Jean Tinguely en Reliefs

“The soft tongue lasts longer than our hard teeth” J.T.

Jean Tinguely en Reliefs: 11 major works, some of which have never been exhibited before, and a reminder to us of the profound originality of the sculptor whose death occurred more than twenty years ago.

Jean Tinguely – the name seems to tinkle and jingle as if it would echo his work – a name that everyone associates with the marvellous cobbler-together that he was of works to catch the eye and engage the ear. Jean Tinguely combined la science amusante (‘fun science’) with a dark and sardonic commentary on the world of the machine when it was being industrialised. Partly in mischief and partly in mockery, Jean Tinguely, with the help of his friend Pontus Hulten, invented the notion of Meta-Matic, pataphysical sculpture for Modern Times.

The 9 reliefs in this exhibition were designed and executed between 1955 and 1961; both dates are turning points in Tinguely’s career. 1955 was the year he moved to Paris, just round the corner from Brancusi’s studio, and the year his first Sound Relief was exhibited at the ‘Salon des Réalités Nouvelles’ and his ‘kinetic paintings’ were shown at the Galerie Denise René. In 1961 he took part in the famous exhibitions ‘Bewegen – Bewogen’ (‘Movement in Art’) at the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum and ‘Rörelse i Konsten‘ at the Stockholm Moderna Museet. This was after Homage to New York, the cheerfully satirical, self-destructing artwork that he presented on17 March 1960. Between 1955 and 1961, Tinguely’s art acquired its strength and its poetry – it became a language, whose parallels and possible echoes with his compatriot Ferdinand de Saussure I shall attempt in this text to analyse. Saussure was a great lover of the little incidents and acts of ordinary life and author of a genuinely brilliant work that yoked together speech and writing, voice and hearing, and sign and meaning.

Jean Tinguely en Reliefs. The word deserves attention. It suits him well. It situates his work in the domain of sculpture, particularly insofar as his work relates to the classical age. Tinguely’s Reliefs are in many ways the heirs, or rather the 'offshoots', of a history of sculpture and its links with walls, and they belong on the surface of a background upon which the artist creates them and arranges them. At this time, Tinguely was totally involved in considerations of the dual relationship between painting and sculpture. In this respect, as in so many others, his Reliefs foreshadow a sculptural future for painting. This was already a decisive moment.

But the concept of 'relief' is interesting for other reasons. In French the word relief can also mean the remains of a meal. Daniel Spoerri's Tableaux-pièges are an example that comes to mind. Spoerri had been a friend of Tinguely's since the beginning of the fifties. Figurative expressions such as mettre en relief and donner du relief ('to highlight', 'to accentuate') abound in French. A French dictionary will throw up a thousand interpretations that show how suitable the word is and how many more readings and interpretations it suggests for Tinguely than for other artists.

Tinguely's work raises the primary question of the relationship between painting and sculpture, and that of its history. The nine works we are concerned with in this exhibition are, quite clearly, major examples.

1955 was a crucial stage in Tinguely's career. The ten years of training, immediately after the war, were followed by an important period. With his memories and his political and artistic apprenticeship under his belt, Tinguely had left Basel two years previously for Paris where he found the climate of exacerbated arguments about aesthetics highly stimulating. At this point he gave up painting and abandoned the abstract patterns that he had been painting “in desperation” . He almost certainly knew the history of modernity better than many of his contemporaries. The Allgemeine Kunstgewerbeschule in Basel was a school of applied art with a progressive atmosphere, more keyed into avant-garde movements than the gloomy Paris École des Beaux-arts of the time. Dada, the Bauhaus, De Stijl, the works of Kandinsky and those of the Surrealists were more discussed and debated there than they were in Paris. Kandinsky, Klee and Tatline were little studied but they were nevertheless references and role-models that Tinguely was well acquainted with, if for no other reason than that in the work of some of them, Schwitters in particular, the awareness of the relationship between all artistic activity and its social and political context was something that Tinguely felt to be essential. It must be remembered that Tinguely's work is that of a 'politically aware' artist. In 1939, before he was fifteen, he tried to get involved in the war against Fascism. At Heinrich Koechlin's, the bookseller and publisher of Éditions Don Quichotte, he linked up with refugee union workers and anarchists and, very early on, produced several lay-outs (amongst which the cover for Koechlin's thesis about the Paris Commune). These experiences led him to consider his work and its relationship with the world in acutely political terms.

