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Important Art by Jean Tinguely
Tinguely used the term "Metamechanics" to describe how he set his assemblage sculptures into motion with some form of motor or system of mechanics. The artist's development of this field, otherwise known as Kinetic art, is exemplified by Metamechanical Sculpture with Tripod. In this early example the artist assembles simple, found objects of the type elevated to artistic status by the Dada artists by whom he was influenced earlier. Wire wheels, to which are connected organically-shaped flat cardboard pieces, painted white on one side and black on the other, are strategically intertwined with stick-straight elements in an interlocking system. The assemblage is balanced above an iron tripod, whose legs echo the linearity of the straight elements assembled above, and the whole fragile assemblage is set into motion. The piece stands nearly 7 feet tall, making its effect quite impressive.
The idea to put assemblages such as this into movement was significant as it evoked an interactive relationship between the spectator and the object. No longer looking at a static collection from a fixed point but instead, moving around in order to get a better look at which parts of the construction were moving, the spectator's experience was actually integrated into the overall effect of the work itself.
Interestingly enough, although the work seems to laud the overall effect of mechanization, by expanding its effect on the spectator, there is some suggestion that instead, it exhibits Dada skepticism regarding the potential of technology to improve human life. By taking on human aspects, simulating limbs that move, for example, the mechanized assemblage itself challenges the concept that machines are necessarily superior to human beings, questioning whether mechanization is actually progress.
Metamatic, no. 17 was created especially for the 1959 Paris Biennale. It is a sculptural work composed of a number of differently-shaped found objects, primarily black metal wires, wheels, belts, cogs and crank-shafts - all driven by a small engine. When mechanized, the elements - irregular in nature - rotate in different directions and at varying speeds; their movement is bumpy and jagged.
This work is an excellent example of Tinguely's Kinetic artwork and pushes even further his interest in involving the spectator. The viewer is invited to choose a drawing tool (color, charcoal, or pencil) and place it in the special holder mounted on the assemblage. Paper can be seen cascading down the side of the structure, suspended from above an elevated section of the work. When put into motion, the turning wheels would activate the chosen drawing tool, moving it along a piece of paper. The result would be a work of art in itself. The artwork created was of a necessarily unforeseen nature, differing each and every time, and directly affected by the random movement of the asymmetrical mechanical device.
Tinguely's Metamatic, no. 17 altered the already challenging nature of his earlier metamechanical works by introducing a product directly affected by the spectator. No longer just watching a process, the viewer, by choosing an artistic instrument, plays a role in the creation of an entirely new work of art. In effect, the artist's work challenged the centuries-old tradition of artistic creation: taking part of the art-making out of the hands of the artist and placing it in those of the spectator. Beyond blurring the line of the role of the artist/viewer, here we see the beginnings of interactive art, a practice that is now highlighted by dozens of artists and takes center stage at many museums.
On March 18, 1960, Tinguely unveiled what would later be considered his most famous work in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A number of artists and engineers collaborated on the project, including Robert Rauschenberg. The massive sculpture stood twenty-seven feet tall, was twenty-three feet wide, and was painted primarily white. Built out of various pieces of metal, bicycle parts, self-operating motors, a go-cart, a bathtub, a piano, all jutting out into space at odd angles and creating an absolute tangle of abstract forms. The original idea was to set the mechanized elements into motion, allow the audience to watch and figure out its changing path of movement, and then set off an explosion that would destroy it. The work was to be a masterpiece of self-destructing Kinetic art. However, 27 minutes into the premiere, one of the processes within the moving parts misfired and sparked a flame that engulfed the entire machine in a blazing fire. The spectacle to which this esteemed audience (including the Governor of New York) was subjected became as much a part of the artistic experience as the original work itself.
The launch of this intricate, self-destructing sculpture changed the nature of Tinguely's art. Although he had already harnessed active viewer interaction in his Metamatics, this work's significance was to be even further enhanced by the experience of being present as it self-destructed. In total, the work was to assume an alternative symbolism, suggesting, for example the organic nature of New York City - known for both destruction and reconstruction, exhaustion and renewal.
A "fragment" of the original sculpture exists in the permanent collection of the MOMA.