( Or: Three Failures in Search of Resolution )
It was conceived as a sort of ballet mécanique. Wheels set into motion by a complex network of pulleys; a robotic automatic painting device churning out random patterns of pigment; a flaming upright piano automated from without -- its keys being unharmonically hammered by an array of pistons; a go-cart racing madly in place; an inflating weather balloon; a bathtub filled with a smoking chemical concoction; a fire extinguisher discharging aimlessly; numerous bells and klaxons. Flames, smoke, intricate engineering amounting to nonce spasmodics, eventually collapsing in on itself. Perhaps the flames provided warmth on a cold New York evening, provoking a few of the huddled spectators to lean in closer that they should, risking endangerment. Did the museum have the foresight to take out a liability policy in advance, or have attendees sign a waiver on admittance? Not likely.
The ballet at hand being Jean Tinguely’s “Homage to New York” as it was presented to the public for its "performance" in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art on a winter evening in early March, 1960. Assembled from a load of rubbish carted in from a garbage dump in neighboring Newark. Tinguely enlisted the help of Swedish-born engineer Billy Klüver during construction, with Robert Rauschenberg contributing a "money-throwing machine" to the works. Its operational lifespan lasted – by some accounts -- less than a half-hour before it began to fall apart, catch fire, and the New York Fire Department intervened on the side of the public behalf, with some of the audience boo-ing them for ruining the event by performing their civic-minded service.
Even though it was a machine designed to serve a function, a function that was effectively dysfunctional, it failed. Portions of the contraption that were supposed to do one thing or another did something else or nothing instead, and needed some interventional nudging on the part of the artist. It was devised to be a catastrophe -- involving equal parts contrivance and chaos -- and once it was set in motion, the catastrophic inevitably ensued. Clanking and grinding, smoke and flames. And in the end, debris. Wreckage and scattered parts to be picked apart and taken home by the witnesses, with the most desirable remnants being claimed by the Museum itself. From junk to salvage, twice over. Three weeks’ worth of parts and labor for something that would undo itself within a short span of a late evening.
Tinguely had been recently hailed as an emerging European artist of note, which is why the MOMA event garnering its fair share of media coverage. And despite what some recent art-historical accounts might claim, in 1960 Americans still looked to Europe – especially France – as a source of significant art and weighty ideas. That being the case, it was assumed that Tinguely’s “Homage” was laden with Big Meaning. Reactions and interpretations to the piece, however, varied wildly. Some saying it was a big ugly, noisy, and perhaps nihilistic load of nonsense. Others saying it must have something to with technology run amok, of the self-destructive course of human progress in the age of the atom bomb. That was the favored interpretation, actually. After all, the artist was from the part of the world that had experienced the rise of fascism and the devastation of the recent world war firsthand.
But as far as nonsense was concerned, in this instance it equaled absurdity and chance operations. Both of these having been primary Dadaist strategies, hence Tinguely's "Homage" fell in some proximity of the "NeoDada" and Fluxus activity of the day, hence Rauschenberg's contribution. There was perhaps a dash of Surrealism involved as well, by way of Andre Breton's criterial recycling of Lautréaumont's aphorism about a new form beauty arising from "the chance meeting on a dissecting table of an umbrella and a sewing machine," with those three things as items likely to turn up in a New Jersey junkyard and -- perhaps -- just as likely to be repurposed by Tinguely & co had they encountered them. It could also, in a way, be regarded as a death knell for a particular strain of the Modernist avant-garde – specifically the strain that traced back to Futurism, with all its fetishistizing reverence of the "Machine Age" (not to mention its testosteronic bellicosity about the virtuosity of war, and its accompanying embrace of fascism).1
The image of the American desert has long served a historically symbolic function, evoking -- among other things -- the hardships endured in the pursuit and realization of a Manifest Destiny. Those large, inhospitable stretches of land -- traveled over but largely unsettled, sparsely populated. Vast expanses of arid terrain that were largely uninhabitable, but would finally prove useful for a few select purposes. The setting of land speed records in the various basins, playas, and salt flats. Serving as locations for remote military bases. Providing ideal locations for the testing of various weaponry, not the least of which would be the development of atomic and nuclear bombs. Some of these early tests being broadcast on television, Americans being treated to the sight of a mushroom cloud rising over the desert, an image which became something of an iconic image for the era.
Mushroom clouds rising over the desert. In this instance, the closing sequence of Michelangelo Antonioni's 1970 film Zabriskie Point. By which point the protagonist Daria watches the Death Valley home on her boss -- a real estate developer -- explode. Antonioni has the conflagation filmed from multiple angles, slowing it repeatedly in slow-motion. Like with the detonation of various and sundry consumer goods, examples of the homeowner's successful lifestyle, blown to smithereens and into the desert winds. The smile on Daria's face in the final frames reveals that it's a cathartic experience, even if -- the viewer is certain -- it is all just an imagined projection on her part.
Intended as an oblique, impressionistic critique of American culture in the late 1960s, Antonioni's film was something of a bomb, itself. With MGM Pictures have shoveled millions of dollars into an American project by an esteemed European director, the film met with apathetic response and earned only a fraction of its budget in box-office returns.