After arriving in Paris in 1953, Tinguely put together spatial constructions made out of wire soldered with a tin alloy. “Those spatial structures”, Pontus Hulten explains, “were sometimes embellished with little metal leaves. They took the form of wall reliefs or sculptures moving freely in space” . They hark back to the little eccentric wheels that Tinguely had imagined for streams in Switzerland some fifteen yeas before. They combine what he had learned during his early apprenticeship with knowledge of the state of sculpture at that time, taking in Tatline and Brancusi, Calder and Duchamp. Not that Duchamp was at that time the great influence he was very soon to become. He was of course the “inventor of gratuitous time” , occupied with the design of a clock for looking at the time in profile. He was also “a handler of gravity” and in 1931 had suggested the word 'mobiles' to Calder as a name for his hanging structures. But he hadn't yet become Tinguely's friend. One might legitimately wonder where he was at this time. Apart from a few initiated people like Robert Lebel, who wrote the first monograph on Duchamp, published in 1959 , few people in Paris were interested in the inventor of that strange yet modest thing known as a ready-made, the first example of which was a bicycle wheel mounted upside-down in its fork on a stool. The spectator was invited to touch it to set it in motion. “Never exhibited and lost after moving”, Duchamp wrote. It was the first artwork to give concrete form to its message through physical movement. This idea of physical movement as artistic language gave Tinguely food for thought.

Paris in 1953 was arguing about completely different preoccupations. The first issue of the journal Cimaise came out in November. Its editor, Roger Van Gindertael, published the introduction to the catalogue of Tinguely's May 1954 exhibition in the bookshop in the Galerie Arnaud, 34 rue du Four . He emphasised the 'novelty' of these works, which he called 'automata'. This was where Tinguely exhibited his first 'mobile' pictures in the 'Meta-Malevich' series. They were white geometric shapes on a black background, activated by a hidden mechanism in the form of a little motor attached to wooden wheels. Pontus Hulten pointed out later that “these shapes were capable of returning to their initial positions after a couple of months, or after a few centuries”. This, he concluded, was “relativity in action – with neither beginning nor end, past nor future – an illustration of infinite change”.

In December of the same year, the Galerie Arnaud followed up Tinguely's successful first exhibition with a second one. In Milan, the Studio d’Architettura b24, presented his Automates, Sculptures et Reliefs mécaniques, all executed on the spot. There Tinguely met Bruno Munari, whom Picasso had dubbed “the new Leonardo”. The relationship between Munari and Tinguely was vitally important. In 1952 Munari had published a series of influential manifestos, including Machine-Art, Machinism, Organic Art, Disintegrism and Total Art. In his manifesto on Machinism, he wrote “it is time for artists to give up the dusty romanticism of the paintbrush, the palette, the canvas and the stretcher and to get interested in machines. Time to learn the language and the anatomy of mechanics! If you understand the true nature of machinery, you can twist its meaning. It is time for artists to create artworks that contradict the uses, the intentions and the way machines are handled!”

The relationship between Munari and Tinguely was intense. When he visited Munari in Milan, Tinguely told him that he was putting into practice the ideas in his manifesto. He recognized a kindred spirit. With Munari, the creator mutates into an inventor. Artistic activity becomes an experiment. Technology was not so much celebrated as diverted from its original purpose. It was an exalting game. His Proiezioni dirette were simple optical processes subjected to the movements of the projector's lens. They echoed the archaism of Meraviglie, “magical effects” and similar “tricks of light and shade”. Tinguely never forgot them.

