PARIS — The crepuscular imbroglio at work in Jean Tinguely’s historic machine sculptures, currently on view at Galerie Georges-Philippe et Nathalie Vallois, is very much of the present moment. Hacking and audio art are the jingling keys; even the artist’s name, “Jean Tinguely,” heterogeneously clinks, clatters, and clunks.
There is an obviously joyful artistic exploration at work here that delves into imperfect cyclical movements generating fields of electro-physical noise. Sonically, Tinguely’s fidgety machines of mechanical disorder produce gratuitous Musique concrete-like noise fields that are sometimes scarcely audible, such as “Trompette” (1962), which rubs and never blows. Sometimes they are overwhelmingly loud and aggressive, like the banging “May Fair” (1963). Yet the sum of the jovial, rackety din of these 1960s sculptures makes for a noise symphony of great textural diversity.
There are two humming tube radio wall works in Jean Tinguely: ’60s, full of transmutations, that are of great audio and visual interest: “Radio WNYR 12” (1962) and “Radio WNYR 10” (1962). The other audio works present are “Radio Sculpture” (1962) and an odd and halcyon “Radio Dindon” (“Radio Turkey,” 1962). For those not in Paris, so unable to hear and see this exhibition of 15 of Tinguely’s bric-à-brac kinetic sculptures and radio wall reliefs, there are a few wonderful recordings available of Tinguely’s work that I highly recommend; fine examples of the weird little area of sound art produced by visual artists. The celebrated avant-garde composer Toshi Ichiyanagi released a 1963 piece called Music for Tinguely that modulates ominous sonic sheets of clinking metal and glass, freeing music-making from the strictures of traditional songwriting. Rather than songs to sing along with, these sounds take us into the labyrinth of machine absurdity and fallibility.
The Audio Arts cassette Sculptures at The Tate Gallery is also outstanding. In 1982, William Furlong documented the sounds of Tinguely’s kinetic sculptures literally and metaphorically shaking at the Tate Museum. Most remarkably, this recording includes a piece from Tinguely’s Méta-Harmonie I-IV series, works that were specifically intended as sound sculptures. Here, one may wade into “Méta-Harmonie II” (1979), the wicked-cool sound field of a Tinguely machine now in the collection of Basel’s Tinguely Museum that includes a piano, an electric organ, bells, and drums. Also from Laurent Fairon’s mp3 blog there is Bascule VII (1969), a 23-minute mini-LP that was released in 1995 that I often listen to for its delicately textured machine musicality.
All this electro-physical noise follows in the footsteps put down in the 1920s by Francis Picabia, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and Tristan Tzara, all of whom played with systematic subversions of the machine as an artistic force. Tinguely was part of Nouveau Réalisme (The New Realists), the artistic movement founded in 1960 by the art critic Pierre Restany and artist Yves Klein. That same year, Tinguely went to New York and enlisted the help of Robert Breer and Billy Klüver (the latter a co-founder, with Fred Waldhauer, Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman, of Experiments in Art and Technology six years later) in building his infamous, auto-destructive “Homage to New York” (1960), a massive assemblage of wheels, airplane parts, a piano, saws, and other junk that screeched and whirred in constant motion at the Museum of Modern Art. Breer filmed the assembling and the subsequent public performance of the artwork, including an unanticipated fire, in the MoMA sculpture garden. That film is wisely included in the exhibition at Galerie Vallois.
There is another film included of Tinguely with Niki de Saint Phalle shopping for materials for “Study for an End of the World No. 2” (1962), which was successfully detonated in front of an audience gathered in the desert outside Las Vegas. The screwball “Le Gorille de Niki” (1963) is a charming homage to this wonderful artist, who was also Tinguely’s wife. Their zany shopping spree was in keeping with Nouveau Réalisme’s preference for junk and industrial materials over traditional art materials, something that was a prelude to the tide of technologically-oriented art and the use of the found object readymade that was common in the mid-1960s. However, Tinguely’s work is anything but industrial slickness. Even as they consist of motors, wheels, belts, cogs, and crank shafts, his sculptures have a bit of a funky chicken swaying movement because of his deliberate cog imperfections.
All of Tinguely’s rocking, mocking compositions, like “Vive la liberté I” (1960), are made up of rickety stuff that sways and clinks and clanks away, even as the movements of the machine are delicate and irregular, weedy and tentative. By putting “Vive la liberté I” in a state of suspended collapse, Tinguely seems to reject the idea that repetitious but free life is opposed to a life of slavery, as expressed by joining the loose cog with a lashing whip. The sly cacophony of the instability at work here is captivating, even as it attempts to jumble the inexorable fixity of art, an amusing approach that merges Dada’s brand of chaotic destruction with the mechanistic ideology of Constructivism. The work continually raises the specter of contingent doubt about man and machine efficiency. There is a provisional, even whiny crankiness to the cyberpunk impulse on display here, crying out against the standardization of economic globalization typical of our connected era.