Following the MOMA "Homage to New York" event, Jean Tinguely would pair a pair of variations on the same them in the next few years that followed. The first, entitled "Study for the End of the World," took place in front of a live audience at the Louisiana Museum in Humlabaek, Denmark in September of 1961. Some six months later, in March of 1962, came "Study for the End of the World, No. 2," which was carried out in the middle of the Jean Dry Lake in Nevada, specifically staged to be filmed and televised on the NBC evening program David Brinkley's Journal.
As before, "Study for the End of the World, No. 2" involved a set of contraptions built specifically for the occasion. Much of the assemblage took place behind of curtained section of the parking lot of the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, with extensive assistance from fellow "Nouveau Realist" associate (and eventual wife-to-be), Niki de Saint Phalle. After days of work, the construction were hauled out to the desert for placement and final preparation, at which point Tinguely wired the entire entourage with explosives -- batches of dynamite which would be detonated at various stages throughout the piece's hour-long performance.
The chosen location, as one might expect, bore intended significance. Falling some twenty-five southwest of Las Vegas, the setting fell in almost relational, equidistant proximity to the resort city as Yucca Flat portion of the Nevada Test Site to the north. "I've reached the end, you see, for museums in this kind of thing," the artist told a reporter from the Saturday Evening Post. "I need a place where I can build as big as I want, and destroy as violently. The only two settings I can think of as appropriate are the Sahara and the American Desert." The equivalence of the two deserts being -- most likely -- a reference to France's own nuclear tests, which had commenced some two years earlier in an Algerian portion of the Sahara in 1960. The news media that covered the event were quick and unanimously consistent in foregrounding this aspect of the work, whether it was the primary theme of Tinguely's work or not.
If there was ample media coverage of Tinguely's self-destructing metamechanics at the time, their notoriety would quickly fade after a decade or so. As elaborate and sensational as they may have been, it's the sort of thing that – to be blunt about it – might seem a bit silly to audiences a decade or so later. Admireably elaborate in some respects, sure; but heavy-handed and obvious in many ways, perhaps a bit ridiculous in its overstatement. As art historian Pamela Lee would write many years later, in relation to the artist’s desert sojourn: "...The sculpture sticks close to [Tinguely's] earlier suicide machines and so too does it indulge in their cheap symbolism."2
When he'd first proposed "Homage to New York" to recently-appointed MOMA curator Peter Selz, Tinguely had said that he wanted to build a machine that would destroy itself, "conceived, like Chinese fireworks, in total freedom and anarchy."3 As such, perhaps the piece could be viewed as entirely id -- an embodiment of the libidinal death-drive folding doubling back on itself. But "Study for the End of the World, No. 2" involved a series of curious reversals of Tinguely's part. The "Homage" event in New York had not gone as planned, took too long to initiate and bring to conclusion, its disastrous end having to be prodded and aided along at very points. Its follow-up in Denmark had reputedly almost injured some bystanding attendees. Likely it was for these reasons that the artist decided to undermine the original principle of this body of works by inserting himself more authoritatively in the process, or orchestrating the apocalypse by way of a series of detonating switches. Establishing some control over the chaos, the freedom; with the element of self-destruction replaced with willed and imposed destruction outright.
There's also the matter of the change of venue. Of Tinguely's ditching the realtime immediacy of the event -- the sounds and noxious odors and towering physical presence of the staged Armegeddon experienced, as it were, in the flesh -- for the mediated event. Of readily surrendering the spectacular nature of the mechanized auto-da-fé to the Spectacle of televised and print media, ceding the control of the event to the editing and narrative framing of a major broadcaster. Of, in foregoing a bodily audience for whoever might be tuning in, allowing the presentation to be rendered as mere re-presentation, experienced second-hand through the filter of media.
And there is also the matter of scale entering into Tinguely's decision to situate the event in the open air rather than the confined public venue. The loudspeaker erected in the center of the piece squawks recordings of some martial voice warning everyone to stand clear. And then the fireworks follow. But in the desert's sprawl, with its towering peaks looming on the periphery, dwarves the spectacle -- reducing the work and its destruction to miniscule figures in a landscape, the discharge of explosives amounting to little more than a feeble fart in the wind. Or merely farcical, pathetic; bringing the Charlie Chaplin quote to mind, about the essence of tragedy being life in close-up, while comedy is the same seen in a long shot. It might just be this aspect of the work's failure that yields the deepest resonance.
1. There was also its concurrence with "Auto-Destructive Art," a Fluxus-associated offshoot instigated by English artist and Holocaust refuge Gustav Metzger in 1959. Ultimately, one could also consider Tinguely's "Homage" as an unlikely precursor to the calculated carnage of Survival Research Laboratories, which itself would provide something of a template for the high-entertainment spectacle of Robot Wars and the like.
2. Pamela Lee, Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960’s, p. 147. The final portion of the above – the part concentrating on "Study for the End of the World, No. 2" – owed a lot to Lee’s description of the work the cited text, and also to Emily Scott’s essay "Desert Ends" in the recent catalog for the exhibition Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974. Much of the factual citations are drawn from these two sources, as the work in question has been underdocumented over the years. The theoretical riffs, however, are mainly my own.
3. Tinguely was quoted as saying to the same reporter: "Absurdity can be carried a long way, and when it's carried far enough, its effect is to make conventional values ridiculous, cut them down to size, cast some badly needed doubt on this 'wonderful age' we're living in."