Munari no doubt led Tinguely to question the very basis of art and its purpose. Although abstraction was the dominant genre and had imposed its model on the artistic discourse of the time, Tinguely was working on a contradictory, not to say sacrilegious body of work. Compared with the immutability of form and composition of his geometrically minded contemporaries, forms which tended to devolve from the models of generations of historical avant-gardes, Tinguely's machines raised the spectre of doubt. To the solemnity, not to say pompousness, of abstract art hailed as the advent of “truth in painting”, the early Meta-machines appeared all the more ironic for being, for the most part, executed in austere black and white. To the polarity between intentionality and spontaneity on which modern art was constructed, Tinguely responded by shaking, literally and metaphorically, the edifice on which it was constructed. The fact is that in many ways his work was profoundly and unequivocally anarchistic in conception, and in execution.

Was Tinguely an anarchist in the manner of certain Dada tendencies? He was an anarchist in the sense that the “mechanics of chance” shattered the established order of things and literally made truth shudder. 1955 was a crucial year in more ways than one. Tinguely freed his works from inertia and fixity. “His early mobile constructions, not activated by an electric motor but by a crank-handle”, Pontus Hulten wrote, “represented an evolution from his wire sculptures”.

The crank-handle was soon to become a motor. It was as if Tinguely were rediscovering, in parody mode, the moment when human effort gave way to technology. Electric power took over from those early paddle-wheels moved by the current in the stream. The low energy of the coil in a cheap motor took over from the hand movements that turned the crank. Tinguely's oeuvre repeated and replayed the story of discovery that should have freed mankind from the tyranny of work. The struggle was only just beginning.

1955 was also the year when Tinguely met Pontus Hulten. Hulten often told of his fascination and enthusiasm for the two exhibitions at the Galerie Arnaud. Their friendship and their exchanges were essential to an understanding of each one's career. Hulten's 1955 text Substitute-Freedom or On Movement in Art and Tinguely's Meta-mechanics gave the overview and the perspective necessary for understanding Tinguely's work. Hulten traces the history of movement in the 20th century and the “abolition of traditional artistic principles”. Duchamp and Calder play a central part in this. The concept of 'rotary movement' in Duchamp's optical machines and the 'infinite variation' inherent in Calder's mobiles are keys to understanding what is involved in Tinguely's work. “Repetition and change are the fundamentals of Tinguely's art” Hulten wrote. He celebrates Tinguely's “mechanical disorder” and “chance in action”. “Tinguely's mechanics is meta-mechanics”, he concludes.

It is worth considering the choice of the term 'meta' that Hulten came up with when he and Tinguely first met and Tinguely was casting around for a name to define his machines. None of those that had been suggested appealed to him, particularly not 'automaton' which, it is easy to appreciate, was a million miles away from what he was trying to do. 'Automaton' implies a quest for exactness or an illusion of perfection in the endeavour to reproduce a living being. Rosalind Krauss has attempted to demonstrate possible analogies between Vaucanson's automaton and the Modernist impulses in Laszlo Moholy-Nagy's Licht Modulator . Nothing of that sort was involved in Tinguely's plans. Quite the reverse; the movement of his machines was delicate and irregular, weak and uncertain. It did not repeat itself imperturbably without mishaps and misadventures. It accomplished no 'useful' task and its only function was not to have a function. It celebrated no kind of technology and was constantly on the verge of breakdown. It quivered away in its own rhythm, sensitive to the tiniest variation, seeking its own liberty and making it clear that it was a hard thing to achieve. Tinguely's 'meta-machines' were a programme and a perspective; they were art that was never at rest .

