; others of its ladders lead upwards to nowhere). In pictures of the late artist’s workshop, it seems half the size of an airline hangar. Large-scale work, indeed.

The tourist board of Basel describes one of Tinguely’s pieces, “Hannibal,” this way:

“A thick metal shield covers the back of the machine. Its slow up and down movement recalls the unhurried crawl of a beetle, an impression stenghtened by its uniform black paint.

“The larger part of the machine moves forward and backward on wheels, its movement redoubled by the almost hectic activity of the smaller cart whose longish sickle-shaped plaque shakes violently, up and down, forward and backward.

“The large cannon-like pipe on the greater car moves forward and backward and a chain strikes against the base, reinforcing the work’s association with a war machine that is already suggested by its title, Hannibal.

“One is reminded of enormous war elephants, of tanks, of destruction. The quantity of wheels, of fan belts, of carts make the construction as a whole appear confusing, imbued with a life of its own, monstrous and at the same time ironical.”

Monstrous — like war. Ironical — like anarchy.

Maybe there is a method to this madness, after all.

Even though “Hannibal” doesn’t sport even a single skull.

Other jottings from Tinguely’s biography: Born in Switzerland, 1925; exhibit in Paris, 1959; a performance with a self-destructing machine sculpture in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1960; creations in Los Angeles, Tokyo, Columbus, Indiana, Basel, 1962-1975; creation from charred beams, burnt agricultural machinery, household appliances and animal skulls from a farmhouse in Neyruz that burned to the ground, 1986; dies in Bern, 1991. His collaborator Niki de Saint Phalle dies in La Jolla, Calif., 2002.

Jean Tinguely is an international, floating soul, living utterly in his own space, not of this world, simultaneously rooted in the soil, the metal, the elements, the minerals, literally.

His “High Altar” is titled “Mengele.” It is described as “the dance of death,” as the conduit for Tinguely’s conception of torture, dying and death.

“Ghostly winged,” “bat-like figure,” “abbatoir atmosphere,” “skulls affixed to loose constructions of wire or springs, giving them a quivering, wobbly motion that heightens the liveliness of these mechanical beings.”

As I said, multiply it.

The craziness.


Yet, with a powerful, utterly tactile and impossible to ignore message about the civilization, if that’s the word, human beings have created in the 20th and 21st centuries.

This museum is, on the one hand, absolutely a kid’s delight, with its disjointed motions and unexpected, never-seen-before devices; and, on the other hand, an adult’s nightmare, with its clanking, grinding, grotesque, unstoppable movements, mirroring man’s destructiveness and irrationality.

Check it out, next time you’re in Basel, Switzerland.

Hillel Goldberg

IJN Executive Editor | hillel@ijn.com

Leave a Reply