Tinguely’s work, while riffing on that of Alexander Calder, is full of dark deviations, destructive redundancies, and repeated cruelties. In its less joyful approach (at least compared to Calder’s), it puts us in a more manic, machinelike mood typical of what would become known in the early 1980s as industrial music and art (with the likes of Nurse With Wound, Throbbing Gristle, Boyd Rice as NON, and especially Survival Research Laboratories). Unlike Calder, Tinguely’s proto-post-human works (following Nietzsche) were bachelor-machines of dark anarchism in the sense that he employed Duchampian mechanics of chance that shook up the established order of things and literally made art quake.
Even before Tinguely’s satirical noise sculptures came into being, his abstract drawing machines functioned along sardonic, pataphysical, and musical lines through the superimposition of different harmonic oscillations. His funny “Méta-Matic portatif no. 15” (1959) is even highly suggestive of onanistic electric guitar soloing. Here, Tinguely took mechanical components as a palette so as to produce iffy, eloquent compositions based on the effects of irregular speed. With its excess of phallic panic, “Méta-Matic portatif no. 15” embodies a particular material sense of performative mechanism that is anything but smoothly joyful.
Indeed, at Galerie Vallois, weaving my way through Tinguely’s clanking animist evocations, I encountered a strong danse macabre sensibility that hints at the chop of death. “Bascule V” (1967) is seriously ominous, suggesting a looped, endlessly hacking guillotine. In the ramshackle elegance of the sickle-waving “Vive la Muerta” (1963), one thinks not only of the grim reaper, but of the legendary death rattle. Indeed, after going back and forth between the gallery’s two spaces a few times, the show took on for me something of a castrating cul-de-sac for art — perhaps the one where Ray Kurzweil anticipates human artists will end up after they’re made obsolete by automatically running AI software that will produce art all by itself. This show, in other words, raises some seriously interesting questions. Once art historians generally assumed that humans made art; but what happens when machines — made by meta-artists — produce the art? What does the artist’s apparent partial withdrawal from the creative act signify? And what are the consequences of that action for the originality and uniqueness of the artwork? Indeed, where is the art? In the art machine? In the art product? In the act of producing meta-art? Everywhere? Nowhere at all?
Tinguely was influenced by the Futurist theories in Bruno Munari’s manifestos Machine-Art, Disintegrism, Total Art, and Machinism (all published in 1952). The first time Tinguely showed that influence was in May 1954 at Galerie Arnaud in Montparnasse, where he exhibited his first machinism works, a set of paintings from his Méta-Malevich series. These were made of white geometric shapes activated by a hidden motor playing over a black background. In 1955, Tinguely set up his studio in the Impasse Ronsin, where his machinic and post-Dada art theories would converge. There he developed the unique and scandalous quivering function for his mechanized oeuvre, which was to have no utilitarian function. Or perhaps it did have a sort of dated function, that of eliminating the opposition between abstract painting and the painter, as Tinguely’s Méta-matics (1959) drawing machines presented a pastiche of the Abstract Expressionist painting of the 1950s. This kind of radical art thinking, that also took up a tilting position against capitalism as a series of devices for mechanic enslavement and social subjection, was blowing in the wind. Pontus Hultén described Tinguely’s Méta-matics creations as forms of tilting, mechanical art “whose goal was not precision but anti-precision” based on the “mechanics of chance.” As such, the 1959 exhibition of Tinguely’s abstract drawing machines at Iris Clert’s gallery in Paris led to what the journal Sens plastique dubbed the “automatism debate.”
The discrepancy between the clumsy materiality of the Méta-matics and their immaterial function of producing high art can certainly be understood as an ironic commentary on faith in capitalist technological “progress” and the art world’s glossy part of it. The flat art drawings these Méta-matic machines produced corresponded stylistically to Tachisme paintings, and hence were a reductio ad absurdum of the notion of gestural abstraction as an immediate expression of an individual artist’s hand. So this Méta-matic machine work from 1959 forms a kind of historical door into the Galerie Vallois show, Jean Tinguely: ‘60s, where the energy of the creative act is delegated by the artist to a machine whose behavior is calibrated to repetition with subtle change. As such, Tinguely reminds us that we, too, may be enslaved to a machine, mere cogs in wheels that enable the social and economic machinery to function.
Some of the works here, like “Wackel-Baluba” (1963), have a jittering, stuttering energy that suggests to me the militant craziness of King Kong-scaled masturbation. It also has a burlesque but magical aesthetic that reminds me of African Bakongo cult figurines. Other works perform a playful, self-destructive repetition that has a courageous (if daft) Sisyphean feeling about it. With the satirizing “Troïka ou Clochette” (1960), I can think through the timeline of elegiac ideas of industrial splendor, made fun of by the work’s nonchalant, jerky, absurd, awkward, dancing movements, which evoke a constantly deferred last gasp.
Tinguely died in 1991, at the age of 66, of heart disease. His all-too-human ticker gave out, and this show marks the 25th anniversary of that stillness by transmitting the artist’s vibrating relevance to today. Tinguely’s humming radio tube works and grinding, banging machines provide the world with a necessary atmosphere of hacking, circuit bending irreverence. As such, they are badass noise models for a less pompous, machine-addicted contemporary world, one that has the capacity to escape the structures of the slick cyber machine’s endless cycles of creation and dissemination.