Pontus Hulten recounts how he used the Grand Dictionnaire Larousse to explore the meanings of 'meta', which apart from meaning 'with' also means 'after' or even 'beyond'. The association with ideas of 'metaphor' and 'metamorphosis' was presumably not without its attractions when he graced his friend's works with the required neologism. Meta-mechanics thus became the term for these strange sculptures. The critical fortune of the term is well-known and in some respects comparable with that of such terms as ready-made, dripping, monochrome or compression. Modern art is constantly caught in what Alain Jouffroy called the “incurable delay of words”.

In the Impasse Ronsin, a cul-de-sac between the Rue de Vaugirard, the Boulevard de Montparnasse and the Boulevard Pasteur, Tinguely set up his studio at the beginning of 1955. This is where he made his works for the next ten years and where he talked about the current artistic situation with Hulten. The Impasse Ronsin came to be a sort of headquarters. How were they to eliminate the still strong opposition between abstract art and figurative art? How should they interpret the antagonism between constructivist abstraction and 'informal' art? How could they sweep away the 'drip period' of the Sam Francises, the Riopellis and the Jackson Pollocks of this world? How could they describe a perspective that would take people beyond painting? How could Munari's Manifesto be made to bear fruit: “Let there be no more oil-paintings, but the oxy-acetylene torch, chemical agents, chrome plating, oxidation, anodizing, thermal alterations! No canvases, no stretchers, but metals, plastics, rubber and synthetic resins! Shapes, colours, movement, the rumble of the mechanical world will no longer be described in abstract, analysed and reproduced, but be combined in harmony. The modern machine is a monster! The machine must become a work of art! It is up to us to discover art in machinery!”

It was against this background that the idea for the April 1955 exhibition Le Mouvement at Denise René's gallery grew. The importance of this exhibition with all its contradictions is legendary. It was made up of three sections: an ‘historical’ section that included Marcel Duchamp and Alexander Calder's mobile sculptures, a section with paintings on double-thickness glass designed by Victor Vasarely, and a section comprising works by Pol Bury, Agam, Soto and Tinguely. The little yellow booklet that accompanied the exhibition contained three essays. One by Roger Bordier on “the transformable artwork” and its connection with film, a determining manifesto by Vasarely, and a theoretical essay with a chronology of the art history of kinetic art, written by Pontus Hulten. The critical impact was considerable. Critics emphasised the complexity and the diversity of the various participants' involvement. Denise René felt it necessary to note by way of a warning in the publication that “the ideas expressed were solely those of the authors”. Hulten recalled that the two painting machines presented by Tinguely, which prefigured the 1959 'Meta-Matics' series, were probably the least noticed works in the exhibition. And yet they were early examples of one of the most decisive stages of his oeuvre, emitting a sound (a noise?) at the same time as they drew a picture – analogous with 'musique concrète', which was coming into being at the same time.

Tinguely's machines made a noise and disturbed the silence of contemplation. They interfered with it and interrogated it. They squeaked and clanked. They appealed to the eye as well as to the ear. Image and sound dialogued with each other with no hierarchy. In an era of all-triumphant machinism, Tinguely's 'Meta-mechanics' signified “tiredness of being oneself” and scorn for the “cult of performance”, thus turning their back on the contemporary art scene. The clumsy abstraction of Tinguely's Reliefs was an answer to the vanity of geometric abstraction. The precision of the plastic vocabulary of those artists working on a kinetic art infatuated with technology and control found its answer in Tinguely's parodying and mocking compositions. Their insolence consisted not so much in rejecting the formal system they illustrated, as in taking possession of it and quoting from it openly and “clumsily”. His Reliefs and other constructions of that time drew their satirical effect from a misrepresentation of the model.

Take, for example, the 1955 polychrome Relief Bleu – Blanc – Noir. Its dimensions recall compositions by Malevich and the colour range appears to be directly inspired by Black Rectangle, Blue Triangle, one of the Suprematist masterpieces of 1915. Some of the shapes move to the rhythm of a capricious electric motor, calling to mind the plastic lexicon of a somewhat rickety Russian geometry. It is as if, from this moment on, something basic and absolute had fallen into the clutches of improbability and relativity. Formal order had come face to face with uncertainty. Anything could happen because everything happened before our eyes in the here and now. There was no elsewhere, nor any over there but there was a fourth dimension that had lost all cosmic meaning, clanking away at random, it was spirituality turned witty, ironic of course and an expectation of something improbable and incongruous.

