Jean Tinguely

Metamechanical Sculpture with Tripod


Not on display

Jean Tinguely 1925–1991
Original title
Méta-mécanique à trépied
Steel, cardboard, plastic and electric motor
Object: 2360 × 815 × 915 mm
Purchased 1984

Catalogue entry

Jean Tinguely born 1925

T03823 Metamechanical Sculpture with Tripod 1954

Wire, painted cardboard and welded metal 93 x 32 x 36 (2360 x 815 x 915)
Not inscribed
Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) 1984
Exh: Meta-Maschinen, Wilhelm-Lehmbruck Museum, Duisburg, Sept.-Nov. 1978 (1); Tinguely - Luginbuhl, Statdische Galerie im Stadelischen Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt, May-Aug. 1979 (1, repr.); Meta-Harmonie II, Galerie Bischofberger, Zurich, Sept.-Oct. 1979 (no cat.); Tinguely, Tate Gallery, Sept.-Nov. 1982; Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, Dec. 1982-Jan. 1983, Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, Geneva, Feb.-April 1983 (3, detail repr.); Forty Years of Modern Art 1945-1985, Tate Gallery, Feb.-April 1986 (not in cat.)
Lit: Christina Bischofberger, Jean Tinguely : Catalogue raisonné - Sculpture and reliefs 1954-1968, New York 1982, p.30 no.25, repr. Also repr: Pontus Hulten, Tinguely : Meta, London 1975, pp.23-4; Michael Shepherd, ‘The Cuckoo Machines', Sunday Telegraph, 12 Sept. 1982, p.17; Ivor Davies, ‘Tinguely and the mechanical in Art', Artscribe, no.37, Oct. 1982, p.57

T03823 is a wire and cardboard construction supported on a firm, tripod base made from iron. The eleven cardboard planar elements were cut from circular shapes and thus all, more or less, conform to a similar design. They are all painted black on one side and white on the other and the work is arranged so that all the faces appear white on one side and black on the other. These flat planes are placed at the end points of the more prominent straight wires used in the structure and these are all individually related to one of the seven wire wheels that dominate the sculpture. Each wheel has a series of wires attached to it, projecting from the circumference like rays. In some cases these are at ninety degrees to the circle's plane. The electric motor is mounted at the top of the tripod. The wheels function as cogs and the straight wires behave like pistons. Because the cogs function in a relatively gimcrack fashion, occasionally missing a revolution or failing to engage with an adjacent moving part, the movement of the piece as a whole is unpredictable and variable. The continuous power required to activate the bottom wheel from which the movement of the piece stems is provided by a 220 volt electric motor.

T03823 is listed in the catalogue raisonné of Tinguely's work (Christina Bischofberger 1982, p.30 repr.) as the third in the series of meta-mechanical sculptures and is listed after half a dozen works which employ comparable systems of wheels and ‘pistons' but which are formally ordered along a horizontal plane. It was followed by several more works using a tripod structure for support. Other ‘Tripod' pieces were activated either by a similar electric motor, by clockwork or by various manual winding mechanisms. Photographs of T03823 alongside other, contemporary works, installed in Tinguely's studio in the Impasse Ronsin, off rue Vaugirard, are reproduced in Pontus Hulten 1975 pp.23-4.

Although fabricated in 1954 T03823 and these other works gained their generic title, ‘Meta-mechanical', in 1955. According to Pontus Hulten, Tinguely had been unable to find a satisfactory title to accompany his work at his two exhibitions at the Galerie Arnaud in 1954:

The question as to what Tinguely's machines ought to be called had arisen with his first exhibition. None of the names that had been suggested - ‘automata', ‘mechanical sculptures', ‘mobiles' - was really satisfactory; the last was too closely associated with Calder. My suggestion was ‘meta-mechanical', by analogy with ‘metaphysical', and on one of my daily visits to the Bibliotèque Nationale I was able to check in the Grand Dictionnaire Larousse that ‘meta' can be used to mean both ‘with' and ‘after' - which seemed just right. The association of ideas with words like ‘metaphor' and ‘metamorphosis' seemed to me to be very appropriate (Hulten 1975, p.16).

The reference here to metamorphosis is important. Even in such relatively early works as T03823 the major preoccupation of the artist is not with movement alone but with movement as the generator of constant change. No single, definitive image can be presented by T03823. The arrangement of its eleven cardboard shapes and the precise position of its wheels and spokes are constantly modified when the work is operating. Each element moves at a different speed and repetition of a particular configuration is thus absolutely unpredictable.

Two older artists were of central importance in developing this approach: Alexander Calder and Marcel Duchamp. The links with Calder go much further than the superficial resemblance in their use of flat planar shapes on the ends of wire tendrils. More important is the random, continually changing, configuration of form operating in Calder's air driven mobiles. As for Duchamp:

It was above all Duchamp's questioning, ironical attitude to the value of art in an age of technology and mass communication, which affected Tinguely so deeply. Two qualities in particular seem to have given him the confidence to pursue his own course: Duchamp's elevation of the role of accident in artistic creation, and his almost existential belief in the significance of gesture in the face of a meaningless world (Richard Calvocoressi, ‘Introduction' in Tate Gallery exh. cat. 1982, p.9).

Tinguely arrived in Paris, from Basle, in 1953. In Basle he had attended the Kunstgewerbeschule intermittently through the war years and through the enterprising tuition of one inspired teacher, Julia Ris, gained a catholic appreciation of modern movements. His first constructions show an almost anarchistic refusal to stay within the boundaries of artistic convention, combined with a clear, visually perceived respect for an older generation of artists. The earliest works in the catalogue raisonné, the ‘Moulin à Prière' (Prayer Mills) are severely abstract configurations of lines but, as has been noted by Richard Calvocoressi, they also bear a notable resemblance to Marcel Duchamp's ‘Coffee Mill' 1913 (T03253). The concept of ‘chance', institutionalised by Duchamp in the planning of ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even' 1913 was taken a stage further by Tinguely in T03823 and other early pieces. At rest they appear perfectly planned rational constructions; when motivated by electrical power or by hand they turn into unpredictable machines, their form and appearance constantly changing, according to no laws other that the ‘law of chance'. Awareness of a different aesthetic heritage is rooted in the series of relief works that were the first sculptures Tinguely exhibited in France (Galerie Arnaud, Paris 1954). These ‘Meta-Malevich' reliefs show pure white rectangular planes on a black background. Systems of rubber belts, pulleys, metal rods and 110 volt electric motors behind the facades made the white planar elements rotate in random patterns so that ‘it was relativity in action: there is no beginning and no end, no past and no future, only everlasting change' (Pontus Hulten 1975, p.10). Christine Bischofberger describes Tinguely's various works of the mid-1950s as

transformations of the nonobjective work of the pioneers (Malevich, Kandinsky, Mondrian etc.) ... the pioneers had been able to work with a stable, self-contained immutable system; but in the changed situation of the post-war years the work of art could only retain its model character for intellectual and emotional orientation by mobilising and releasing form. This realisation was at first instinctive and only afterwards conscious: it corresponded to Tinguely's approach in the meta-mechanical works from 1954-1959 (Christine Bischofberger 1982, p.7).

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.567-9

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