In the spring and summer of 1955, Tinguely's art developed quickly into more complex and sometimes monumental reliefs. This was the case of the 3,60 metre (12 ft) long Relief meta-mécanique sonore,1955 and the one he constructed for the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles. “The sounds are produced by saucepans, bottles, tin cans, funnels, wine glasses, and so on, struck at regular intervals by various little hammers to which white shapes attach themselves and then come off onto the black background of the relief. This totally unforeseen sound effect culminates in an extremely gay and liberating cacophony”. “From time to time”, Pontus Hulten continues, “a gust of sounds is emitted, to be followed by relative silence in which only the squeaking of wires rubbing against each other can be heard. It sounds like the noise of crayfishes in the bottom of a bucket. Then two or three sounds surge up to announce another cacophony. These irrelevant, casual, spontaneous and whimsical sounds induce two kinds of reaction in the spectator – either amusement or indignation”.

This description sets the tone with which Tinguely engages the spectator of his work. On the one hand, there is the composition with its reminiscences of geometrical art, some parts of it subject to random movement. The instability is amusing, yet at the same time disturbing. And then there are sounds and noises of all kinds. A happy, rackety din to cast meditation into despair and provide a necessary atmosphere of irreverence.

On his return to Paris from a stay in Stockholm at the end of 1955, Tinguely executed some large Reliefs in bright colours, juxtaposing static and mobile shapes. He called them Meta-Kandinsky and Meta-Herbin. It was a way of celebrating the models and transgressing their inexorable fixity.

Two reliefs from 1956 in this show, Très Stable and SYN, sub-titled 'Éclosion permanente n°3', were presented at the exhibition entitled 'Peintures Cinétiques' (Kinetic Paintings) that Tinguely realized for the Galerie Denise René in October the same year. For these he abandoned the colour of the large 'Meta-Machines' in favour of black and white, using spotlights to light and animate the white reliefs. The title of the exhibition stated clearly enough that painting had to move on in new ways and an aspect of it had to be kinetic. The word 'kinetic' has had mixed fortunes. Over the years it has been used to describe the work of artists, like Vasarely or Nicolas Schöffer, who at that same time had a vision of art and its future totally opposed to Tinguely's ideas. At Denise René's gallery, Tinguely was taken for a renegade – like Marcel Duchamp, who had agreed to take part in the Le Mouvement exhibition – in spite of his links with Soto, his co-contributor to the 1958 Brussels Universal Exhibition. At his exhibition he would say “What I am showing are 'paintings'. Machines are my canvas”. His work was the polar opposite of that of the artists who became the figureheads of the gallery.

And although, in the series of white Reliefs he presented at this exhibition, he was clearly concerned about questions of painting and its 'becoming reliefs', the urge to construct a theatrical effect, a kind of spectacle with light and shade, indicated a marked difference from the ambitions of the gallery's other artists and showed a certain conception of where painting was at.

It is tempting, without wishing to suggest pseudomorphosis, to compare Tinguely's Reliefs blancs with certain constructions by Ellsworth Kelly from the same period. The sub-title of one of the ones presented here, Éclosion permanente (constant blooming), has parallels with Kelly's famous Plant drawings. There is the same recourse to shapes suggested by nature, the biomorphic aspect, which incidentally Hans Arp was developing in his Meudon studio at that time in works he executed in plaster before rendering them in marble or, too often, in cast iron. Many of the Reliefs of that period were influenced by thoughts of Arp, an amused visitor to Tinguely's Meta-Matics exhibition at Iris Cert's gallery in July 1959. Dadaist reminiscences, perhaps. Certainly the delicate, ramshackle construction of the younger sculptor's works is closer to some of Arp's reliefs and other pieces from his Dadaist period, whereas the rather too smooth pieces from Arp's later years give the impression of an oeuvre that has decided to be elegant. But there is a definite kinship, even though the Arp pieces of the 1950s and 60s tend to be pared down, while Tinguely favours complexity. It is a 'poetic' kinship, which both artists would have recognized, in spite of the fact that Arp tended to seek formal purity whereas Tinguely distrusted it. Tinguely's withered looking shapes testify to this. They are roughly cut out of metal, with no care for shape or clean edges, presumably subject to the logic of the chosen material and left deliberately ugly – indefinite forms. Starting up the motor behind the panel on which they are fixed renders them even more precarious, as they themselves make the language they convey more incoherent.

Throughout Tinguely's career there was a constant need to reject the cult of skilful execution, a need to make forms and signs appear clumsy. It was an aesthetic of awkwardness, a ramshackle poetics, redolent of the precarious constructions of a marketplace theatre. One remembers the collapsing scenery designed with Spoerri for the Salle Iéna in 1953. There is something of the bric-à-brac in the art of these “inspirés du bord des routes” (wandering eccentrics) , a million miles away from the elegiac, formal beauty of the painters of the time. There was something abrasive and blunt about Tinguely, a looming threat, a possible accident or a breakdown. Basically, there is always the impression that everything is in a terrible state, that one has not been supplied with something shining and new, that things are not as they should be and loss and collapse are only staved off by the absurd repetition of a constantly deferred last gasp. Compared with the vain and trumpeting body of Modern Art, doubtless because Tinguely draws a clear ontological and political distinction between 'modern art' and 'avant-garde', his machines suggest an artificial coma, near death, drip-feed or assisted breathing. Thinking of Theocritus’ old saw “Where there's life there's hope”, one could ask “Hope of what?” That the thing keeps turning, that it scrapes on eternally before our eyes and our ears, that it triumphs over our own death, the death of the watcher, the oft-announced but always postponed “death of art”. As best it can.

Probabilité n°14 is another white relief from the same series as Éclosion permanente n°3, less rickety and slightly larger. The cut-out shapes look more like petals or improbable phylacteries. There are seven of them, intertwined and superposed, or twisted and nestling against each other. The whole thing has more of a sense of unity, where Éclosion permanente n°3 looks more dispersed.

The photograph, a fixed image par excellence, suggests comparison once again with the work of the poet-artist Hans Arp but where Arp's wooden constructions have slightly faded and altered with the passage of time, it has to be said that Tinguely's were designed like that.

Next look at Probabilité n°14 in full swing. Stop looking at the reproduction and watch the performance. Stand directly in front of it, not as you would for other kinetic works. Probabilité n°14 is to be experienceed, like any work by Tinguely, in perpetual motion and what it might become is only grasped in the time you are prepared to devote to it. This is a quite different situation from those machines that start up when you activate them. And have no thought for preservation, even less for safety. Tinguely's Reliefs go round and complete their movement whether you are there or not. They don't need you to service them. There is no “relational aesthetic” or participative aesthetic. They live their life in the repetitions and risks imposed by the moving parts. The machine does not give freedom to humans; the machine gives itself freedom from humans in order to live its perpetual life. It is interesting to note that Tinguely's works, in spite of their apparent frailty, will last, come what may, precisely because of their status as artworks. One first imagined his works as machines on their last legs. We find them more likely than any others to “last”.

It is true that the status of the work of art requires preservation and maintenance. It is also true that the nature of art is to accord more importance to eternity than to mere humans, a primacy that Tinguely stated forcefully in the 1959 manifesto entitled For Stasis, which he dropped from a plane over Dusseldorf: “Everything moves. Rest does not exist. Don't let yourself be controlled by obsolete notions of time. Away with hours, seconds and minutes. Stop resisting change. EXIST IN TIME – BE STATIC, BE STATIC WITH THE MOVEMENT. For stasis, in the now occurring NOW. Resist the anxious impulse to stop what moves, to freeze moments and to kill what lives. Give up constructing “values” that always collapse anyway. Be free, live!
Stop «painting» time. Give up building cathedrals and pyramids that fall apart like sugar-candy. Breathe deep, live in the now, live on and in time. For a beautiful and absolute reality!” .

150 thousand copies of the text were printed. It has the aspect of an anarchist tract. It suggests extending art beyond its formal and moral frame. It makes a clear break with the inherent constraints of paintings. It abolishes any idea of permanence and breaks with any impulse towards aesthetic and formal order and discipline. Tinguely was stating the profoundly militant aspect of his own practice. While he was perfecting the early 'painting machines' to be exhibited that same year (1959) at Iris Clert's gallery, Tinguely was opening his work up to what he blithely called “a super-demonstration-exhibition-show-spectacle”. The Meta-Matics were talked about everywhere. They produced paintings by the mile and led to what the journal Sens plastique called “le Procès de l’automatisme” (the Automatism Debate). Tinguely was constructing both an oeuvre and an approach that went beyond kineticism and the art movements of the time and were a million miles away from sculpture or any other inert language. The initial premises of his style were both unique and scandalous.

1959 saw the birth of the first Biennale de Paris. Tinguely presented a large Meta-Matic powered by a small petrol engine. It was installed in front of the Musée National d’Art Moderne and met with great acclaim. This was a determining stage in his career. He ended the year in London, where he was invited to give a lecture entitled “Art, Machines and Motion” at the Cyclo-matic Evening, at the ICA on the 12 November. It was an amalgam of programmed and improvised events .

The three Reliefs with white background and black elements in the present exhibition are among the most important in the series. Look at Yokohama II, whose title evokes the earthquake in the 1930s and the bombing at the end of the Second World War. The composition is off-centre. The way the shapes are muddled together gives an impression of fragility, as if they were pieces of an impossible puzzle. The metal parts look less like intentionally designed motives than fragments or off-cuts of old scrap metal.

And yet the whole thing comes to life to the dull sound of a little 110 volt electric motor. The shapes turn on themselves. The prevailing impression is one of insignificance; an insignificance that Duchamp insisted was not insignificance. This is a long way from the undulating evocation of the great masters of abstraction in the earlier Reliefs. No Kandinsky here, no Malevitch or Herbin. What we have is little or next to nothing. The fragility of the signs themselves, juddering away and leaving a large part of the surface of the board to face its own emptiness.

The other reliefs are different. The shapes are bigger. It is as if the first relief were built from the off-cuts of these ones. Some of the parts are cut-out planes that look like profiles of shapes by artists like Laszlo Peri or Otto Freundlich and other constructivists, whose style was perpetuated in the 1950s in work by people like Poliakoff and a host of artists in the Paris school that Tinguely was insidiously opposing. It is all as if the artistic vocabulary that Tinguely has reproduced clumsily and allusively here were being dragged into a sort of carnival danse macabre; as if the cohort of shapes in this little fresco for our eyes and ears had been pitched into motion for the sole purpose of tearing us out of the hypnotic torpor induced by abstract art reproducing itself and imposing itself on us.

Stabilité totale (1958) and Stabilité (1959) are a magnificent conclusion to the collection gathered here today. The backgrounds are black and the white shapes seem to stand out in the night. Parsimony reigns. One is reminded of the Surrealists and of Miró, whose influence Tinguely recognized in an interview with Alain Jouffroy some ten years later . Shapes with an indistinct profile float as if they were paper cut-outs. They are evocative of Chinese shadows. The titles recall the complicity between Tinguely and Yves Klein at the time of their joint show about the dematerialisation of the object on 17 November 1958. They called it Vitesse pure et stabilité monochrome (Pure speed and monochrome stability).

The shapes of the relief Stabilité totale have become allusive and evasive. The eye wanders from one shape to another without finding a lever. The background is precarious. Planks have taken the place of the box. In a marvellous interview with Charles Georg and Rainer Michael Mason in 1976, Tinguely talks freely and nonchalantly . With every sentence one realizes how his whole project struck him as “an extremely pointless and silly enterprise”. Elsewhere he talks of “ridiculousness” and “jerky movements”, which he recognized “carry an echo of cinema burlesques”. It was a way for him to “get closer to his Fata Morgana” – both the mirage and the poem by André Breton. More recently, on 13 December 1982, he talked to Jean-Pierre Van Tieghem about “the total absurdity of it all, the craziness, the self-destruction, the repetition, the playfulness, the Sisyphean nature of the machines, stuck going backwards and forwards” and he concluded by saying that he had always been, and hoped to continue to be, “against any form of force which gathers together and crystallises into an authority to oppress others” . From the beginning to the end of his oeuvre, he was a militant.

Of the nine Reliefs presented here, as of the two Meta-Matics nos.15 and 20 dated respectively 1961 and 1959, the spectator remembers the image and the sound. In one of his famous lectures half a century before, Ferdinand de Saussure wondered whether visual impressions were clearer and more lasting than acoustic impressions; whether the image eventually shut out the sound?

Tinguely's plastic works lead us to the beginnings of an answer. For, in a certain sense, the sound they produce enables us to escape from the illusions of the image. The geometrical abstraction of Tinguely's Reliefs is caught – unawares – in the trap of the noises that emerge from it. The noise of the machine, however tenuous or vehement, somehow separates out the representation. The relief gets itself heard, it manifests itself. And no doubt this is how it expresses its opposition to the passivity of an abstract art that engages the viewer only in contemplation. It fidgets about in its chaotic, noisy form and despairs of returning art to life. “We only choose art as a means of despairing”, said Breton, quoted elsewhere by Hulten.

So the image causes the sound to be heard, therefore the sound causes the image to be heard. But what does the image cause to be heard? Noises of all kinds, diffuse, sometimes scarcely audible, sometimes a cacophony. Depending whether the works are by themselves or in a group, the chirruping increases and the noise continues to depose the authority and intrinsic value of the plastic signs. It is not a separation but an interdependence – a couple, as it were, dragged into the same show. Tinguely insidiously constructs a criticism of the image as soon as it emits sounds and with it a criticism of contemplation.

Perhaps, at this point, we should remember his links with many of those involved in the New Realism and the music of the time: Villeglé and Pierre Henry, Éliane Radigue and Arman, Dufrêne and his cri-rythme. It is a long and intriguing list that leads to the understanding of what was afterwards called bruitisme and Musique concrète.

Tinguely's oeuvre finds and expresses a profound originality and coincides with Saussure's intuition: by producing an acoustic image, a sort of auditory materiality in parallel with the visual materiality, producing through movement in time a work which makes itself heard; by producing shapes which are no longer abstract units but a system of chaotic signs that dissolve and metamorphose irremediably; by questioning our optical awareness through an acoustic awareness that envelops what we see; by designing artworks which, while they certainly address a viewer, also address a hearer; by breaking away, once again, from a stable and purely spatial concept of representation in favour of a perspective whose subject is time. Tinguely speaks of motion, describes himself as “an artist of motion”, as if he refused to entertain the idea that the notion of time is the principal subject of his oeuvre.

Think of the world as a connection between the ear and the eye, between the senses of hearing and sight. Construct a philosophy and a poetics that are profoundly heterogeneous, in which the visual and the audible are an unshakeable possible alternative to the cacophony of the world which Tinguely realized, before anyone else, that we would be living in.

Bernard Blistène
Bernard Blistène is Director of the Department of Cultural Development at the Centre Pompidou and artistic director of the Nouveau Festival.

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FÜR STATIK

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